Category Archives: law enforcement

Gun Safes Are Searchable

Image result for police gun safe

In State v. Witkowski, the WA Court of Appeals held that a police search warrant for firearms located in a residence allows officers to search a locked gun safe.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On October 27, 2015, Deputy Martin Zurfluh obtained a search warrant to search the Respondents’ property, including their residence, for evidence of possession of stolen property and utility theft. The search warrant was limited to a stolen power meter and its accessories. An arrest warrant for Witkowski was also issued.

On October 29, officers executed the search and arrest warrants. After this search, Deputy Zurfluh requested an addendum to the search warrant. In his affidavit, Deputy Zurfluh explained that after entering the Respondents’ residence, police found drug paraphernalia, ammunition, one locked gun safe, one unlocked gun safe, a rifle case, and surveillance cameras. Deputy Zurfluh knew that the Respondents were felons and were prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition.

The search warrant addendum authorized police to search at the Respondents’ street address for evidence of unlawful possession of a firearm, identity theft, unlawful possession of a controlled substance, and unlawful use of drug paraphernalia. The warrant addendum defined the area to be searched for this evidence as the main residence, a shed, and any vehicles and outbuildings at the street address.

The addendum authorized the seizure of evidence including,

  1. firearms, firearms parts, and accessories, including but not limited to rifles, shotguns, handguns, ammunition, scopes, cases, cleaning kits, and holsters
  2. Surveillance Systems used or intended to be used in the furtherance of any of the above listed crimes.
  3. Any item used as a container for #1.

Notably, the addendum did not identify either of the gun safes as items to be seized.

When executing the warrant addendum, officers opened the locked gun safe. They found 11 loaded rifles and shotguns with their serial numbers filed off, a handgun, a police scanner, a large quantity of cash, ammunition, and cameras.

After the search, the State charged Respondents with numerous counts including first degree unlawful possession of a firearm. Witkowski was additionally charged with seven counts of possession of a stolen firearm.

The superior court suppressed the evidence found inside the gun safes under the Fourth Amendment. It ruled that the addendum to the warrant did not include the gun safes or containers for firearms and that gun safes are not “personal effects,” so that the search of the safes did not fall within the scope of the search warrant.

The superior court later denied the State’s motions for reconsideration. The State filed motions for discretionary review to the Court of Appeals.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court reasoned that a lawful search of fixed premises generally extends to the entire area in which the object of the search may be found and is not limited by the possibility that separate acts of entry or opening may be required to complete the search. Thus, a warrant that authorizes an officer to search a home for illegal weapons also provides authority to open closets, chests, drawers, and containers in which the weapon might be found.

“Here, the warrant addendum listed the objects of the search as including firearms and firearm accessories,” said the Court of Appeals.  “And Deputy Zurfluh testified that he suspected the close-to refrigerator-sized, locked safe contained firearms because he had found ammunition in the home.” The Court emphasized that Deputy Zurfluh also testified that in his experience, a tall, upright safe would be used to store guns. “Under the rule expressed in United State v. Ross, because one object of the search was “firearms,” the premises search warrant addendum authorized the search of the locked gun safe as an area in which the object of the search was likely to be found.”

Additionally, the Court of Appeals emphasized that numerous Washington cases have also expressed the Fourth Amendment rule that a premises warrant authorizes a search of containers in a residence that could reasonably contain the object of the search.

“In sum, federal and state precedent applying the Fourth Amendment show that when police execute a premises warrant, they are authorized to search locked containers where the objects of the search are likely to be found. Thus, the superior court here erred under the Fourth Amendment when it suppressed the evidence in the locked gun safe as exceeding the scope of the warrant addendum.”

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed the Superior Court’s suppression of the evidence and remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges involving searches of persons, vehicles and property. Hiring competent criminal defense counsel is the first step toward getting charges reduced or dismissed.

Warrantless Search & “Community Caretaking”

Image result for police search home without warrant

In State v. Boisselle, the WA Court of Appeals held that the officers’ warrantless entry into a duplex was lawful as the officers were worried that someone might be injured or dead inside, the officers were unable to locate the individuals who were believed to being living in the duplex, the officers did not intend to conduct a criminal investigation inside the duplex, and from the time the officers arrived at the duplex, until entry, the officers individually and collectively worked to ascertain the situation.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In July 2014, Michael Boisselle encountered Brandon Zomalt, an old acquaintance. Zomalt told Boisselle that he was homeless, had nowhere to sleep, and that he needed assistance obtaining a food handler’s permit in order to secure a job. Boisselle offered to let Zomalt stay with him in his duplex unit. With Boisselle’s assistance, Zomalt received his food handler’s permit and began working at a nearby restaurant. However, Zomalt was fired after one week for fighting at work.

Zomalt was addicted to alcohol and methamphetamine. He also had a history of violence. Several people, including Zomalt’s mother and two of his former girlfriends, had been granted protection orders against him. After losing his job, Zomalt drank throughout the day. Boisselle did not feel safe around Zomalt and avoided him when possible.

The tension in the house culminated into a confrontation. Apparently, Zomalt began to behave strangely. He also drank heavily. One night, Boiselle and Zomalt were home. According to Boiselle, Zomalt held him hostage in their home and threatened Boiselle with a firearm. Later that night, Boiselle managed to reach the gun. He fired the weapon at Boiselle, apparently in self-defense. No witnesses summoned police or heard the firearm.

On September 1, 2014, South Sound 911 dispatch received an anonymous telephone call from an individual who reported that “somebody by the name of Mike” stated that he shot someone at the duplex. Shortly thereafter, the Puyallup Police Department anonymous tip line received a telephone call from an individual who reported that “Mike” had “shot someone” and “possibly killed him, and it was in self-defense.” Deputies Ryan Olivarez and Fredrick Wiggins were dispatched to the scene.

Olivarez and Wiggins knocked on the door of the duplex but received no response. There was, however, a dog inside that was barking aggressively. The deputies walked around the outside of the duplex and attempted to look inside, but all of the windows were closed and covered with blinds. There was a light on in the upstairs western bedroom. The deputies smelled a foul odor coming from the house and the garage. Olivarez thought that “something about it just seemed off’ and was concerned with “trying to figure out if someone needed help.” Olivarez and Wiggins then contacted the neighbors in order to gather more information. Two neighbors informed the deputies that they had not seen anyone coming or going from the duplex for about “four or five days.”

