Category Archives: Federal Crimes & Prosecutions

Jury Bias

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In United States v. Kecheczian, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided a trial court mistakenly  allowed a juror to decide an aggravated identity theft and possession of unauthorized access devices case, when the juror admitted during jury selection that she had her social security number previously stolen and she was unable to explicitly state that she could put her personal biases aside.

BACKGROUND FACTS

After receiving a tip that Mr. Kechedzian was linked to a fugitive operating a large credit card fraud ring, federal agents conducted a trash pull from Kechedzian’s residence. In his trash, they found two counterfeit credit cards and, based on this, the agents obtained a search warrant. The resulting search of Kechedzian’s residence and cars uncovered two USB drives containing 1,451 stolen credit card numbers in text files, a Bluetooth-enabled “skimming device” commonly used to steal credit card information from gas station pumps, and several cards with stolen data re-encoded on the magnetic strips. Bank records revealed that many of the stolen card numbers had been used fraudulently at gas stations and other retail establishments across the United States.

Kechedzian was charged with two counts of possession of 15 or more Unauthorized Access Devices and two counts of Aggravated Identity Theft. The case proceeded to trial. At the beginning of jury selection, the federal district court judge read a general statement of the case, laying out the charges against Kechedzian. The judge then asked the following:

“Does anyone feel, just based on the charges in this case, based on what this case is about, that they could not be fair and impartial to both sides? Does anyone feel that way at this point in time?”

Juror # 3 raised her hand. From there, she informed the court she was a past victim of identity fraud. Furthermore, she did not know whether she could put aside her biases. Later, at sidebar, defense counsel sought to have Juror # 3 excused for cause. However, the judge denied the motion.

“I think at the end of the day she confirmed or committed to the principles of the presumption of innocence and burden of proof,” said the judge. “I would deny the motion.” Consequently, Juror # 3 sat on Kechedzian’s jury.

The jury ultimately returned a guilty verdict, and Kechedzian was sentenced to 65 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. The district court also ordered $114,134.76 in restitution. Kechedzian timely appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & DECISION

The Court of Appeals began by saying the Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants a verdict by an impartial jury, and the bias or prejudice of even a single juror is enough to violate that guarantee. Accordingly, the presence of a biased juror cannot be harmless. The error requires a new trial without a showing of actual prejudice.  And any doubts regarding bias must be resolved against the juror. One important mechanism for ensuring impartiality is voir dire, which enables the parties to probe potential jurors for prejudice. After voir dire, counsel may challenge a prospective juror for cause, and a partial or biased juror should be removed if there is a showing of either implied or actual bias.

“Here, Kechedzian alleges bias under both theories,” said the Court.

Actual Bias Analysis

It explained that actual bias is the more common ground for excusing jurors for cause. Actual bias is the existence of a state of mind that leads to an inference that the person will not act with entire impartiality. Actual bias involves an inability to act impartially or a refusal to weigh the evidence properly It can be revealed through a juror’s express answers during voir dire, but it can also be revealed by circumstantial evidence during questioning.

The Court said that in contrast, implied bias is presumed only in extraordinary cases. “In analyzing implied bias, we look to whether an average person in the position of the juror in controversy would be prejudiced.”

Implied Bias Analysis

This Court described “implied bias” as applying to those extreme situations where the relationship between a prospective juror and some aspect of the litigation is such that it is highly unlikely that the average person could remain impartial in his deliberations under the circumstances.  Furthermore, the implied bias inquiry is an objective one. Even if a juror states or believes that she can be impartial, the court may find implied bias based on the circumstances.

The Court noted that here, although Juror # 3 was previously a victim of identity theft, this is not the type of “extreme” situation where we find implied bias. “Thus, we focus our analysis on the actual bias inquiry,” said the Court.

The Court reasoned that Juror #3 was ultimately asked if she could set aside her feelings, and act impartially and fairly to both sides of the case. She responded: “I believe so, yes.” The Court said that statement—“I believe so, yes”—appears somewhat equivocal. However, none of Juror #3’s equivocal statements could be understood as affirmative statements of impartiality. The Court reasoned that here, Juror #3 explicitly noted that she was unsure if she could put her personal biases aside.

“A juror can understand the presumption of innocence and burden of proof, yet still let personal prejudice infect her ability to be impartial.”

“When a juror is unable to state that she will serve fairly and impartially despite being asked repeatedly for such assurances, we can have no confidence that the juror will lay aside her biases or her prejudicial personal experiences and render a fair and impartial verdict,” said the Court. “Because this is precisely what occurred here, the district court was obligated to excuse Juror #3 for cause under an actual bias theory.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Good decision. In my trial experience, potential jurors who have suffered as victims of crime tend to be pro-prosecution. A potential juror who does not know if they can be fair or impartial should be excused for cause. Period.

Facebook Photos Admissible

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The 6th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals‘ recent court decision United States v. Farrad gives a very comprehensive analysis regarding the admissibility of Facebook records. In short, the  Court held that (1) photographs from a Facebook account were properly authenticated by evidence that the photos in question came from a Facebook account registered to the defendant and the photos appeared to show the defendant in his own apartment, and (2) The Facebook photographs were self-authenticating as a business record.

Washington’s evidence rules are either identical to, or extremely similar, to the federal rules discussed in the opinion.

BACKGROUND FACTS

After serving time in prison for a previous felony, Farrad was released from federal
custody in January 2013. Farrad came to the attention of local law enforcement sometime after June 10 of that same year, when various confidential informants and concerned citizens evidently reported observing Farrad to be in possession of one or more firearms while in Johnson City, Tennessee.

Some time later, a Officer Garrison of the Johnson City Police Department used an undercover account and sent Farrad a friend request on Facebook. After Farrad accepted the friend request, Garrison was able to see more of Farrad’s photos. One photo in particular caught his interest: a photo that showed what appeared to be three handguns sitting on a closed toilet lid in a bathroom. The photo was uploaded on October 7, 2013.

