Category Archives: law enforcement

Downtown Bellingham’s Loitering Problem: What’s the Answer?

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Excellent article by Kie Relyea of the Bellingham Herald discusses the problem of increased loitering in downtown Bellingham.

According to Relyea, downtown business owners are telling city leaders they need help. They’re tired of people sleeping in the doorways of their buildings, lighting fires in their alcoves, and having to clean up after those who leave behind stolen bicycles, trash, feces and drug paraphernalia such as used needles.

That, and a rise in antisocial behavior and unseemly loitering, is making some people who visit and work in downtown Bellingham feel unsafe.

Relyea reports that Bellingham residents reported feeling less safe when walking alone downtown during the day and night than previously, according to a recent survey of residents’ views about issues facing the community. The March 12 deadly shooting in downtown also raised a great deal of concern about safety downtown.

THE STATISTICS

According to Relyea, Bellingham Police Department statistics showed a nearly 2.5 percent increase in overall incidents from 2013 and 2016 in downtown – going from 3,688 to 3,778 responses that were both criminal and non-criminal in nature. For 2016 alone, 53 percent of the incidents police responded to in the downtown were non-criminal in nature.

Criminal incidents would be arrestable offenses such as assaults, robbery and rape. Non-criminal could include responding to people with mental problems, someone violating the sitting and lying ordinance, or someone who was drunk.

 

SOLUTIONS

Relyea reports that business owners want to help those who want to be helped. This means opening a bigger shelter for the homeless, getting them into housing, finding them jobs and helping people struggling with mental health and addiction.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said prevention was important to her, and the city spends up to $450,000 a year toward such efforts, including for the Homeless Outreach Team, community paramedic and intensive case management.

An upcoming project called Whatcom GRACE (for Ground-Level Response and Coordinated Engagement) also could help, by reaching out to those being called “familiar faces” – people who tend to fall through the cracks over and over, and who have a number of needs such as housing, behavioral health and substance abuse. They’re also the ones who come into contact with a number of organizations.

Apparently, police believe it’s a safety issue to not have people blocking sidewalks where there are pedestrians. However, the ACLU and homeless advocates said such laws target people who are visibly poor and homeless, and could be unconstitutional.

Bellingham Council member Michael Lilliquist gave his perspective:

“For some people, including myself, restricting and limiting people from sitting down is not a well-aimed tool. For one thing, sitting down is sometimes a perfectly fine and normal thing to do. In addition, our police tell me it is difficult to enforce and easy to avoid,” he said.

“For example, people can move just a little distance, such as where the alleyway or a driveway cuts through, and then they are technically not in violation because it is not a ‘sidewalk’ under the definition,” Lilliquist added. “It seems like a lot of work, and some hostility, to get at something that is not the heart of the problem.”

My opinion?

First, don’t criminalize homelessness. That’s not the answer, and only leads to violating people’s constitutional rights. Second, if anything, divert more resources to addressing mental health and substance abuse.

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.

SCOTUS Eliminates the “Provocation Rule”

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In  County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment provides no basis to uphold the Ninth Circuit’s “provocation rule,” a doctrine which makes officers liable for injuries caused by their use of force.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department received word from a confidential informant that a potentially armed and dangerous parolee-at-large had been seen at a certain residence. While other officers searched the main house, Deputies Conley and Pederson searched the back of the property where, unbeknownst to the deputies, respondents Mendez and Garcia were napping inside a shack where they lived.

Without a search warrant and without announcing their presence, the deputies opened the door of the shack. Mendez rose from the bed, holding a BB gun that he used to kill pests. Deputy Conley yelled, “Gun!” and the deputies immediately opened fire, shooting Mendez and Garcia multiple times.

Officers did not find the parolee in the shack or elsewhere on the property.

PLAINTIFF’S CIVIL RIGHTS CLAIMS

For those who don’t know, the “Provocation Rule” holds that if a police officer recklessly promotes a potentially violent confrontation with a Fourth Amendment violation, the officer is liable for any injury caused by a subsequent use of force that results from that confrontation, even if the use of force itself was reasonable.

Armed with the “Provocation Rule,” Mendez and Garcia sued the police deputies and the County under 42 U. S. C. §1983. They advanced three Fourth Amendment claims: a warrantless entry claim, a knock-and-announce claim, and an excessive force claim. On the first two claims, the Federal District Court awarded Mendez and Garcia nominal damages. On the excessive force claim, the court found that the deputies’ use of force was reasonable, but held them liable nonetheless under the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule, which makes an officer’s otherwise reasonable use of force unreasonable if (1) the officer “intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation” and (2) “the provocation is an independent Fourth Amendment violation,.

The Government appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on the knock-and-announce claim and that the warrantless entry violated clearly established law. It also affirmed the District Court’s application of the provocation rule, and held, in the alternative, that basic notions of proximate cause would support liability even without the provocation rule.

