Category Archives: Federal Crimes & Prosecutions

Drug-Sniffing Dogs

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In United States v. Gorman, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Fourth Amendment was violated when an officer unreasonably prolonged an initial traffic stop and radioed for a drug-sniffing dog after because he thought there were drugs in the car.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In January 2013, a police officer stopped Straughn Gorman on Interstate-80 outside Wells, Nevada for a minor traffic infraction. The officer thought Gorman might be carrying drug money. Acting on this concern, he unsuccessfully attempted to summon a drug-sniffing dog and then prolonged Gorman’s roadside detention, which lasted nearly half an hour, as he conducted a non-routine records check.

Unable to justify searching the vehicle, he questioned Gorman further and finally released him without a citation.

Undeterred, the officer then developed the bright idea of contacting the sheriff’s office in Elko, a city further along Gorman’s route, to request that one of their officers stop Gorman a second time. The first officer conveyed his suspicions that Gorman was carrying drug money, described Gorman’s vehicle and direction of travel, and reported that his traffic stop had provided no basis for a search. “You’re going to need a dog,” he said. A second officer, who had a dog with him, then made a special trip to the highway to intercept Gorman’s vehicle.

The second officer saw Gorman and eventually believed he had found a traffic reason to pull him over. Following the second stop, the second officer performed a series of redundant record checks and conducted a dog sniff. The dog signaled the odor of drugs or drug-tainted currency. On the basis of the dog’s alert, the second officer obtained a search warrant, searched the vehicle, and found $167,070 in cash in various interior compartments.

No criminal charges arising from this incident were ever brought against Gorman. Instead, the government attempted to appropriate the seized money through civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement officials to “seize . . . property without any predeprivation judicial process and to obtain forfeiture of the property even when the owner is personally innocent.” Leonard v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 847, 847 (2017).

Gorman contested the forfeiture by arguing that the coordinated stops violated the Fourth Amendment. He prevailed. The federal district court ordered that his money be returned and also awarded him attorneys’ fees. The Government appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals (1) affirmed the lower court’s order granting claimant’s motion to suppress evidence seized pursuant to a traffic stop; (2) affirmed the award of attorneys’ fees; and (3) held that the search of claimant’s vehicle following coordinated traffic stops violated the Constitution.

The Court of Appeals held that the first stop of claimant’s vehicle was unreasonably prolonged in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court reasoned that the Supreme Court has made clear that traffic stops can last only as long as is reasonably necessary to carry out the “mission” of the stop, unless police have an independent reason to detain the motorist longer. The “mission” of a stop includes “determining whether to issue a traffic ticket” and “checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.” Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609, 1615 (2015).

Additionally, the Court held that the dog sniff and search of claimant’s vehicle during the coordinated second vehicle stop followed directly in an unbroken causal chain of events from that constitutional violation; and consequently, the seized currency from the second stop was the “fruit of the poisonous tree” and was properly suppressed under the exclusionary rule.

Finally, the Court held that none of the exceptions to the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine – the “independent source” exception, the “inevitable discovery” exception, and the “attenuated basis” exception – applied to claimant’s case.

Good decision.

Ninth Circuit Strikes Nevada Statutory Scheme Allowing Pretextual Stops

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In United States v. Orozco, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a statute allowing Nevada law enforcement officers to stop and search commercial vehicles for no reason violates the Fourth Amendment as unlawfully pretextual.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2013, law enforcement received a tip that defendant Victor Orozco – a commercial truck driver – regularly transported illegal drugs across the border inside his semi truck. Unbeknownst to Orozco, Nevada had a statutory and administrative scheme  allowing its police officers to pull over and search commercial vehicles for contraband under the notion that these searched perform a public safety purpose.

On April 27, 2013, the tipster said Orozco would be driving through White Pine County,
Nevada. Trooper Zehr of the Nevada Highway Patrol was advised of the vehicle and its location. He was told he would have to develop his own probable cause to get the vehicle stopped because there could possibly be drugs in the vehicle, but there was nothing solid.

Troopers targeted Orozco’s truck and pulled it over. They discovered the truck had made several trips across the border. Eventually, a K-9 officer dog arrived and made a positive alert as to the presence of drugs. The troopers found a duffel bag containing twenty-six pounds of methamphetamine and six pounds of heroin in the sleeper compartment.

Prior to trial, Orozco moved to suppress the drug evidence on the ground that the inspection of his vehicle was an impermissible pretext “motivated by a desire to search for evidence of drug trafficking, rather than to conduct a commercial vehicle inspection.” However, because “safety inspections” were part of a facially valid administrative scheme, the district judge held that the stop of Orozco’s truck was lawful. Later, Orozco was convicted of two counts of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance for which he was sentenced to 192 months in prison.