With no person apparently able to consent to a police entry of the unit and believing that they did not have a sufficient basis to obtain a search warrant, Adamson and Clarkson made a joint decision to force entry into the duplex. Clarkson broke through the front door. An animal control officer secured the dog. The officers then performed a security sweep of the duplex, looking for anyone who was hurt. Adamson and Clarkson searched the second floor of the duplex while Wiggins and Olivarez searched the first floor. The officers checked all of the rooms, looking in closets and other large spaces for a person or a body but ignoring drawers and other areas where a person could not fit.

Sergeant Clarkson believed that the smell was coming from inside of the garage and was consistent with a dead body. Once all of the rooms inside the duplex had been checked, deputies Wiggins and Olivarez forced entry into the garage from inside of the duplex. Once inside the garage, all four officers could see a large, rolled up carpet with a shoe sticking out and maggots pouring out of the bottom. Sergeant Clarkson opened the garage door using the automatic door opener and all four officers went around to the outside of the garage for a clear view of the carpet. From outside of the house, the officers saw an arm hanging out of the front end of the carpet. Clarkson told the other officers that “this is a crime scene now,” and that “it’s time we have to seal this off.” None of the officers collected evidence or touched the carpet.

Boisselle was charged with second degree murder and unlawful possession of a firearm. Before trial, he argued a CrR 3.6 motion to suppress. The judge denied the motion. At trial he was convicted of both charges.

On appeal, and among other issues Boisselle contends that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress the search of his home.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. “The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit ‘reasonable’ warrantless searches and seizures,” said the Court. Furthermore, the Court said the analysis under the Fourth Amendment focuses on whether the police have acted reasonably under the circumstances.

Additionally, the Court explained that Article 1, section 7 of the Washington Constitution is more protective than the Fourth Amendment, particularly where warrantless searches are concerned. “Article 1, section 7 provides that ‘no person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law,'” said the Court.  The WA Constitution also prohibits any disturbance of an individual’s private affairs without authority of law. The Court said this language prohibits unreasonable searches.

However, the Court also explained that a search conducted pursuant to a police officer’s community caretaking function is one exception to the warrant requirement; and the community caretaking function was first announced by the United States Supreme Court in Cady v. Dombrowski. From there, subsequent Washington cases have expanded the community caretaking function exception to encompass not only the search and seizure of automobiles, but also situations involving either emergency aid or routine checks on health and safety.

Here, the court reasoned the police officers rightfully conducted a community caretaking search under the circumstances:

“In any event, the record establishes that the officers acted promptly given the circumstances. From the moment they arrived at the duplex, until entry, the officers individually and collectively began to ascertain the situation at hand. This included checking doors and windows to determine whether anyone was inside the duplex, contacting both the owner of the duplex and the individual listed on the lease in attempts to obtain consent to enter, questioning neighbors, and contacting animal control.”

The Court emphasized that, ultimately, the officers reached a point where two things were clear: (1) obtaining consent to enter was not possible as no person entitled to consent could be identified, and (2) there was nothing further the officers could do to discern the welfare of any person inside the unit absent entry. “At this point, the officers reasonably concluded that forcible entry was necessary to determine the need for and to render assistance. Given the circumstances, this was an immediate response to a likely emergency,” said the Court.

Finally, the Court reasoned the officers’ warrantless search of the duplex was justified pursuant to the community caretaking function exception as considered by a majority of the Supreme Court in State v. Smith.

“Accordingly, the trial court did not err by denying Boisselle’s motion to suppress,” said the Court of Appeals. With that – and following discussion of other issues – the Court of Appeals affirmed Mr. Boisselle’s conviction.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member is charged with a crime involving a search and seizure issue. Under the law, we are entitled to protections from unlawful searches of our homes, cars and persons.

The Particularity Requirement for Search Warrants

Image result for cell phone search

In State v. McKee, the WA Court of Appeals held that a search warrant that authorized the police to search and seize a large amount of cell phone data, including images, video, documents, text messages, contacts, audio recordings, call logs, calendars, notes, and tasks, and authorized a “physical dump” of “the memory of the phone for examination,” violated the particularity requirement of the Fourth Amendment.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2012, A.Z. lived with her older brother and her mother in Anacortes. All parties were addicted to heroin, methamphetamine or both. A.Z. was using heroin and methamphetamine on a daily basis during 2012.

In January 2012, A.Z.’s mother introduced A.Z. to 40-year-old Marc Daniel McKee during a “drug deal” for methamphetamine. McKee started spending a lot of time with the family and supplied them with methamphetamine. They would often “get high” together. At the end of June, McKee left to go to Alaska for work.

When McKee returned two months later, he immediately contacted A.Z. McKee told A.Z. he had heroin and methamphetamine. McKee and A.Z. spent three days together at a Burlington motel using the drugs and engaging in consensual sex.

Eventually, A.Z’s mother confronted McKee about the sexual encounters between A.Z. and McKee. Bringing another male with her A.Z.’s mother confronted McKee at a hotel room, beat him up, took his cell phone, and pulled A.Z out of the room. Later, A.Z.’s mother scrolled through the phone. She found pictures and videos of her daughter A.Z tied naked to a bed as well as videos of McKee and A.Z. having sex.

After A.Z.’s mother looked at the video clips and photographs on the cell phone, she contacted the Mount Vernon Police Department. On October 30, A.Z.’s mother met with Detective Dave Shackleton. A.Z.’s mother described the video clips and photographs she saw on the cell phone. She left the cell phone with Detective Shackleton. Later, A.Z.’s mother contacted Detective Shackleton to report that J.P., another minor female, told her that McKee gave J.P. drugs in exchange for sex. Brickley obtained a restraining order prohibiting McKee from contacting A.Z.

Application for a Search Warrant

On October 31, Detective Jerrad Ely submitted an application and affidavit (Affidavit) in support of probable cause to obtain a warrant to search McKee’s cell phone to investigate the crimes of “Sexual Exploitation of a Minor RCW 9.68A.040” and “Dealing in Depictions of a Minor Engaged in Sexually Explicit Conduct RCW 9.68A.050.” The court issued a search warrant.

The warrant allowed the police to obtain evidence from the cell phone described as an LG cell phone with model VX9100 currently being held at the Mount Vernon Police Department for the following items wanted:

“Images, video, documents, text messages, contacts, audio recordings, call logs, calendars, notes, tasks, data/internet usage, any and all identifying data, and any other electronic data from the cell phone showing evidence of the above listed crimes.”