The Government appealed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling to the U.S Supreme Court.

COURT’S ANALYSIS

In short, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment offers no basis for the Ninth Circuit’s “provocation rule.” It reasoned that the rule is incompatible with this Court’s excessive force jurisprudence, which sets forth a settled and exclusive framework for analyzing whether the force used in making a seizure complies with the Fourth Amendment. The Court reasoned that the legal issue is “whether the totality of the circumstances justifies a particular sort of search or seizure.” Tennessee v. Garner.

The Court reasoned that the provocation rule instructs courts to look back in time to see if a different Fourth Amendment violation was somehow tied to the eventual use of force. Problematically, this approach that mistakenly conflates distinct Fourth Amendment claims. To the extent that a plaintiff has other Fourth Amendment claims, they should be analyzed separately.

“The Ninth Circuit attempts to cabin the provocation rule by defining a two-prong test: First, the separate constitutional violation must “create a situation which led to” the use of force; and second, the separate constitutional violation must be committed recklessly or intentionally,” said the Court.

The U.S. Supreme thought this approach was mistaken. First, the rule relies on a vague causal standard. Second, while the reasonableness of a search or seizure is almost always based on objective factors, the provocation rule looks to the subjective intent of the officers who carried out the seizure:

“There is no need to distort the excessive force inquiry in this way in order to hold law enforcement officers liable for the foreseeable consequences of all their constitutional torts.”

Plaintiffs can, subject to qualified immunity, generally recover damages that are proximately caused by any Fourth Amendment violation. Here, reasoned the Court, if respondents cannot recover on their excessive force claim, that will not stop them from recovering for injuries proximately caused by the warrantless entry.

“The Ninth Circuit’s proximate-cause holding is similarly tainted,” said the Court. Its focuses solely on the risks foreseeably associated with the failure to knock and announce—the claim on which the court concluded that the deputies had qualified immunity—rather than the warrantless entry.

My opinion? I concur with  blogger Radley Balko’s insights on this. He blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post, and says the following:

“The cops, on the other hand, engaged in some incredibly sloppy policing that nearly got someone killed. They violated the Mendezes’ Fourth Amendment rights not once, but twice. Then they filled the couple with bullets after they mistook Angel Mendez’s reach for his pellet gun as a threat. Angel Mendez was shot five times, and lost his right leg below the knee. Jennifer Mendez was shot in the back. That was 6½ years ago. They still haven’t seen a dime. And after Tuesday’s ruling, it seems unlikely that they ever will.”

Exactly.

Seattle Allows Filming Cops

 

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Great article in the Seattle Times by Daniel Beekman discusses how Seattle’s City Council voted Monday to enshrine in the Seattle Municipal Code the rights of the public to observe, record and criticize police activity without fear of retaliation.

 The only exceptions are when an observer hinders, delays or compromises legitimate police activity, threatens someone’s safety or attempts to incite other people to violence, according to the ordinance sponsored by Councilmember Lisa Herbold.

The First Amendment can offer protections to members of the public when they watch and record police. And a Seattle Police Department policy adopted in 2008 says bystanders may remain nearby and record the incident as long as they don’t interfere.

So, people already were allowed to watch and record police in Seattle. But the council’s vote means the rights of police observers are now recognized in city law.

According to Beekman, the ordinance says officers should assume members of the public are observing and possibly recording their work at all times. Councilmember Herbold initially proposed the change last year, pointing to high-profile shootings that was recorded by bystanders.

 “The value of video and audio recordings by the public is keenly evident from the recordings in 2016 of the deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge … and law-enforcement officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge,” the ordinance says.

Across the country, smartphones are helping regular people hold their police departments accountable. But people watching, recording and criticizing officers have in some instances been arrested, according to a council memo.

Though Seattle police are recorded by patrol-car cameras and are being outfitted with body-worn cameras, civilian recordings are still important, Herbold said Monday.

My opinion? Wonderful! I’ve had many Clients complain that their attempts to record interactions with police result in their cameras being confiscated and being slapped with charges of Obstructing and Resisting police.

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: recording interactions between police and citizens makes everyone behave better and shows proof of what really happened. Kudos to the Seattle City Council.

State v. Armstrong: Prosecutor Not Obligated to Bring Video Evidence

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Some Clients are concerned why can’t make the Prosecution obtain video surveillance evidence from crime scenes. This recent case explains why.

In State v. Armstrong, the WA Supreme Court held that the Prosecutor’s failure to obtain a copy of the AM/PM store’s surveillance video prior to the store’s destruction of the video pursuant to the store’s policy, did not violate the defendant’s due process rights.