Garrison brought the photo to the attention of Johnson City police officer and FBI task
force officer Matthew Gryder, who applied on October 25, 2013, for a warrant to search Farrad’s Facebook’s records. A federal magistrate judge granted the warrant. The warrant allowed execution “on or before November 6, 2013,” and the return executed by federal law enforcement indicates that the warrant was “served electronically” on Facebook on November 1, 2013.

The resulting data yielded a series of additional photos that were central to this case: some show a person who looks like Farrad holding what appears to be a gun, while others show a closer-up version of a hand holding what appears to be a gun.

While none of the photos shows a calendar, date, or one-of-a-kind distinguishing feature, the person in the photos has relatively distinctive tattoos, and some of the photos show, as backdrop, the décor of the room in which they were taken. Facebook records revealed that the photos had been uploaded on October 11, 2013.

In September 2014, a federal grand jury charged Farrad with having, on or about October 11, 2013, knowingly possessed a firearm, namely, a Springfield, Model XD, .45 caliber, semiautomatic pistol.

On March 26, 2015, Farrad filed a pro se motion seeking an evidentiary hearing, dismissal of the indictment against him, and suppression of the Facebook photos on Fourth Amendment grounds. The magistrate judge assigned to Farrad’s case denied that motion on April 9, 2015, on the grounds that Farrad already had appointed counsel and the local rules prohibited a represented party from acting in his or her own behalf without an order of substitution. Farrad’s trial counsel did not renew Farrad’s motion.

The parties did, however, litigate the admission of the photos on evidentiary grounds.
The Government argued that the Facebook photos qualified as business records under Federal Rule of Evidence 803(6) and that they were, as such, self-authenticating under Federal Rule of Evidence 902(11).

In support of its assertion, the Government introduced a certification by a Facebook-authorized records custodian, who attested that the records provided by Facebook—including “search results for basic subscriber information, IP logs, messages, photos, and other content and records for Farrad’s Facebook identity were made and kept by the automated systems of Facebook in the course of regularly conducted activity as a regular practice of Facebook and made at or near the time the information was transmitted by the Facebook user.

In addition to disputing admissibility under Federal Rules of Evidence 401, 402, 403, 404, 405, and 406, Farrad’s trial counsel argued that the photos, despite the custodian’s affidavit having been “done correctly under the federal rules,” were “hearsay within hearsay” and did not “authenticate who took the pictures, when the pictures were taken, by whom, at what time. All that the custodian could attest to, trial counsel emphasized, was that at some point these pictures were uploaded to what was allegedly Farrad’s Facebook account, the custodian could not testify as to who took the photos, when they were taken, where they were taken.

On June 15, 2015, the district court concluded that it had found no indication of a lack of trustworthiness and that the photos qualified as business records under Rules 803(6) and 902(11). It also determined that the photos were relevant.

The jury found Farrad guilty. He appealed his case to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

ISSUES

Farrad raises seven arguments on appeal: (1) that there was insufficient evidence
introduced at trial to support his conviction; (2) that the Facebook photos should not have been admitted into evidence; (3) that Officers Hinkle and Garrison should not have been permitted to testify as experts; (4) that the district court should have granted Farrad’s motion for a new trial; (5) that Farrad did not in fact qualify as an armed career criminal under the ACCA; (6) that finding him to be an armed career criminal at sentencing violated his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights; and (7) that the district court should have excluded the Facebook photos on Fourth Amendment grounds.

In this blog post, we focus on the issue of whether the Facebook photos were admissible at trial.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Admissibility of Photos

The Court reasoned that like other evidence, photographs must be authenticated prior to being admitted into evidence. To satisfy this requirement, under federal evidence rule (FRE) 901, the person seeking to admit the evidence (proponent) must produce evidence proving that the item is what the proponent claims it is. This authentication rule requires only that the court admit evidence if sufficient proof has been introduced so that a reasonable juror could find in favor of authenticity or identification.

The Court further reasoned that under FRE 902, some items – like, apparently Facebook posts – are self-authenticating. In other words, they require no extrinsic evidence of authenticity in order to be admitted. This category of self-authenticating evidence includes “certified domestic records of a regularly conducted activity”—that is, a business “record that meets the requirements of Rule 803(6)(A)–(C), so long as properly certified by a custodian or other qualified person  and so long as the evidence is subject to challenge by  the opposing party.

“The question, then, is the central one: the authentication of the photos,” said the Court. “They appeared to show Farrad, his tattoos, and (perhaps most probatively) distinctive features of Farrad’s apartment, as confirmed by police investigation . . . The district court was correct to admit them.”

Fourth Amendment Suppression

After addressing the admissibility issue, the Court went on to reject Farrad’s claim that admitting the Facebook photos violated the Fourth Amendment. The Court reasoned that while a search made by a private entity acting at the direction of law enforcement agents must comport with the Fourth Amendment, Farrad has pointed to no authority or rationale to suggest that a date of execution similarly binds a third party’s certification of its records for evidentiary purposes. “This argument lacks merit,” said the Court.

“The bottom line in this case—that Farrad has been sentenced to serve 188 months in prison because the Government found Facebook photos of him with what appears to be a gun—may well raise a lay reader’s hackles. There are likewise aspects of Farrad’s trial and
conviction—the date issue, Officer Garrison’s testimony—that are at least debatably troubling from a legal perspective. Nevertheless, we are not empowered to grant relief based on arguments not made or where errors were harmless.”

With that, the Sixth Circuit affirmed Farrad’s conviction and sentencing.