LEGAL ISSUE ON APPEAL

Orozco appealed his conviction on the issue of whether the stop was justified under the administrative search doctrine, which permits stops and searches, initiated in furtherance of a valid administrative scheme, to be conducted in the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

In short, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s denial of Orozco’s motion to suppress, vacated his conviction for two counts of drug possession arising from the stop of his vehicle and remanded the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

“Nevada Highway Patrol troopers made the stop in order to investigate criminal activity, even though they lacked the quantum of evidence necessary to justify the stop,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. Based on that, the stop was not justified under the administrative search doctrine, which permits stops and searches, initiated in furtherance of a valid administrative scheme, to be conducted in the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

The Court of Appels further reasoned that although an administrative scheme allowing Nevada law enforcement officers to make stops of commercial vehicles and conduct limited inspections without reasonable suspicion was valid on its face because its purpose was to ensure the safe operation of commercial vehicles, the evidence in this case, however, established beyond doubt that the stop of the defendant’s vehicle was a pretext for a stop to investigate information of suspected criminal activity short of that necessary to give rise to reasonable suspicion.

“The stop would not have been made in the absence of a tip that the defendant was possibly carrying narcotics. Accordingly, the stop was a pretextual stop that violated the Fourth Amendment.”

The Court further emphasized that the presence of a criminal investigatory motive, by itself, does not render an administrative stop pretextual, and nor does a dual motive—one valid and one impermissible. “Rather, the defendant must show that the stop would not have occurred in the absence of an impermissible reason.”

With that, the Court reversed Orozco’s convictions.

My opinion? Good decision. Pretextual stops are often used by police officers as an excuse to initiate a stop and search of automobiles suspected of being involved in criminal activity. These stops involve police officers stopping drivers for traffic violations – minor or otherwise – to conduct investigations which are separate and unrelated to the original reasons substantiating the stop. Pretextual traffic stops give police officer a lot of discretion in who they choose to stop and for what reasons. Too much discretion. Again, good decision.

Shackled in Court

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In United States v. Sanchez-Gomez, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a lower federal court’s policy of routinely shackling all defendants in the courtroom was unconstitutional.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2013, the judges of the Southern District of California approached the U.S. Marshals Service and requested “a district-wide policy of allowing the Marshals Service to bring all in-custody defendants in full restraints for most non-jury proceedings.” “Full restraints” means that a defendant’s hands are closely handcuffed together, these handcuffs are connected by chain to another chain running around the defendant’s waist, and the defendant’s feet are shackled and chained together.

Starting on the first day of the policy’s implementation, the Federal Defenders of San Diego objected to the routine use of shackles and requested that each defendant’s shackles be removed. The judges routinely denied the requests, relying on the Marshals Service’s general security concerns. The judges also pointed to increasing security threats from what they viewed as changing demographics and increasing case loads in their district.

The shackling was the same regardless of a defendant’s individual characteristics. One defendant had a fractured wrist but appeared in court wearing full restraints. Nevertheless, the judge denied her motion to remove the restraints, Another defendant was vision-impaired. One of his hands was free of restraint so he could use his cane, but his other hand was shackled and secured to a chain around his waist and his legs were shackled together. His objection to the restraints was also denied.  And another defendant was shackled despite being brought into court in a wheelchair due to her “dire and deteriorating” health. The court “noted” her objection to the shackles and denied the defendant’s motion to remove the shackles.

Defendants appealed these denials to the district court and also filed motions challenging the constitutionality of the district-wide policy. The district courts denied all relief. All four cases were consolidated for review of the policy’s constitutionality.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

This 9th Circuit said that under the Fifth Amendment, no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” It reasoned that the U.S. Supreme Court has said time and again that “liberty from bodily restraint always has been recognized as the core of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause from arbitrary governmental action. Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 316 (1982).

Liberty from bodily restraint includes the right to be free from shackles in the courtroom, reasoned the court. Also, the right to be free from unwarranted shackles no matter the proceeding respects our founding principle that defendants are innocent until proven guilty.

“The principle isn’t limited to juries or trial proceedings,” said the Court. It also includes the perception of any person who may walk into a public courtroom, as well as those of the jury, the judge and court personnel:

“A presumptively innocent defendant has the right to be treated with respect and dignity in a public courtroom, not like a bear on a chain . . . The fact that the proceeding is non-jury does not diminish the degradation a prisoner suffers when needlessly paraded about a courtroom, like a dancing bear on a lead, wearing belly chains and manacles.”

The Court further reasoned that the most visible and public manifestation of our criminal justice system is the courtroom. “Courtrooms are palaces of justice, imbued with a majesty that reflects the gravity of proceedings designed to deprive a person of liberty or even life.” It reasoned that a member of the public who wanders into a criminal courtroom must immediately perceive that it is a place where justice is administered with due regard to individuals whom the law presumes to be innocent. That perception cannot prevail if defendants are marched in like convicts on a chain gang. “Both the defendant and the public have the right to a dignified, inspiring and open court process. Thus, innocent defendants may not be shackled at any point in the courtroom unless there is an individualized showing of need.”