FACTS & BACKGROUND

A no-contact order existed prohibiting Defendant Dennis Armstrong from contacting his former partner, Nadia Karavan. Nonetheless, on April 20, 2014, they agreed to meet at a bus stop in violation of the No-Contact Order. As the two talked, Armstrong became angry. He yelled and hit the wall of the bus stop shelter. Armstrong then hit Karavan twice in the face with an open fist.

After a brief struggle, Karavan ran to a nearby AM/PM gas station, and Armstrong followed her. According to the store clerk, Todd Hawkins, the two exchanged words. Armstrong followed Karavan around the store for several minutes, and Karavan asked Hawkins to call the police several times. When Hawkins finally called the police, Armstrong left the store.

Officers responded to the 911 call. Officer Martin noticed that Karavan had a slightly swollen, red abrasion on the side of her face.

Armstrong denied spending time inside the AM/PM. In response, the officers told Armstrong that surveillance video from the AM/PM would show what really happened. The officers repeatedly emphasized the video and told Armstrong that he should “tell the truth” because they had the “whole thing on video.”

The State charged Armstrong with a domestic violence felony violation of a court order.

Before trial and again during trial, Armstrong moved to discharge his counsel. One of his reasons was that counsel failed to give him the surveillance video as he requested. The prosecutor told the court that the State had never possessed the video. The court denied Armstrong’s motions.

At trial, Hawkins (the AM/PM employee) testified that there were about 16 cameras around the store: a few of which covered the gas pumps and one that may have shown a slight, low view shot of the bus stop. Although Hawkins testified that police had requested surveillance video from AM/PM in the past, no officer requested footage from the night of this incident. Hawkins had previously reviewed the video from that night and testified that it showed what he described in his testimony, but per AM/PM policy, the video had since been destroyed.

At trial, the officers gave various reasons why they never collected the video. Officer Martin testified that she heard Officer Elliot ask about the video, but she assumed it was the responsibility of someone else at the scene to investigate the video. Officer Rodriguez testified that he never viewed the video. He simply followed Officer Elliot’s lead when the two were questioning Armstrong. Officer Elliot was unavailable to testify at trial. Detective Rande Christiansen, who had been assigned to do the follow-up investigation on the case, testified that he did not investigate any video from the AM/PM because he did not know such video existed.

The jury returned a general guilty verdict despite the lack of surveillance video evidence.

On appeal – and with other arguments, Armstrong claimed that the police violated his right to due process because they failed to collect video surveillance from the AM/PM after using that video as a tool when interviewing Armstrong at the scene.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS.

Ultimately, the Court held that Armstrong failed to show that the police acted in bad faith when they did not collect video surveillance that was only potentially useful evidence.

The Court reasoned that under the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal constitution, criminal prosecutions must conform with prevailing notions of fundamental fairness, and criminal defendants must have a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense. Consequently, the prosecution has a duty to disclose material exculpatory evidence to the defense and a related duty to preserve such evidence for use by the defense.

The court also reasoned that although the State is required to preserve all potentially material and favorable evidence, this rule does not require police to search for exculpatory evidence. And in order to be material exculpatory evidence – that is, evidence which has value to the defense of which can alter or shift a fact-finder’s decision on guilt or innocence – the evidence must both possess an exculpatory value that was apparent before it was destroyed and be of such a nature that the defendant would be unable to obtain comparable evidence by other reasonably available means.

Finally, the court reasoned that the police’s failure to preserve “potentially useful evidence” was not a denial of due process unless the suspect can show bad faith by the State. The presence or absence of bad faith turns on the police’s knowledge of the exculpatory value of the evidence at the time it was lost or destroyed. Also, acting in compliance with its established policy regarding the evidence at issue is determinative of the State’s good faith.

“Armstrong asserts that the video surveillance was potentially useful evidence,” said the Court. “Therefore, he must show that the police acted in bad faith.” According to Armstrong, the police acted in bad faith because they told him during the interview that they were going to collect the video but they never actually collected it. Armstrong describes this as the police acting with an “extreme cavalier attitude” toward preserving potentially useful evidence. The Court further reasoned that beyond this failure to collect the video, Armstrong offers no evidence of bad faith, such as improper motive.

“Armstrong has failed to show that the police acted in bad faith when they failed to collect the surveillance video from the AM/PM. The testimony of the officers indicates that the video went uncollected due to mere oversight. Armstrong has presented no evidence that the police had an improper motive. At most, Armstrong has shown that the investigation was incomplete or perhaps negligently conducted, but that is not enough to show bad faith.”

With that, the Court upheld his conviction.

My opinion? I understand the Court’s opinion insofar as the Prosecution should not be burdened with providing exculpatory evidence, especially if that evidence is unimportant – or not material – to the larger issues of guilt.