My opinion? Today’s defense attorney must be proficient in the admissibility of social media evidence. And the answers are fairly straightforward. Although the general rule is that hearsay is not admissible, and that social media evidence is hearsay, some hearsay evidence is admissible under the business record exception. Clearly, anything and everything that social media outlets like Facebook produces – from profiles to posts – are business records, arguably.

This is a classic example telling us to watch what we post on Facebook and other social media. Information is private until its not.

Cell Site Location Information

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In Carpenter v. United States, the United States Supreme Court held that the government generally needs a search warrant to collect troves of location data about the customers of cellphone companies.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In April 2011, police arrested four men suspected of committing a string of armed robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in and around Detroit. One of the men confessed that the group had robbed nine different stores in Michigan and Ohio between December 2010 and March 2011, supported by a shifting ensemble of 15 other men who served as getaway drivers and lookouts. The robber who confessed to the crimes gave the FBI his own cellphone number and the numbers of other participants; the FBI then reviewed his call records to identify still more numbers that he had called around the time of the robberies.

In May and June 2011, the FBI applied for three federal court orders from magistrate judges to obtain “transactional records” from various wireless carriers for 16 different phone numbers. As part of those applications, the FBI recited that these records included “all subscriber information, toll records and call detail records including listed and unlisted numbers dialed or otherwise transmitted to and from [the] target telephones from December 1, 2010 to present,” as well as “cell site information for the target telephones at call origination and at call termination for incoming and outgoing calls.”

The FBI also stated that these records would “provide evidence that Timothy Carpenter and other known and unknown individuals” had violated the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951. The magistrates granted the applications pursuant to the Stored Communications Act, under which the government may require the disclosure of certain telecommunications records when “specific and articulable facts show that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the contents of a wire or electronic communication, or the records or other information sought, are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.”

The government later charged Carpenter with six counts of aiding and abetting robbery that affected interstate commerce, in violation of the Hobbs Act, and aiding and abetting the use or carriage of a firearm during a federal crime of violence. Before trial, Carpenter and Sanders moved to suppress the government’s cell-site evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds, arguing that the records could be seized only with a warrant supported by probable cause. The district court denied the motion.

At trial, seven accomplices testified that Carpenter organized most of the robberies and
often supplied the guns. They also testified that Carpenter and his half-brother Sanders had served as lookouts during the robberies. According to these witnesses, Carpenter typically waited in a stolen car across the street from the targeted store. At his signal, the robbers entered the store, brandished their guns, herded customers and employees to the back, and ordered the employees to fill the robbers’ bags with new smartphones. After each robbery, the team met nearby to dispose of the guns and getaway vehicle and to sell the stolen phones.

Also at trial, the Government admitted cell-site location information (CSLI) provided by Carpenter’s wireless carriers. The State’s expert witness created maps showing that Carpenter’s phone was within a half-mile to two miles of the location of each of the robberies around the time the robberies happened. Hess used MetroPCS call-detail records, for example, to show that Carpenter was within that proximity of a Detroit Radio Shack that was robbed around 10:35 a.m. on December 13, 2010. Specifically, MetroPCS records showed that at 10:24 a.m. Carpenter’s phone received a call that lasted about four minutes. At the start and end of the call, Carpenter’s phone drew its signal from MetroPCS tower 173, sectors 1 and 2, located southwest of the store and whose signals point northeast.

After the robbery, Carpenter placed an eight-minute call originating at tower 145, sector 3, located northeast of the store, its signal pointing southwest; when the call ended, Carpenter’s phone was receiving its signal from tower 164, sector 1, alongside Interstate 94, north of the Radio Shack. The expert witness provided similar analysis
concerning the locations of Carpenter’s phone at the time of a December 18, 2010 robbery in Detroit; a March 4, 2011 robbery in Warren, Ohio; and an April 5, 2011 robbery in Detroit. See Carpenter App’x at 12-15.

The jury convicted Carpenter on all of the Hobbs Act counts and convicted him on all but one of the gun counts. Carpenter’s convictions subjected him to four mandatory-minimum prison sentences of 25 years, each to be served consecutively, leaving him with a Sentencing Guidelines range of 1,395 to 1,428 months’ prison. The district court sentenced Carpenter to 1,395 months’ imprisonment. He appealed his convictions and sentences.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

Justice Roberts delivered the majority opinion of the Supreme Court.

Preliminarily, the Court held that the Government’s acquisition of Carpenter’s cell-site records was a Fourth Amendment search. It reasoned that Fourth Amendment protects not only property interests but certain expectations of privacy as well.

“Thus, when an individual seeks to preserve something as private, and his expectation of privacy is one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable, official intrusion into that sphere generally qualifies as a search and requires a warrant supported by probable cause,” said the Court.

“Tracking a person’s past movements through CSLI partakes of many of the qualities of GPS monitoring considered in Jones—it is detailed, encyclopedic, and effortlessly compiled.”

The Court further reasoned that cell phone location information is not truly “shared” as the term is normally understood. “First, cell phones and the services they provide are such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life, that carrying one is indispensable to participation in modern society,” said the Court. “Second, a cell phone logs a cell-site record by dint of its operation, without any affirmative act on the user’s part beyond powering up.”

Finally, the Court reasoned that the Government did not obtain a warrant supported by probable cause before acquiring Carpenter’s cell-site records. It acquired those records pursuant to a court order under the Stored Communications Act, which required the Government to show reasonable grounds for believing that the records were relevant and material to an ongoing investigation. “That showing falls well short of the probable cause required for a warrant,” said the Court. “Consequently, an order issued under §2703(d) is not a permissible mechanism for accessing historical cell-site records. Not all orders compelling the production of documents will require a showing of probable cause.”

Justice Ginsberg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Kennedy filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Thomas and Alito joined. Justice Gorsuch also filed a dissenting opinion.