The search warrant authorizes the police to conduct a “physical dump” of the memory of
the cell phone for examination. On November 7, 2012, the court filed a “Receipt of Execution of Search Warrant.” The Receipt of Execution of Search Warrant states the police conducted a “Cellebrite Dump” of the cell phone on November 6. Cellebrite software obtains all information saved on the cell phone as well as deleted information and transfers the data from the cell phone to a computer.

Criminal Charges

The State charged McKee with three counts of Possession of Depictions of Minors Engaged in Sexually Explicit Conduct in the first Degree in violation of RCW 9.68A.070(1) based on the three cell phone video clips, one count of Possession of Depictions of a Minor Engaged in Sexually Explicit Conduct in the Second Degree in violation of RCW 9.68A.070(2) based on the cell phone photographs, one count of Commercial Aex Abuse of J.P. as a minor in violation of RCW 9.68A.100, three counts of Distribution of Methamphetamine and/or Heroin to a person under age 18 in violation of RCW 69.50.406(1) and .401(2), and one count of Violation of a No-Contact Order in violation of RCW 26.50.110(1).

Motion to Suppress

McKee filed a motion to suppress the evidence the police seized from his cell phone. McKee asserted the search warrant violated the Fourth Amendment requirement to describe with particularity the “things to be seized.” McKee argued the warrant allowed the police to search an “overbroad list of items” unrelated to the identified crimes under investigation. McKee also argued probable cause did not support issuing a search warrant of the cell phone for the crime of dealing in depictions of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct.

The court entered an order denying the motion to suppress. The court found the allegations in the Affidavit supported probable cause that McKee committed the crimes of sexual exploitation of a minor and dealing in depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct. The court concluded the citation to the criminal statutes established particularity and the search warrant was not overbroad.

At trial, the jury found McKee not guilty of distribution of methamphetamine and/or heroin. The jury found McKee guilty as charged on all other counts.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals held that the search warrant violated the particularity requirement of the Fourth Amendment, and that a search conducted pursuant to a warrant that fails to conform to the particularity requirement of the Fourth Amendment is unconstitutional.

The Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment was adopted in response to indiscriminate searches and seizures conducted under the authority of ‘general warrants.’

“The problem posed by the general warrant is not that of intrusion per se, but of a general,
exploratory rummaging in a person’s belongings,” said the Court. “The Fourth Amendment
addresses the problem by requiring a particular description of the things to be seized . . .

The court further reasoned that by limiting the authorization to search to the specific areas and things for which there is probable cause to search, the requirement ensures that the search will be carefully tailored to its justifications, and would not take on the character of the wide-ranging exploratory searches the Framers of the Constitution intended to prohibit.

“The degree of specificity required varies depending on the circumstances of the case and the types of items,” said the Court. “The advent of devices such as cell phones that store vast amounts of personal information makes the particularity requirement of the Fourth Amendment that much more important.” The Court also quoted language from the U.S. Supreme Court’s Riley v. California and the WA Supreme Court’s State v. Samilia; both cases strongly supporting the notion that cell phones and the information contained therein are private affairs because they may contain intimate details about individuals’ lives.

“Here, the warrant cites and identifies the crimes under investigation but does not use the language in the statutes to describe the data sought from the cell phone,” said the Court. “The warrant lists the crimes under investigation on page one but separately lists the “Items Wanted” on page two.” Consequently, the Court reasoned that the description of the “Items Wanted” was overbroad and allowed the police to search and seize lawful data when the warrant could have been made more particular.

Furthermore, the Court held that the warrant in this case was not carefully tailored to the justification to search and was not limited to data for which there was probable cause. The warrant authorized the police to search all images, videos, documents, calendars, text messages, data, Internet usage, and “any other electronic data” and to conduct a “physical dump” of “all of the memory of the phone for examination.”

“The language of the search warrant clearly allows search and seizure of data without regard to whether the data is connected to the crime,” said the Court. “The warrant gives the police the right to search the contents of the cell phone and seize private information with no temporal or other limitation.” As a result, reasoned the Court, there was no limit on the topics of information for which the police could search. Nor did the warrant limit the search to information generated close in time to incidents for which the police had probable cause:

“The warrant allowed the police to search general categories of data on the cell phone with no objective standard or guidance to the police executing the warrant. The language of the search warrant left to the discretion of the police what to seize.”

With that, the Court of Appeals held the search warrant violated the particularity requirement of the Fourth Amendment. The Court reversed and dismissed the four convictions of Possession of Depictions of a Minor Engaging in Sexually Explicit Conduct.

My opinion? For the most part, courts look dis favorably on the searches of people’s homes, cars, phones, etc., unless the probable cause for the search is virtually overwhelming, and/or an emergency exists which would spoil the evidence if it was not gathered quickly; and/or a search warrant exists. Even when search warrants are drafted and executed, they must be particular to the search. In other words, law enforcement can’t expect that a general, non-specific search warrant is going to win the day for them and allow a fishing expedition to take place.

Here, the Court of Appeals correctly followed the law. In this case, limiting the search to the crimes cited on the first page of the warrant was insufficient. The descriptions of what to be seized must be made more particular by using the precise statutory language to describe the materials sought.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member’s person, home, vehicle or cell phone was searched by police and evidence was seized. The search may have been unlawfully conducted in violation of your Constitutional rights.

Probation Searches

Image result for illegal search and seizure in vehicle

in State v. Cornwell, the WA Supreme Court held that Article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution requires a nexus between the property searched and the suspected probation violation. Here, there was no nexus between the defendant’s failure to report to DOC and the car which the defendant was driving.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In September 2013, petitioner Curtis Lament Cornwell was placed on probation. His judgment and sentence allowed his probation officer to impose conditions of his release, which included the following provision:

“I am aware that I am subject to search and seizure of my person, residence, automobile, or other personal property if there is reasonable cause on the part of the Department of Corrections to believe that I have violated the conditions/requirements or instructions above.”

Cornwell failed to report to the Department of Corrections (DOC) in violation of his probation, and DOC subsequently issued a warrant for his arrest.

Cornwell first came to the attention of Tacoma Police Department Officer Randy Frisbie and CCO Thomas Grabski because of a distinctive Chevrolet Monte Carlo observed outside a house suspected of being a site for drug sales and prostitution. An officer conducted a records check and determined he had an outstanding warrant.

In late November 2014, Officer Frisbie testified that he intended to stop the vehicle because he believed Cornwell was driving it and he had an outstanding warrant. He did not initiate the stop based on any belief that the car contained drugs or a gun or because he observed a traffic violation.