Moreover, the Court reasoned that it has a long tradition of giving correctional officials a wide berth in maintaining security within their own facilities. “But we don’t have a tradition of deferring to correctional or law enforcement officers as to the treatment of individuals appearing in public courtrooms.”

Here, in the courtroom, law enforcement officers have no business proposing policies for the treatment of parties as a class. Insofar as they have information pertaining to particular defendants, they may, of course, bring it to the court’s attention. But a blanket policy applied to all defendants infuses the courtroom with a prison atmosphere. The Marshals Service should not have proposed it and the judges should not have paid heed.

“We must take seriously how we treat individuals who come into contact with our criminal justice system—from how our police interact with them on the street to how they appear in the courtroom. How the justice system treats people in these public settings matters for the public’s perception, including that of the defendant. Practices like routine shackling and “perp walks” are inconsistent with our constitutional presumption that people who have not been convicted of a crime are innocent until proven otherwise. We must treat people with respect and dignity even though they are suspected of a crime.”

Finally, the Court reasoned that the Constitution enshrines a fundamental right to be free of unwarranted restraints. “Thus, we hold that if the government seeks to shackle a defendant, it must first justify the infringement with specific security needs as to that particular defendant.” Courts must decide whether the stated need for security outweighs the infringement on a defendant’s right. This decision cannot be deferred to security providers or presumptively answered by routine policies, said the Court. “All of these requirements apply regardless of a jury’s presence or whether it’s a pretrial, trial or sentencing proceeding. Criminal defendants, like any other party appearing in court, are entitled to enter the courtroom with their heads held high.”

My Opinion? Excellent decision. Unless a defendant is particularly dangerous to themselves or others, there is simply no reason to parade them around the court like animals. It’s degrading, demoralizing and reduces respect for the criminal justice system; especially if defendants are not yet found guilty for crimes.

Sessions Seeks Harsher Prosecutions & Stricter Sentences

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Today, CNN Reporter Laura Jarrett broke the story that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a new directive for federal prosecutors across the country: charge suspects with the most serious offense you can prove.

Friday’s announcement follows a line of several other significant departures from Obama-era domestic policies at the Justice Department, but this decision crystalized Sessions’ position in the criminal justice realm.
In a brief one-and-a-half-page memo, Sessions outlined his new instructions for charging decisions in federal cases, saying that his new first principle is “that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.”
“The most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences,” Sessions later adds.
While the federal sentencing guidelines are advisory — and take into account everything from a defendant’s criminal history to cooperation with authorities — some judges have felt handcuffed by mandatory minimums, which provide a statutory sentencing minimum of months below which the judge cannot depart.
The move was harshly criticized by the New York University School of Law Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute focused on democracy and justice.
“The Trump administration is returning to archaic and deeply-flawed policies,” Inimai Chettiar, the center’s justice program director, said Friday. “Sessions is leaving little to no room for prosecutors to use their judgment and determine what criminal charges best fit the crime.”
“That approach is what led to this mess of mass incarceration,” she added. “It exploded the prison population, didn’t help public safety, and cost taxpayers billions in enforcement and incarceration costs.”
Sessions also formally withdrew a signature part of Attorney General Eric Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative, which sought to target the most serious crimes and reduce the number of defendants charged with non-violent drug offenses that would otherwise trigger mandatory minimum sentences.
“We must ensure that our most severe mandatory minimum penalties are reserved for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers,” Holder wrote in a 2013 memo. “In some cases, mandatory minimum and recidivist enhancements statutes have resulted in unduly harsh sentences and perceived or actual disparities that do not reflect our Principles of Federal Prosecution.”
As a result, during the Obama era, federal prosecutors were instructed not to charge someone for a drug crime that would trigger a mandatory minimum sentence if certain specific factors were met: (a) the relevant conduct didn’t involve death, violence, a threat of violence or possession of a weapon; (b) the defendant wasn’t an organizer, leader or manager of others within a criminal organization; (c) there were no ties to large-scale drug trafficking operations; and (d) the defendant didn’t have a “significant” criminal history (i.e., prior convictions).
All of those charging factors are now gone under Sessions’ reign and not surprising, as he has previously telegraphed his desire to prosecute more federal cases generally.
My opinion? We’re bringing back the War on Drugs. As it stands, the federal government typically prosecutes only the most serious offenses, and does so with what can seem to be a crushing investigation and avalanche of evidence. Their resources are vast. Mounting a defense can feel daunting.
Here, the effects of Session’s decision will most immediately be felt in the context of drug crimes. Federal mandatory minimums can be harsh because the sentences are dictated based on drug type and quantity.
Said differently, Sessions decision could bring back the War on Drugs. His actions are already embracing it’s worst features: confidential informants, harsh plea bargains and long sentences.