It’s imperative to hire competent defense counsel willing to argue motions to suppress information that the Government creatively – and sometimes illegally – obtains. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are arrested for crimes involving searches of cell phones and/or cell phone records.

Search of Rental Cars

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In Byrd v. United States, the United States Supreme Court held that while a car thief does not have right to privacy in a stolen car no matter the degree of possession and control, the driver of a rental car can challenge a warrantless search of the vehicle even if the driver is not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Latasha Reed rented a car in New Jersey while petitioner Terrence Byrd waited outside the rental facility. Her signed agreement warned that permitting an unauthorized driver to drive the car would violate the agreement. Reed listed no additional drivers on the form, but she gave the keys to Byrd upon leaving the building. He stored personal belongings in the rental car’s trunk and then left alone for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania State Troopers stopped Byrd for a traffic infraction. They learned that the car was rented, that Byrd was not listed as an authorized driver, and that Byrd had prior drug and weapons convictions. Byrd also stated he had a marijuana cigarette in the car.

The troopers proceeded to search the car, discovering body armor and 49 bricks of heroin in the trunk. The evidence was turned over to federal authorities, who charged Byrd with distribution and possession of heroin with the intent to distribute in violation of 21 U. S. C. §841(a)(1) and possession of body armor by a prohibited person in violation of 18 U. S. C. §931(a)(1). The District Court denied Byrd’s motion to suppress the evidence as the fruit of an unlawful search, and the Third Circuit affirmed. Both courts concluded that, because Byrd was not listed on the rental agreement, he lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the car.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

In a unanimous decision favoring Byrd, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The mere fact that a driver in lawful possession or control of a rental car is not listed on the rental agreement will not defeat his or her otherwise reasonable expectation of privacy.”

The Court added that there can be numerous reasons why a driver unlisted on a rental contract may need to drive the rental car, and that the government had not shown that whether the simple breach of the rental contract would affect the expectation of privacy.

Also, the Court reasoned that one of the main rights attaching to property is the right to exclude others. Also, one who owns or lawfully possesses or controls property will in all likelihood have a legitimate expectation of privacy by virtue of the right to exclude. “This general property-based concept guides resolution of the instant case,” said Justice Kennedy:

“The Government’s contention that drivers who are not listed on rental agreements always lack an expectation of privacy in the car rests on too restrictive a view of the Fourth Amendment’s protections. But Byrd’s proposal that a rental car’s sole occupant always has an expectation of privacy based on mere possession and control would, without qualification, include thieves or others who have no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

The Court rejected the Government’s arguments that an unauthorized driver has no privacy interest in the vehicle. Byrd, in contrast, was the rental car’s driver and sole occupant. His situation is similar to the defendant in Jones v. United States, who had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his friend’s apartment because he had complete dominion and control over the apartment and could exclude others from it:

“The expectation of privacy that comes from lawful possession and control and the attendant right to exclude should not differ depending on whether a car is rented or owned by someone other than the person currently possessing it, much as it did not seem to matter whether the defendant’s friend in Jones owned or leased the apartment he permitted the defendant to use in his absence.”

The Court also rejected the Government’s argument that Byrd had no basis for claiming an expectation of privacy in the rental car because his driving of that car was so serious a breach of Reed’s rental agreement that the rental company would have voided the contract once he took the wheel. “But the contract says only that the violation may result in coverage, not the agreement, being void and the renter’s being fully responsible for any loss or damage,” said Justice Kennedy. “And the Government fails to explain what bearing this breach of contract, standing alone, has on expectations of privacy in the car.”

Kennedy’s decision concluded that there remained two issues which the Supreme Court remanded back to the lower courts: (1) whether Officer Long had probable cause to search the car in the first place, and (2) whether Byrd intentionally used a third party as a straw man in a calculated plan to mislead the rental company from the very outset, all to aid him in committing a crime.

With that, the Supreme Court vacated Byrd’s conviction and remanded back to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Gorsuch joined. Justice Alito also filed a concurring opinion.

Inventory Searches of Cars

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In United States v. Johnson, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a suspicionless inventory search is only proper when it is performed to secure and to protect an arrestee’s property and to protect the police department against fraudulent claims of lost or stolen property. Evidence removed from the defendant’s car could not be justified under the inventory-search doctrine where the officers explicitly admitted that they seized the items in an effort to search for evidence of criminal activity.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On April 10, 2014, Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputies located Mr. Johnson—who had an outstanding warrant for his arrest based on a post-prison supervision violation—at the Clackamas Inn, just south of Portland, Oregon. The deputies followed Johnson to a residence in the nearby town of Gladstone and called Portland Police Bureau (PPB) Officers Corona and Ables for assistance in arresting him.

The officers did not approach Johnson at the residence, but instead waited outside. After about 20 minutes, Johnson left, and again the officers followed him. At a nearby intersection, the officers finally stopped Johnson by loosely boxing in his car; one car approached Johnson from behind while another approached from the front, effectively blocking Johnson’s ability to drive away. The cars all came to a stop within a few feet of each other, and although there was enough room for Johnson to pull his car to the side of the road, he instead parked in the lane of traffic, disrupting the flow of passing cars. When approached by the officers, Johnson could not provide proof of insurance for the car, which he was borrowing, nor could he give anything other than the first name of the car’s owner. Johnson did not know how the police could contact the owner.

The officers arrested Johnson on the outstanding warrant. After the arrest, the officers searched Johnson and found a folding knife in his front pocket, $7,100 in cash in $20 and $100 denominations in his rear pants pocket, and $150 in cash in his wallet. Johnson said that he had recently inherited the $7,100 and that he planned to purchase a car with it.