Before Officer Frisbie could activate his police lights, the car pulled into a driveway and Cornwell began to exit it. Cornwell ignored Officer Frisbie’s orders to stay in the vehicle, and Officer Frisbie believed Cornwell was attempting to distance himself from the car. Officer Frisbie then ordered Cornwell to the ground. Cornwell started to lower himself in apparent compliance before jumping up and running. Cornwell was apprehended after both officers deployed their tasers. He had $1,573 on his person at the time of arrest.

After securing Cornwell, Officer Patterson called CCO Grabski to the scene. Upon arrival, CCO Grabski searched the Monte Carlo. He described the basis for his search as follows:

“When people are in violation of probation, they’re subject to search. So he’s driving a vehicle, he has a felony warrant for his arrest by DOC, which is in violation of his probation. He’s driving the vehicle, he has the ability to access to enter the vehicle, so I’m searching the car to make sure there’s no further violations of his probation.”

In this case, CCO Grabski found a black nylon bag sitting on the front seat of the car. The bag contained oxycodone, amphetamine and methamphetamine pills, sim cards, and small spoons. A cell phone was also found in the car.

Cornwell moved pursuant to CrR 3.6 to suppress the evidence obtained during the vehicle search. The trial court denied the motion.

A jury convicted Cornwell of three counts of unlawful possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver and one count of resisting arrest. The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction. The WA Supreme Court granted review on the issue of whether the search of the car Cornwell was driving an unlawful search.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Supreme Court held that individuals on probation are not entitled to the full protection of the Constitution. The Court reasoned that probationers have a reduced expectations of privacy because they are serving their time outside the prison walls. Accordingly, it is constitutionally permissible for a CCO to search an individual based only on a well-founded or reasonable suspicion of a probation violation, rather than a search warrant supported by probable cause.

However, the Court also also reasoned that the goals of the probation process can be accomplished with rules and procedures that provide both the necessary societal protections as well as the necessary constitutional protections.

“Limiting the scope of a CCO’s search to property reasonably believed to have a nexus with the suspected probation violation protects the privacy and dignity of individuals on probation while still allowing the State ample supervision,” said the Court. “We therefore hold that article I, section 7 permits a warrantless search of the property of an individual on probation only where there is a nexus between the property searched and the alleged probation violation.”

The Court reasoned that the CCO’s search of Cornwell’s car exceeded its lawful scope.

“While CCO Grabski may have suspected Cornwell violated other probation conditions, the only probation violation supported by the record is Cornwell’s failure to report,” said the Court. It also reasoned that CCO Grabski’s testimony at the suppression hearing confirmed that he had no expectation that the search would produce evidence of Cornwell’s failure to report.

“In this case, the search of Cornwell’s vehicle was unlawful because there was no nexus between the search and his suspected probation violation of failure to report to DOC,” concluded the Court. “The evidence seized during the search should have been suppressed. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals and Cornwell’s convictions.”

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member were subject to an unlawful search. It is imperative to hire experienced and competent defense counsel to suppress evidence of an unlawful search as quickly as possible.

Probable Cause & Parties

Image result for police arrest strippers

In District of Colombia v. Wesby, the United States Supreme Court decided that police officers had probable cause to arrest partygoers at a home when the totality of the circumstances make it clearly obvious that criminal activity was happening.

BACKGROUND

District of Columbia police officers responded to a complaint about loud music and illegal activities in a vacant house. Inside, they found the house nearly barren and in disarray. The officers smelled marijuana and observed beer bottles and cups of liquor on the floor, which was dirty. They found a make-shift strip club in the living room.  Several women were wearing only bras and thongs, with cash tucked into their garter belts. The women were giving lap dances while other partygoers watched. Most of the onlookers were holding cash and cups of alcohol.

The officers found more debauchery upstairs. A naked woman and several men were in the bedroom. A bare mattress—the only one in the house—was on the floor, along with some lit candles and multiple open condom wrappers. A used condom was on the windowsill. The officers found one partygoer hiding in an upstairs closet, and another who had shut himself in the bathroom and refused to come out.

Many partygoers scattered when they saw the uniformed officers, and some hid. The officers questioned everyone and got inconsistent stories. Two women identified “Peaches” as the house’s tenant and said that she had given the partygoers permission to have the party. But Peaches was not there. When the officers spoke by phone to Peaches, she was nervous, agitated, and evasive. At first, she claimed that she was renting the house and had given the partygoers permission to have the party, but she eventually admitted that she did not have permission to use the house. The owner confirmed that he had not given anyone permission to be there.

At that point, the officers arrested the 21 partygoers for Unlawful Entry. The police transported the partygoers to the police station, where the lieutenant decided to charge them with Disorderly Conduct. The partygoers were released, and the charges were eventually dropped.

Several partygoers sued for False Arrest under the Fourth Amendment. The Federal District Court concluded that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest the partygoers for unlawful entry and that two of the officers, petitioners here, were not entitled to qualified immunity. A divided panel of the D. C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. Eventually, this case went to the U.S. Supreme court.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

  1. The Officers Had Probable Cause to Arrest.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that police officers had probable cause to arrest the partygoers. The Court reasoned that considering the “totality of the circumstances” under Maryland v. Pringle, the officers made an “entirely reasonable inference” that the partygoers knew they did not have permission to be in the house.

Taken together, the condition of the house and the conduct of the partygoers allowed the officers to make several common-sense conclusions about human behavior. Because most homeowners do not live in such conditions or permit such activities in their homes, the officers could infer that the partygoers knew the party was not authorized. Furthermore, the Court reasoned that officers also could infer that the partygoers knew that they were not supposed to be in the house because they scattered and hid when the officers arrived. Also, the partygoers’ vague and implausible answers to questioning also gave the officers reason to infer that the partygoers were lying and that their lies suggested a guilty mind. Finally, Peaches’ lying and evasive behavior gave the officers reason to discredit everything she said.

2. The Lower Court Failed to Conduct the Correct Analysis.

The Supreme Court explained that the lower court failed to follow two basic and well-established principles of law. First, it viewed each fact in isolation, rather than as a factor in the totality of the circumstances. Second, it believed that it could dismiss outright any circumstances that were susceptible of innocent explanation. Instead, it should have asked whether a reasonable officer could conclude—considering all of the surrounding circumstances, including the plausibility of the explanation itself—that there was a substantial chance of criminal activity.