Because Johnson’s car was blocking traffic and because Johnson could not provide contact information for the car’s owner, the officers ordered it to be towed and impounded, pursuant to PPB policy. Prior to the tow, the officers conducted an inventory search of the car, again pursuant to local policy. From the interior of the car, the officers collected a combination stun gun and flashlight, a glass pipe with white residue, a jacket, and two cellphones. From the trunk, the officers collected a backpack and a duffel bag. Officer Corona testified that, when he moved the backpack and duffel in order to search for other items in the trunk, the bags felt heavy and the backpack made a metallic “clink” when he set it down on the pavement. PPB stored each of the seized pieces of property in the County property and evidence warehouse, and the $7,100 was taken into custody by the County Sherriff’s Office. Officer Corona recorded each item seized on an accompanying arrest report; the Sheriff’s Office prepared a property receipt for the $7,100 in seized cash.

A week later, Officer Corona submitted an affidavit to secure a warrant to search the seized backpack, duffel bag, and cell phones. The affidavit referred to a 2009 police report (which Corona read after arresting Johnson) that stated Johnson had previously been found with cash, weapons, and drugs in a safe concealed in his vehicle. Officer Corona’s affidavit stated that, based on the circumstances of Johnson’s recent arrest, he had probable cause to believe the bags seized from the trunk would contain similar lockboxes, and that the phones would contain evidence of drug dealing.

A warrant was duly signed by a local magistrate judge, and a search of the backpack revealed a small safe containing two bags of methamphetamine, drug-packaging materials, syringes, and a digital scale. The duffel bag contained Johnson’s personal items, and one of the cellphones contained text messages regarding drug trafficking.

Johnson was indicted on one charge of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine in an amount of 50 grams or more, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(A)(viii).

Before trial, Johnson moved to suppress the evidence found in the car and on his person at arrest. Primarily, Johnson challenged the evidence supporting the warrant to search the backpack and cellphones, arguing that it did not amount to probable cause. Johnson also argued that the officers unlawfully manipulated the bags they seized from the car in order to get a sense for what they might contain and that the inventory search of his car was invalid.

The federal district court denied the motion, concluding that there was probable cause to stop and to arrest Johnson on the outstanding warrant, the officers validly impounded Johnson’s car because it was blocking traffic, the subsequent inventory of the vehicle was “lawful because PPB mandates officers to conduct an inventory of impounded vehicles,” and the search warrant was supported by probable cause.

At trial, the government introduced the evidence found in Johnson’s car and on his person, with a particular focus on the items of evidence found in the backpack, the messages from the cellphone, and the $7,100 in cash. The jury found him guilty.

Approximately four months later, Johnson filed a motion for new trial on the basis of, among other things, two pieces of supposedly newly discovered evidence: (1) evidence showing that Johnson had indeed recently received an inheritance; and (2) a receipt from the private company that towed and impounded his car, which stated that they found various additional items of property in the car that were not listed in Officer Corona’s arrest report. After a hearing, the district court denied the motion for a new trial upon the conclusion that none of the supposedly new evidence would have resulted in a likely acquittal.

Johnson was sentenced to 188 months in prison, and he now timely appeals.

LEGAL ISSUE

Whether the trial court erred in failing to suppress evidence that was seized by City of Portland police officers during their inventory search of a criminal defendant and the car he was driving at the time of his arrest.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Johnson argued that the officers’ inspection of his car exceeded the constitutionally permissible bounds for an inventory search.

The Ninth Circuit reasoned that as an exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, police may, without a warrant, impound and search a motor vehicle so long as they do so in conformance with the standardized procedures of the local police department and in furtherance of a community caretaking purpose, such as promoting public safety or the efficient flow of traffic. The purpose of such a search is to produce an inventory of the items in the car, in order to protect an owner’s property while it is in the custody of the police, to insure against claims of lost, stolen, or vandalized property, and to guard the police from danger. Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1, 4 (1990). Thus, the purpose of the search must be non-investigative; it must be conducted on the basis of something other than suspicion of evidence of criminal activity. The search cannot be “a ruse for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence.” Wells, 495 U.S. at 4.

The Court of Appeals further reasoned that an administrative search may be invalid where the officer’s subjective purpose was to find evidence of crime. However, the mere presence of a criminal investigatory motive or a dual motive—one valid, and one impermissible— does not render an administrative stop or search invalid. Instead, the issue is whether the challenged search or seizure would have occurred in the absence of an impermissible reason.

“We thus must determine whether Johnson has produced evidence that demonstrates the officers would not have searched and seized items from the car he was driving but for an impermissible motive,” said the Court of Appeals.

“Under our circuit’s law, a suspicionless inventory search does not permit officers to search or to seize items simply because they believe the items might be of evidentiary value,” said the Court.  It reasoned that as explained above, the purpose of such a search must be unrelated to criminal investigation; it must function instead to secure and to protect an arrestee’s property, and likewise to protect the police department against fraudulent claims of lost or stolen property.

“Thus, the officers’ statements directly admitting that they searched and seized items from Johnson’s car specifically to gather evidence of a suspected crime are sufficient to conclude that the warrantless search of the car was unreasonable,” said the Court, citing Orozco; a case where the Ninth Circuit found pretext where the police officers admitted that their subjective purpose was to find evidence of crime.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that the officers’ search and seizure of such evidence cannot be justified under the inventory-search doctrine:

“In the face of such evidence, it is clear to us that the officers’ decision to seize the money, bags, and cellphones from Johnson and his car would not have occurred without an improper motivation to gather evidence of crime.”

Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that because the government has not offered any justification for the seizure of such property other than the inventory-search doctrine, the district court erred in denying Johnson’s motion to suppress. Therefore, evidence gathered from Johnson and his vehicle was inadmissible.

With that, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the federal district court’s denial of Johnson’s motion to suppress the evidence found on his person and in the car he was driving at the time of his arrest is reversed, his conviction and sentence are vacated, and the case is remanded back to the district court for further proceedings.

My opinion? Good decision. Clearly, the search conducted by police officers in this case went beyond the scope of a lawful inventory search. Please contact my office if you, a friend of family member face criminal charges involving a questionable search. The evidence might be suppressible under a well-argued pretrial motion.

Supreme Court Makes it Harder to Deport Legal Immigrants Who Commit Crimes.

In this Feb. 7, 2017, photo released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, foreign nationals are arrested during a targeted enforcement operation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) aimed at immigration fugitives, re-entrants and at-large criminal aliens in Los Angeles. (Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP, File)

In Sessions v. Dimaya, the United States Supreme Court held that 18 U. S. C. §16(b), which defines “violent felony” for purposes of the Immigration and Nationality Act’s removal provisions for non-citizens, was unconstitutionally vague.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Respondent James Dimaya is a lawful permanent resident of the United States with two convictions for first-degree burglary under California law. After his second offense, the Government sought to deport him as an aggravated felon. An Immigration Judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals held that California’s first-degree burglary is a “crime of violence” under §16(b). While Dimaya’s appeal was pending in the Ninth Circuit, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a similar residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA)—defining “violent felony” as any felony that “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another,” 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2)(B)—was unconstitutionally “void for vagueness” under the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Relying on Johnson v. United States, the Ninth Circuit held that §16(b), as incorporated into the INA, was also unconstitutionally vague.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Justice Kagan delivered the majority opinion of the Court and concluded that §16(b)’s “crime of violence” clause was unconstitutionally vague.

The Court’s opinion began by explaining that The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) virtually guarantees that any alien convicted of an “aggravated felony” after entering the United States will be deported. See 8 U. S. C. §§1227(a)(2)(A)(iii), 1229b(a)(3), (b)(1)(C). An aggravated felony includes “a crime of violence for which the term of imprisonment is at least one year.

Justice Kagan explained that Section 16’s definition of a crime of violence is divided into two clauses—often referred to as the elements clause, §16(a), and the residual clause, §16(b). The residual clause, the provision at issue here, defines a “crime of violence” as “any other offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”

To decide whether a person’s conviction falls within the scope of that clause, courts apply the categorical approach. This approach has courts ask not whether the particular facts underlying a conviction created a substantial risk; but whether “the ordinary case” of an offense poses the requisite risk.

Justice Kagan reasoned that ACCA’s residual clause created grave uncertainty about how to estimate the risk posed by a crime because it tied the judicial assessment of risk to a speculative hypothesis about the crime’s ordinary case, but provided no guidance on how to figure out what that ordinary case was. Compounding that uncertainty, ACCA’s residual clause layered an imprecise “serious potential risk” standard on top of the requisite “ordinary case” inquiry. “The combination of indeterminacy about how to measure the risk posed by a crime and indeterminacy about how much risk it takes for the crime to qualify as a violent felony resulted in more unpredictability and arbitrariness than the Due Process Clause tolerates,” said Justice Kagan.

Justice Kagan further reasoned that Section 16(b) suffers from those same two flaws. He explained that similar to the ACCA’s residual clause, §16(b) calls for a court to identify a crime’s ordinary case in order to measure the crime’s risk but offers no reliable way to discern what the ordinary version of any offense looks like. Additionally, its “substantial risk” threshold is no more determinate than ACCA’s “serious potential risk” standard. “Thus, the same two features that conspired to make ACCA’s residual clause unconstitutionally vague also exist in §16(b), with the same result,” said Justice Kagan.

Next, Justice Kagan raised and dismissed numerous arguments from the Government that §16(b) is easier to apply and thus cure the constitutional infirmities. “None, however, relates to the pair of features that Johnson found to produce impermissible vagueness or otherwise makes the statutory inquiry more determinate,” said Justice Kagan.

With that, the majority Court concluded that §16(b)’s “crime of violence” clause was unconstitutionally vague.

The Court was deeply divided. Justice Kagan’s opinion was joined by Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer, and Justice Sotomayor. Justice Gorsuch filed an opinion concurring in
part and concurring in the judgment. Justice Roberts filed a dissenting
opinion, in which Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito joined.

Interestingly, it was Justice Gorsuch — a Trump nominee who sided with the four liberal-leaning justices in the ruling — who was the swing vote in this case. Despite his surprise vote, he explicitly left the door open to Congress to act, saying it should be up to lawmakers and not the courts to be explicit about the crimes that deserve automatic deportation for even legal immigrants.

My opinion? This decision is very good for legal immigrants facing crimes which are questionably deportable as crimes of moral turpitude and/or crimes of violence under today’s immigration laws. It’s incredibly difficult to navigate the criminal justice system, and even more so for defendants who are not citizens. Therefore, it’s imperative for legal immigrants charged with crimes to hire competent defense counsel when charged with crimes which may essentially result in deportation. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are legal immigrants facing felonies and/or domestic violence crimes.

Drug Offender Recidivism

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A recent Pew Study suggests that imprisoning drug offenders for longer prison sentences does not reduce drug problems in any given state. In other words, there is no statistical data showing a relationship between prison terms and drug misuse.

To test this, Pew compared state drug imprisonment rates with three important measures of drug problems— self-reported drug use (excluding marijuana), drug arrest, and overdose death—and found no statistically significant relationship between drug imprisonment and these indicators. In other words, higher rates of drug imprisonment did not translate into lower rates of drug use, arrests, or overdose deaths.

The study found that nearly 300,000 people are held in state and federal prisons in the United States for drug-law violations, up from less than 25,000 in 1980. These offenders served more time than in the past: Those who left state prisons in 2009 had been behind bars an average of 2.2 years, a 36 percent increase over 1990, while prison terms for federal drug offenders jumped 153 percent between 1988 and 2012, from about two to roughly five years.