   3. The Officers Were Entitled to Qualified Immunity.

For those who don’t know, Qualified Immunity protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff‘s rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right. When determining whether or not a right was “clearly established,” courts consider whether a hypothetical reasonable official would have known that the defendant’s conduct violated the plaintiff’s rights. Courts conducting this analysis apply the law that was in force at the time of the alleged violation, not the law in effect when the court considers the case.

The Court ruled that here, officers are entitled to qualified immunity under 42 U. S. C. §1983 unless the unlawfulness of their conduct was clearly established at the time. To be clearly established, a legal principle must be “settled law,” and it must clearly prohibit the officer’s conduct in the particular circumstances before him. In the warrantless arrest context, “a body of relevant case law” is usually necessary to “ ‘clearly establish’ the answer” with respect to probable cause. Brosseau v. Haugen.

With that, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded the lower court’s decision.

Contact my office of you, a friend or family member’s house party was interrupted by police who conducted arrests. Competent defense counsel can ascertain whether constitutional rights were violated in the search and seizure of persons and property.

Excessive Force?

Image result for gun at head

In Thompson v. Copeland, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a police officer uses excessive force when he points a gun at a suspect’s head and threatens to kill the suspect after the suspect, who was arrested for a felony, has already been searched, is calm and compliant, and is being watched over by a second armed deputy.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In December, 2011, Pete Copeland, a deputy in the King County Sheriff’s Office (“KCSO”), was on patrol in the City of Burien, Washington. After watching Lawrence Thompson commit “multiple traffic violations,” Copeland pulled him over. Thompson apologized to Copeland but failed to provide a driver’s license, although he did offer up some mail addressed in his name.

When Copeland ran Thompson’s identifying information, he discovered that Thompson had a suspended license for an unpaid ticket, that Thompson was a convicted felon, and that his most recent felony conviction was for possessing a firearm. Copeland decided to arrest Thompson for driving with a suspended license, and to impound Thompson’s car, as required by a City of Burien ordinance.

Copeland had Thompson exit the vehicle and patted him down for weapons. Finding none, Copeland radioed for backup, and had Thompson sit on the bumper of Copeland’s patrol car. Copeland then conducted an inventory search of Thompson’s vehicle. During his search, Copeland saw a loaded revolver sitting in an open garbage bag on the rear passenger-side floorboard. After seeing the gun, Copeland decided to arrest Thompson for Unlawful Possession of a Firearm.

Thompson continued to sit on the bumper of Copeland’s police cruiser, watched over by another deputy who had arrived for backup on the scene. Thompson was about 10–15 feet from the gun in the backseat of his car, and was not handcuffed. Copeland signaled to the deputy watching over Thompson, then drew his gun.

What happened next is disputed by the parties. Copeland claims he unholstered his firearm and assumed a low-ready position, with his gun clearly displayed but not pointed directly at Thompson. By contrast, Thompson claims that Copeland pointed his gun at Thompson’s head, demanded Thompson surrender, and threatened to kill him if he did not.

Copeland directed Thompson to get on the ground, facedown, so that he could be handcuffed. Thompson complied and was cuffed without incident. Copeland arrested Thompson for being a felon in possession of a firearm. The State of Washington charged Thompson with Unlawful Possession of a Firearm. However, the charges were dismissed after determining that the evidence against Thompson had been gathered in violation of the Washington State Constitution.

Thompson sued Officer Copeland and King County under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his Fourth Amendment rights. Specifically, Thompson alleged that Officer Copeland used excessive force in pointing his gun at Thompson and threatening to kill him.

In recommending dismissal of this claim, the federal Magistrate Judge  found that the degree of force used on Thompson was reasonable given that Officer Copeland was conducting a felony arrest of a suspect who was not secured, who was in relatively close proximity to a weapon, who was taller and heavier than him, and who had a prior felony conviction for unlawfully possessing a firearm. The Magistrate Judge concluded that Officer Copeland’s minimal use-of-force in effectuating Thompson’s arrest was objectively reasonable, and did not violate Thompson’s Fourth Amendment rights.

The Magistrate Judge also granted Copeland’s motion to dismiss under summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. Later, The federal district court adopted the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation, and dismissed Thompson’s claims with prejudice. Thompson appealed.

ISSUE

In the course of a felony arrest, may a police officer point a loaded gun at an unarmed suspect’s head, where that suspect had already been searched, was calm and compliant, was watched over by a second armed deputy, and was seated on the bumper of a police cruiser 10–15 feet away from a gun found in the suspect’s car? And if not, was the police officer entitled to qualified immunity from future lawsuits for police misconduct?

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Ninth Circuit held that pointing a loaded gun at the suspect’s head in these circumstances constitutes excessive force under the Fourth Amendment, but that the officers here are entitled to qualified immunity because the law was not clearly established at the time of the traffic stop.

“Our analysis involves two distinct steps,” said the Court of Appeals. “Police officers are not entitled to qualified immunity if (1) the facts taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury show that the officers’ conduct violated a constitutional right, and (2) the right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation.”

  1. Violation of a Constitutional Right.

The Court reasoned that Officer Copeland’s use of force in arresting Thompson was not objectively reasonable. Officer Copeland pointed the gun at Thompson’s head and threatened to kill him if he did not surrender. This type and amount of force can hardly be characterized as minor, reasoned the Court. Furthermore, Thompson had no weapon and had already been searched. He was sitting on the bumper of a squad car, watched over by an armed deputy. He was not actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by
flight.

“Reviewing the totality of the circumstances, the force used against Thompson was excessive when balanced against the government’s need for such force. In the end, pointing guns at persons who are compliant and present no danger is a constitutional violation.”

         2. No Clearly Established Right.

Here, the Court reasoned that although the use of excessive force violated Thompson’s constitutional rights, Officer Copeland is entitled to qualified immunity because Thompson’s right not to have a gun pointed at him under the circumstances here was not clearly established at the time the events took place.

“Looking to the particular setup here, we cannot say that every reasonable officer in Copeland’s position would have known that he was violating the constitution by pointing a gun at Thompson,” said the Court of Appeals. “Thompson’s nighttime, felony arrest arising from an automobile stop, in which a gun was found, coupled with a fluid, dangerous situation, distinguishes this case from our earlier precedent.”

The Court reasoned that, more specifically, Copeland was conducting a felony arrest at night of a suspect who was not handcuffed, stood six feet tall and weighed two hundred and sixty-five pounds, was taller and heavier than Copeland, and had a prior felony conviction for unlawfully possessing a firearm. “Although Thompson was cooperative, the situation was still critical in terms of potential danger to the officers, especially given that a loaded gun was only 10–15 feet away,” said the Court. “Copeland did not violate a “clearly established” right as that concept has been elucidated by the Supreme Court in the excessive force context.”