The study said that as the U.S. confronts a growing epidemic of opioid misuse, policymakers and public health officials need a clear understanding of whether, how, and to what degree imprisonment for drug offenses affects the nature and extent of the nation’s drug problems. To explore this question, The Pew Charitable Trusts examined publicly available 2014 data from federal and state law enforcement, corrections, and health agencies. The analysis found no statistically significant relationship between state drug imprisonment rates and three indicators of state drug problems: self-reported drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug arrests.

The findings—which Pew sent to the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis in a letter dated June 19, 2017—reinforce a large body of prior research that cast doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug misuse, distribution, and other drug-law violations. The evidence strongly suggests that policymakers should pursue alternative strategies that research shows work better and cost less.

“Although no amount of policy analysis can resolve disagreements about how much punishment drug offenses deserve, research does make clear that some strategies for reducing drug use and crime are more effective than others and that imprisonment ranks near the bottom of that list. And surveys have found strong public support for changing how states and the federal government respond to drug crimes.”

“Putting more drug-law violators behind bars for longer periods of time has generated enormous costs for taxpayers, but it has not yielded a convincing public safety return on those investments,” concluded the study. “Instead, more imprisonment for drug offenders has meant limited funds are siphoned away from programs, practices, and policies that have been proved to reduce drug use and crime.”

My opinion? Public safety should be the number one reason we incarcerate. However, penalties should be the most effective, proportional, and cost-efficient sanction to achieve that goal. This would create more uniform sentences and reduce disparities, while preserving judicial discretion when necessary.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face drug charges. If convicted, your loved ones risk facing an unnecessary amount of incarceration. Only a competent and experienced criminal defense attorney can reduce of criminal charges and/or facilitate the implementation of sentencing alternatives which reduce the amount of prison time an offender faces.

DOL Shared Info With ICE

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According to reporters Shapiro and Davila, the Seattle Times first reported the agency’s practice Thursday, revealing that DOL was handing over personal information to federal authorities 20 to 30 times a month. The policy was surprising to many, given that Washington is among a minority of states to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses.

 In another major shift announced in a news release Monday, DOL said it would use emergency rule-making to end its practice of collecting “information that isn’t mandated and could be misused,” specifically information on license applications about where a person was born.

The release did not say whether the application would continue to note the IDs a person used to obtain a license. Those IDs could include a foreign passport or other documents that might signal someone does not have legal status.

The agency also has accepted the resignation of Deputy Director Jeff DeVere. DeVere oversaw compliance with an executive order that Gov. Jay Inslee signed last year, designed to prevent state employees from helping federal officials enforce immigration laws — an attempt to thwart President Donald Trump’s approach to immigration enforcement.

Until questioned by The Seattle Times last week, Inslee’s office didn’t know the extent of DOL’s cooperation with the feds, according to his spokeswoman, Jaime Smith.

The response to the licensing department’s policy of cooperating with ICE was swift and furious. The governor ordered DOL to direct future requests from federal immigration officers to his general counsel. State lawmakers pledged to file a bill to ensure the practice was stopped.

Monday’s announcement from the department included an apology, and made clear that the offices of the governor and Attorney General Bob Ferguson had a hand in the changes.

“We support the Executive Order, but failed to meet the Governor’s intent regarding the protection of this type of information,” DOL Director Pat Kohler said in the news release. “We are sorry that our work did not align with our state’s values.”

She went on to say DOL “did not clearly communicate” the information federal law enforcement was requesting nor seek clarification with the governor’s office and the Legislature about how to handle those requests.

The agency also announced it would review its processes and computer systems with the governor’s and attorney general’s offices; hire a community liaison to ensure DOL practices “meet the needs of all Washington residents”; start a new hotline to answer questions about the issue; and educate agency staff on all policy and procedural changes and the governor’s executive order.

“The recent revelations about our state Department of Licensing’s failure to safeguard certain information from federal immigration officials has shaken and angered many communities” Inslee said in statement Monday. “It has angered me. I understand what’s at stake in getting this right, and the ramifications of what it means when we get it wrong,” the governor said. “I expect every employee in every one of my state agencies to understand this as well.”

Black & Undocumented

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Excellent article by Jeremy Raff of the Atlantic claims that although only 7 percent of non-citizens in the U.S. are black, they make up 20 percent of those facing deportation on criminal grounds.

The reason for higher deportation rates? Research suggests that because black people in the United States are more likely to be stopped, arrested, and incarcerated, black immigrants may be disproportionately vulnerable to deportation.

According to Raff, more than half a million black unauthorized immigrants in the United States—about 575,000 as of 2013. Last week, The New York Times reported that the presence of immigrants from Haiti and Nigeria, who together represent roughly 20 percent of the foreign-born black population, vexed President Trump. The Haitians “all have AIDS,” Trump said in a June meeting with his top advisers according to the Times, while the Nigerians would not “go back to their huts” after seeing America, he said. (The White House denied the comments).

“The criminal-justice system acts like a funnel into the immigration system,” said César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a University of Denver law professor who studies the nexus of policing and immigration law. New York University law professor Alina Das said black immigrants are “targeted by criminalization.”

Raff reports that while the Obama administration prioritized immigrants with felony convictions for deportation, President Trump’s executive orders effectively made anyone in the country illegally a target for removal. Arrests of non-criminals more than doubled, and among those who have been charged with a crime, the top three categories are “traffic offenses—DUI,” “dangerous drugs,” and “immigration,” which means illegal entry, illegal reentry, false claim to U.S. citizenship, and trafficking, according to ICE. In fiscal year 2017, almost 74 percent of people arrested by ICE had a criminal conviction—arrests the agency uses to argue “that its officers know how to prioritize enforcement without overly prescriptive mandates.”

But Hernández sees something different in the large number of criminal convictions among ICE detainees.

“Racial bias present in the criminal-justice system plays itself out in the immigration context,” he said. “There are so many entry points” to deportation, said Das, and “when you are a person of color who is also an immigrant, you face a double punishment.”

Raff also reports that a 2016 report by the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic, where Das is the co-director, and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration found that although black immigrants represent about 7 percent of the non-citizen population, they make up more than 10 percent of immigrants in removal proceedings. Criminal convictions amplify the disparity: Twenty percent of immigrants facing deportation on criminal grounds are black.

Today, almost 10 percent of the black population in the United States is foreign-born, up from about 3 percent in 1980. As the number of black immigrants has grown, so, too, have the linkages between cops, courts, and the immigration system.

According to Raff, aside from ICE’s splashier arrests within so-called “sanctuary cities,” most apprehensions nationwide happen inside jails once an immigrant has had contact with local police. This collaboration is a result of decades of legislation and executive action by both Democrats and Republicans. Two years after the passage of his controversial crime bill, former President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996. Known as IIRIRA (pronounced “ira-ira”), the law expanded mandatory detention and the number of deportable crimes. As the federal inmate population doubled, prison-like immigrant-detention centers rose up in tandem.

Raff reports that in the early 1990s, there were around 5,000 immigrants detained each day; by 2001, the population quadrupled. And the Trump administration wants to keep that number growing: The president’s 2018 budget called for increasing the daily detainee population to 51,000, a 25 percent bump over last year.

“Additional detention space does make Americans safer,” argued Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for stricter enforcement. Detention also ensures that undocumented immigrants don’t “disappear into the woodwork,” Vaughan said. “The benefit of keeping illegal aliens in custody,” she said, is that “it prevents the release of criminal aliens back into the community to have the opportunity to reoffend.”

Raff reports that while the prison population has begun to dwindle in recent years—the incarceration rate fell 13 percent between 2007 and 2015—immigration detention remains “one of the fastest-growing sectors of the carceral state,” said Kelly Lytle Hernandez, a University of California, Los Angeles, historian who studies the origins of U.S. immigration control.

ICE’s Secure Communities program—which began under former President George W. Bush; was expanded, then killed, under his successor Barack Obama; then reinstated by Trump—provides local police with a national fingerprint database to check suspects for immigration violations. ICE can also deputize local law enforcement to make immigration arrests, a power authorized by IIRIRA. Some 60 law-enforcement agencies across 18 states participate in that program.

“Local police are some of the biggest feeders into the immigration-enforcement system,” said Will Gaona, the policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. “And that’s more true in Arizona”—where Gustave was picked up—“because of S.B. 1070.” That 2010 state law, which has since been emulated in dozens of states, requires police to ask about immigration status if they suspect someone is in the country illegally.

My opinion? Immigration and race relations certainly are hot-button topics in today’s administration. Hopefully,equitable decisions in the criminal justice system can be made which don’t unduly and/or specifically affect immigrants; regardless of their race.

Please contact my office you have a non-American friend or family member who faces criminal charges. Immigration issues play a huge factor in how criminal cases are resolved.

“Revenge Porn” Outlawed by the Feds?

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Excellent article by Brian Murphy and Andrea Drusch of mcclatchydc.com discusses how congressional lawmakers are pushing to make “revenge porn” or “sextortion” a federal crime.

Tuesday, Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said they’d sponsor the new legislation to make “revenge porn” a federal crime by passing a bill very similar to a bill introduced last year by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. Speier introduced the bill in the House again Tuesday.

According to the article, Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who is sponsoring the bill, said he shared a sexually explicit video and text messages with a woman he was seeing after he separated from his second wife. An image from that video of a naked Barton, now 68, appeared on the internet last week, becoming the talk of his hometown and spurring debate over criminal intent.

Barton apologized last week for the leaked video, saying he should have used better judgment. He also suggested he’d been the victim of the crime of revenge porn, which is illegal under Texas’s law, but not federal law.

Barton sent the video to a woman who he saw over the span of several years. In a recorded phone conversation that the woman gave to the Washington Post, Barton asked her not to use the video to hurt his career. She said she had no intention of doing so, but the video surfaced last week from an anonymous Twitter account.

Barton took the incident to the U.S. Capitol Police, but said last week he’d heard no word that an investigation had been opened.

According to Murphy and Drusch’s article, thirty-eight states and D.C. have laws against distributing “revenge porn.” The new federal legislation would make it “unlawful to knowingly distribute a private, visual depiction of an individual’s intimate parts or of an individual engaging in sexually explicit conduct, with reckless disregard for the individual’s lack of consent to the distribution, and for other purposes.”

Murphy and Drusch wrote that North Carolina passed legislation outlawing “revenge porn” in 2015 and updated the provision in 2017. The state law makes it illegal to post nude photos online without the consent of the victim.

The FBI defines “sextortion” as “when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money.”

In short, the proposed federal legislation would establish federal criminal liability for people who share private, explicit images without consent. In order to prosecute someone under the proposed law, officials would have to prove the defendant was aware of a substantial risk that the victim expected the image would remain private and that sharing could cause harm to the victim.

“Perpetrators of exploitation who seek to humiliate and shame their victims must be held accountable,” said Harris, the former attorney general of California who prosecuted operators of “revenge porn” sites. “It is long past time for the federal government to take action to give law enforcement the tools they need to crack down on these crimes.”

The bill provides up to five years in prison and/or unspecified fines.

My opinion? Washington State has already outlawed “revenge porn” as a Class C Felony under the “Disclosing Intimate Images” statute RCW 9A.86.010. Other states have also followed suit. It appears the feds are simply catching up.

Immediately contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges for distributing suggestive content online. It’s imperative to find a competent criminal defense attorney who can possibly suppress the evidence and/or convince prosecutors and judges to reduce or dismiss these egregious charges.