The Court of Appeals concluded that because the law was not clearly established within the parameters dictated by the Supreme Court, Officer Copeland was entitled to qualified immunity. Therefore, the lower district court’s grant of summary judgment was AFFIRMED.

   3. Dissenting Opinion.

My opinion? Respectfully, I disagree with the Court of Appeals’ majority decision and agree with Justice Christen’s dissenting opinion.

“This decision squarely conflicts with the clear directive our court issued in Robinson v. Solano County, a case involving facts that, if distinguishable at all, posed a greater threat to officer safety,” said Justice Christen. Ultimately, she reasoned that Robinson recognized the critical distinction between pointing a gun at someone’s head and holding it in the “low ready” position.

“Deputy Copeland was justified in displaying some degree of force, but accepting the allegations in the complaint as true, he unquestionably used excessive force when he aimed his gun at Thompson’s head and threatened that if Thompson moved, he’d be dead.,” said Justice Christen. “Because that rule was clearly established long before Thompson was arrested, I respectfully dissent.”

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member believe police used excessive force in any given situation. Police officers have difficult tasks. In recent years, however, the use of force by police officers making traffic stops has flared into a national debate of renewed importance. It’s imperative to seek legal counsel with knowledge and competence in this debate, and who may recover damages from the police officer’s liability.

Forced & Warrantless Entry

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In Bonivert v. City of Clarkston, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that police officers responding to a “physical domestic” call violated the Fourth Amendment by entering the locked house without a warrant after the suspect, who was the lone occupant of the home by the time the police arrived, refused repeated requests to come to the door. Under the facts of the case, the forced entry could not be upheld under consent, emergency doctrine or exigent circumstances.

BACKGROUND FACTS

This case starts with a domestic dispute call to the police from the home of Ryan Bonivert. During an evening gathering with friends, Bonivert reportedly argued with his girlfriend, Jessie Ausman, when she attempted to leave with the couple’s nine-month old daughter. By the time police arrived, the disturbance was over: Ausman, the baby, and the guests had safely departed the home, leaving Bonivert alone inside. At that point, there was no indication that Bonivert had a weapon or posed a danger to himself or others. Nor does the record suggest that Ausman intended to reenter the house or otherwise asked police to accompany her inside. When Bonivert failed to respond to repeated requests to come to the door, the officers decided they needed to enter the house. No attempt was made to obtain a search warrant.

Though Bonivert locked the door to his house and refused police entreaties to talk with them, the police broke a window to unlock and partially enter the back door. Even then, Bonivert tried to shut the door, albeit unsuccessfully. Although Ausman consented to the officers entering the house, Bonivert’s actions were express—stay out.

Nevertheless, the officers forced their way in, throwing Bonivert to the ground, and then drive-stunned him with a taser several times, handcuffed him, and arrested him. Bonivert was arrested for assaulting an officer, resisting arrest, and domestic violence assault in the fourth degree.

Bonivert brought civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City, the County, Combs, Purcell, Gary Synder, and Joseph Synder, alleging warrantless entry and excessive force in violation of Bonivert’s constitutional rights. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on the basis of qualified immunity.

For those who don’t know, qualified immunity protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff’s rights. It only allows suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right. When determining whether or not a right was “clearly established,” courts consider whether a hypothetical reasonable official would have known that the defendant’s conduct violated the plaintiff’s rights.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

In short, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the warrantless entry into Bonivert’s home violated the Fourth Amendment as none of the lawful exceptions to the warrant requirement applied. The officers are not entitled to qualified immunity.

The Police Officers Were Not Entitled to Qualified Immunity.

The Court reasoned that police officers are not entitled to qualified immunity if (1) the facts taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury show that the defendants’ conduct violated a constitutional right and (2) the right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation.

In other words, the question is whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.

Fourth Amendment

The Court of Appeals explained that the Fourth Amendment protects the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“It has long been recognized that the physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed,” reasoned the Court. “This special protection of the home as the center of the private lives of our people reflects an ardent belief in the ancient adage that a man’s house is his castle to the point that the poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown.” Consequently, the Court reasoned it is a basic principle of Fourth Amendment law that warrantless searches of the home or the curtilage surrounding the home are presumptively unreasonable.

“Taken in the light most favorable to Bonivert,  . . . the facts demonstrate that the officers violated Bonivert’s constitutional right because no exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement justified the officers’ entry into Bonivert’s home.”

Warrantless Entry: Officer are Not Entitled to Entry Under the “Consent” Exception.

The Court explained that although the consent exception ordinarily permits warrantless entry where officers have obtained consent to enter from a third party who has common authority over the premises, Georgia v. Randolph held that an occupant’s consent to a warrantless search of a residence is unreasonable as to a co-occupant who is physically present and objects to the search.

“Such is the situation here,” said the Court of Appeals. “Even though the officers secured
Ausman’s (his girlfriend’s) consent, Bonivert was physically present inside and expressly refused to permit the officers to enter on two different occasions.”

The court explained that Bonivert expressly refused entry when he locked the side door to his house. During the initial “knock and talk,” Combs and Purcell knocked and attempted to open the front and back doors to the house, but found them to be locked. As the officers circled the house to approach the side door, Bonivert realized it was unlocked and locked it as Combs was approaching. Combs heard the door lock and informed Purcell.

Bonivert also expressly refused entry when he attempted to close the back door on the officers after Combs broke in. Once the officers decided to enter the home by force, Combs used his flashlight to shatter a window pane in the back door, reached through the opening, and unlocked the door. At that point, Bonivert partially opened the door and confronted the officers, which prompted the officers to fire their tasers in dart mode. All parties agree that after the darts failed to make contact, Bonivert tried to shut the door, placing it between himself and the officers, but ultimately was prevented from doing so when Officer Combs rushed through with such force that he threw Bonivert to the other side of the room.

“Based on the foregoing, we hold that the officers are not entitled to qualified immunity under the consent exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Simply put, a reasonable officer would have understood that no means no.”

Warrantless Entry: Officers Are Not Entitled to Entry Under the “Emergency” Exception.

The Court reasoned that the emergency aid exception permits law enforcement officers to enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.  An entry pursuant to the emergency aid exception is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, regardless of the individual officer’s state of mind, as long as the circumstances, viewed objectively, justify the action. However, the police bear a heavy burden when attempting to demonstrate an urgent need that might justify warrantless searches or arrests, because the emergency exception is narrow and rigorously guarded.

“Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Bonivert, there were simply no circumstances pointing to an actual or imminent injury inside the home,” said the Court. By the time the officers arrived, both Ausman and the child were safely outside, surrounded by four other adults intent on protecting them from harm. During the entire time that the officers spoke to the witnesses, circled and attempted to enter the home from various points, and called on Deputies Gary and Joseph Snyder for backup, the house was silent. Ausman further assured the officers that there were no weapons in the house and that Bonivert did not pose a danger to himself. Consequently, the Court rejected arguments that an emergency existed which allowed warrantless entry into the house.

Warrantless Entry: Officers Are Not Entitled to Entry Under the “Exigent Circumstances” Exception.

The Court explained that the exigency exception permits warrantless entry where officers have both probable cause to believe that a crime has been or is being committed and a reasonable belief that their entry is necessary to prevent the destruction of relevant evidence, the escape of the suspect, or some other consequence improperly frustrating legitimate law enforcement efforts.

Here, the Court reasoned that Bonivert, who was inside his home when the alleged domestic assault occurred and remained there even after the officers broke into his back door, was never a “fleeing suspect.” The officers never articulated any other legitimate law enforcement justification for entry under the exigency exception.

The Lower Court Improperly Denied Bonivart’s Excessive Force Claims.

Taken in the light most favorable to Bonivert, the evidence reflects that Bonivert remained inside the home at all times; that Bonivert did not threaten or advance toward the officers; that Bonivert posed no immediate threat to the officers; that Combs threw Bonivert across the back room; that Bonivert did not resist arrest; and that Combs tasered Bonivert several times in drive-stun mode notwithstanding Bonivert’s compliance. The evidence does not justify the district court’s conclusion that “no reasonable jury could find the use of force within the home excessive.

With that, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds on the Fourth Amendment claims for unlawful entry
and excessive force.

Excellent decision.

Prosecutors Use Body Camera Evidence

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Interesting feature from  a correspondent for NPR who covers law enforcement and privacy issues. In this feature, he discusses how police body cameras are becoming key tools for prosecutors.

This year, police body cameras made the transition from experimental tech to standard equipment. Sales exploded after the 2014 Ferguson protests as police departments scrambled to refute claims of abuse. Now the cameras have become routine, but they’re not making a significant dent in the number of people shot and killed by police.

In this feauture from Weekend Edition Sunday, Kaste described how body cameras have become a standard piece of equipment for the criminal justice system.

“Prosecutors now use them far more often than – for police accountability, prosecutors are using it to make cases against defendants, against members of the public who are charged with crimes,” said Kaste. He also described how a survey last year conducted by George Mason University showed that prosecutors were far more likely to have used video to prosecute a member of the public than to use the video to prosecute a police officer.

“What we have really is technology that quickly became sort of required for prosecution in general,” said Mr. Kaste. “Juries now expect it, and the police in the field kind of feel the pressure to get video of themselves finding evidence.”

Kaste answered questions on whether citizens can use body camera video to support their own claims of police abuse.

“There’s no national standard on that, and that’s becoming more and more of a bone of contention,” he said. “In a lot of places, it’s considered a public record and you can request it. But a lot of cases, you don’t get to see the video because the case is under investigation, and that kind of puts it in limbo. Or, in places like California, Police departments have cited officer privacy. They kind of almost view it as a personnel record or something, and it takes a lot to get the video out,” said Mr. Kaste.

” . . . it’s gotten to the point where at least one academic I talked to this year said we should rethink the whole system and start giving the video to a third party to control, not to the police department.”

My opinion? Ultimately body-worn cameras (BWC’s) are a good thing. They provide non-objective evidence of what really happened instead of forcing us to rely on people’s stories. However, I agree with Mr. Kaste in his argument that obtaining the video is oftentimes difficult. It makes no sense that BWC evidence is released by the very same police departments that it’s made to scrutinize. This is the fox guarding the hen house. Consequently, attorneys must be incredibly careful, diligent and consistent on arguing public disclosure requests and motions to obtain pretrial discovery of this evidence.

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member faces criminal charges involving BWC evidence. Although it might work in a defendant’s favor, the evidence can be suppressed if it’s unfairly prejudicial against defendants under the rules of evidence.

 

I-940 & Police Misconduct

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Wonderful article by  of the Seattle Times  reports that Initiative 940 (I-940) gives an opportunity to prosecute police for deadly shootings in Washington state.

With Thursday’s expected delivery of signatures for Initiative 940, years of debate and stalemate over Washington’s deadly-force law look to be coming to a head. If I-940 qualifies, state lawmakers — and probably ultimately voters — will face big decisions on a charged issue.

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De-Escalate Washington

De-Escalate Washington didn’t just pull together the bare-bones 260,000 signatures for I-940, which would make it easier to prosecute law-enforcement officers for alleged misuse of deadly force. The group hopes to turn in about 360,000 signatures Thursday to the Washington Secretary of State’s office, according to Leslie Cushman, the group’s policy director.

In his article, O’Sullivan reports that community advocates have argued Washington’s law — considered the nation’s most restrictive for holding officers accountable for unjustified use of deadly force — is overdue for a change. Right now, an officer can’t be convicted of a crime for using deadly force if he or she acted in good faith and without malice, or what the law calls “evil intent.” That makes it nearly impossible for prosecutors to bring criminal charges even if they find an officer committed a wrongful killing, according to a 2015 report by The Seattle Times.

I-940 would change the law to a more detailed, multipart threshold that considers what a “reasonable officer” might have done under the circumstances. It would also take into account an officer’s intentions to determine if she or he acted in good faith.

The initiative also requires more de-escalation and mental-health training for law- enforcement officers.

O’Sullivan also writes that the effort comes on the heels of high-profile shootings including the deaths in Seattle of Che Taylor and Charleena Lyles by white officers of African Americans and other minorities in recent years have underscored concerns about law enforcement.

Family members of several victims of police shootings have been involved in the campaign, including Che’s brother Andrè, who chairs De-Escalate Washington.

Law Enforcement Response to I-940

O’Sullivan reports that law-enforcement groups have protested changes to the deadly-force statute. They say the new legal standard could prompt officers to hesitate in ways that could endanger themselves and others.

 “Unfortunately, this initiative will not do anything to reduce violent interactions between law enforcement and the public,” said Teresa Taylor, executive director for the Washington Council of Police & Sheriffs, which represents more than 4,300 law- enforcement officers.
However, success in the legislative session that begins in January appears unlikely. Lawmakers this year couldn’t find a compromise that satisfied both law enforcement and community activists.
My opinion? I-940 is a step in the right direction. And it’s about time. Police misconduct is a hot-button issue. Granted, being a police officer is a very difficult job. Officers make difficult judgment calls in very complex, risky and dangerous situations. That said, officers need training on diffusing situations which don’t necessarily rise to public safety and/or officer safety risks. I-940 is not made to put police in jail for doing their jobs. It’s made to foster public trust, train officers in de-esclating their contacts with citizens and avoid unnecessary shooting deaths.

The Feds on Crime Under Jeff Sessions

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 of the Washington Post describes the dramatic and controversial changes in policy Jeff Sessions has made since becoming the Attorney General under President Trump months ago.
“From his crackdown on illegal immigration to his reversal of Obama administration policies on criminal justice and policing, Sessions is methodically reshaping the Justice Department to reflect his nationalist ideology and hard-line views — moves drawing comparatively less public scrutiny than the ongoing investigations into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin.”
Apprently, Sessions has even adjusted the department’s legal stances in cases involving voting rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in a way that advocates warn might disenfranchise poor minorities and give certain religious people a license to discriminate.
“The Attorney General is committed to rebuilding a Justice Department that respects the rule of law and separation of powers,” Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said in a statement, adding, “It is often our most vulnerable communities that are most impacted and victimized by the scourge of drug trafficking and the accompanying violent crime.”

Immigration
Zapotsky and Horwitz write that unlike past attorneys general, Sessions has been especially aggressive on immigration. He served as the public face of the administration’s rolling back of a program that granted a reprieve from deportation to people who had come here without documentation as children, and he directed federal prosecutors to make illegal-immigration cases a higher priority. The attorney general has long held the view that the United States should even reduce the number of those immigrating here legally.

Zapotsky and Horwitz said that in an interview with Breitbart News in 2015, then-Sen. Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke favorably of a 1924 law that excluded all immigrants from Asia and set strict caps on others.

“When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and Congress changed the policy and it slowed down immigration significantly,” Sessions said. “We then assimilated through 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America, with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America.”

According to Zapotsky and Horwitz, Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division in the Obama administration who now works as chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Sessions seems to harbor an “unwillingness to recognize the history of this country is rooted in immigration.”

“On issue after issue, it’s very easy to see what his worldview is of what this country is and who belongs in this country,” she said, adding that his view is “distinctly anti-immigrant.”

 

Police Oversight & Sentencing

Zapotsky and Horwitz write that questions about Sessions’s attitudes toward race and nationality have swirled around him since a Republican-led Senate committee in 1986 rejected his nomination by President Ronald Reagan for a federal judgeship, amid allegations of racism. In January, his confirmation hearing to become attorney general turned bitter when, for the first time, a sitting senator, Cory Booker (D-N.J.), testified against a colleague up for a Cabinet position. Booker said he did so because of Sessions’s record on civil rights.

Sessions ultimately won confirmation on a 52-to-47 vote, and he moved quickly to make the Justice Department his own. Two months into the job, he told the department’s lawyers to review police oversight agreements nationwide, currying favor with officers who often resent the imposition of such pacts but upsetting those who think they are necessary to force change.

Zapotsky and Horwitz also said that Sessions imposed a new charging and sentencing policy that critics on both sides of the aisle have said might disproportionately affect minority communities and hit low-level drug offenders with stiff sentences.

“Allies of Sessions say the policy is driven not by racial animus but by a desire to respond to increasing crime,” write Zapotsky and Horwitz. “The latest FBI crime data, for 2016, showed violent crimes were up 4.1 percent over the previous year and murders were up 8.6 percent — although crime remains at historically low levels. The Bureau of Prisons projects that — because of increased enforcement and prosecution efforts — the inmate population will increase by about 2 percent in fiscal 2018, according to a Justice Department inspector general report.”

Zapotsky and Horwitz wrote that Larry Thompson, who served as deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration and is a friend of Sessions, said that although he disagrees with the attorney general’s charging policy, he believes Sessions was “motivated by his belief that taking these violent offenders off the streets is the right way to address the public safety issues.”

Civil Rights & Hate Crimes

According to Zapotsy and Horwitz, Sessions’s moves to empower prosecutors have led to a concerted focus on hate-crimes prosecutions — a point his defenders say undercuts the notion that he is not interested in protecting the rights of minorities or other groups. Prosecutors have brought several such cases since he became attorney general and recently sent an attorney to Iowa to help the state prosecute a man who was charged with killing a gender-fluid 16-year-old high school student last year. The man was convicted of first-degree murder.

But while civil rights leaders praised his action in that case, Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that it “stands in stark contrast to his overall efforts” to roll back protections for transgender people.

Shortly after he became attorney general, Sessions revoked federal guidelines put in place by the Obama administration that specified that transgender students have the right to use public school restrooms that match their gender identity. In September, the Justice Department sided in a major upcoming Supreme Court case with a Colorado baker, Jack Phillips, who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because he said it would violate his religious beliefs.

Sessions recently issued 20 principles of guidance to executive-branch agencies about how the government should respect religious freedom, including allowing religious employers to hire only those whose conduct is consistent with their beliefs. About the same time, he reversed a three-year-old Justice Department policy that protected transgender people from workplace discrimination by private employers and state and local governments.

The Justice Department has similarly rolled back Obama administration positions in court cases over voting rights.

In February, the department dropped its stance that Texas intended to discriminate when it passed its law on voter identification. And in August, it sided with Ohio in its effort to purge thousands of people from its rolls for not voting in recent elections — drawing complaints from civil liberties advocates.

At a recent congressional hearing, Sessions said the department would “absolutely, resolutely defend the right of all Americans to vote, including our African American brothers and sisters.”

According to Zapotsky and Horwitz, critics say that Sessions’ record shows otherwise. “We are seeing a federal government that is pulling back from protecting vulnerable communities in every respect,” Clarke said. “That appears to be the pattern that we are seeing with this administration — an unwillingness to use their enforcement powers in ways that can come to the defense of groups who are otherwise powerless and voiceless.”

My opinion? Watching the actions of the feds – and especially the top federal prosecutor for the United States – gives us a litmus test which defines the shape of things to come on a more local level. The reason why it’s important to watch the movements of federal prosecutions is because they impress upon – and persuade – the priorities of state prosecutions.

Let’s see what happens.