However, I would object to the AM/PM employee  discussing the  video as facts that are not admitted into evidence. Under this objection when the attorney claims that “the question assumes facts not in evidence,” what he is really saying is that the facts that are being presented to the witness are presumably not yet in evidence and therefore, how can this witness properly answer the question if those facts have not been put before this jury? These kinds of questions

Students, Not Suspects

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Interesting article by Claudia Rowe of the Seattle Times describes a report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) saying says that police officers patrolling school hallways brings significant costs to the learning environment and finances of our schools.

“We were surprised by the degree to which officers have almost unfettered ability to enforce in school discipline,” said Vanessa Hernandez, youth policy director at the ACLU who wrote the “Students Not Suspects” report. “That’s a pretty dangerous road to go down, to have student discipline in an educational environment handed to a law enforcement agent, and it really sends a troubling message to students about how we perceive them.” The advocacy organization examined data from the 2013-14 through 2015-16 school years in more than 100 districts.

National data show a strong correlation between placing officers in schools and increased youth referrals to the criminal justice system. And in Washington, state law makes it a misdemeanor to cause a disturbance within school walls. “Any student misbehavior — from talking back to a teacher, to making an off-color joke, to throwing spitballs — could be treated like a crime,” Hernandez said.

Thirty years ago, few schools used police to respond to misbehavior. But in recent decades the number of officers patrolling the halls has ballooned — from fewer than 100 nationally in the late 1980s, to an estimated 17,000 today. Yet no state agency systematically tracks police in schools, or the impact on students. Most commonly, officers are contract employees who report to their police departments, not district administrators.

In Washington, Hernandez added, at least 3,400 kids were either arrested on campus or referred to law enforcement for prosecution during in the 2013-14 school year, which is the most recent data available.

In a time when state lawmakers are wrestling with a multibillion dollar hole in funding for education, schools are spending millions on police officers, the report found.

Seventeen districts pay the entire cost of their school police, covering salaries, benefits and even, in two cases, leasing patrol cars. On average, schools contribute about $62,000 annually for each full-time officer, and up to $125,000 at the high end.

 That adds up fast in districts that use officers in multiple schools. Spokane, for example, paid more than $1 million for school officers during the 2014-15 school year, the report says. And Kent — which is facing an $18 million budget hole — spent almost $500,000 in 2015-16. (Seattle’s school police officers are covered by the city, not the school district budget.)

Other approaches, like restorative justice and trauma-informed teaching, have been shown to reduce disciplinary incidents by addressing the underlying causes of misbehavior, and the ACLU suggests that money for police might be better spent on school psychologists, social workers or teaching assistants.

Yet momentum has moved in the opposite direction. Nationally, 24 percent of elementary schools and 42 percent of middle- and high schools routinely hire police officers, according to the report.

But not all schools have police officers. In high-poverty schools — whether urban or rural — police are a much more routine presence. In small-town Walla Walla, for example, the alternative school where 80 percent of kids are low-income, has an officer. But the regular comprehensive high school, where only 45 percent of students are low-income, does not. Even the tiny Liberty district, with about 450 students, has a police officer on staff, the ACLU found.

Backpage.com Evidence Admitted at Trial as “Business Record.”

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In State v. Butler, the WA Court of Appeals decided a trial court rightfully admitted business records connecting showing the defendant used Backpage.com to facilitate the commercial sexual abuse of a minor because the State’s failure to provide the written notice of the evidence did not prejudice the defendant, who was given the business records months before trial.

BACKGROUND FACTS

N.C. was 14 years old when she first met 22-year-old defendant Ivory Butler. One day, N.C. skipped school and spent the day with Butler. N.C.’s mother found out she had skipped school and punished her. N.C. ran away from home, and Butler picked her up. He took her to a motel room and arranged for her to meet men at the motel for sex. She gave the money she received to Butler. N.C. continued selling sexual services and giving the money to Butler.

Detective Raymond Unsworth found Internet ads on Backpage.com for female escort services with Butler’s phone number listed as the contact number. The ads included photographs of the body, but not the face, of a young woman. The ads alluded to sexual services that would be provided, with the prices that would be charged.

An undercover detective responded to the Backpage ads by contacting Butler’s phone number. The detective, posing as a customer, arranged to obtain sexual services for $300 from a woman in room 201 of the New Horizon Motel. Police found N.C. in that room, together with a disposable cellphone under the mattress, condoms in a Crown Royal bag, and a knife in the bedside table drawer.

In Butler’s phone, the contact name assigned to the disposable phone found in the motel room was “Money Baby Money Baby.” Text messages between Butler’s phone and the disposable phone found in the motel room included details about providing sexual services for money. The messages also included instructions from Butler to N.C. to discard the phone in the toilet if the police came. Butler was arrested and charged under RCW 9.68A.101 with promoting commercial sexual abuse of a minor.

The Trial Exhibits

At trial, the State sought to admit three exhibits. Exhibits #3 and #4 relate to Backpage ads for escort services. Exhibit #5 was the certification from the Backpage records custodian. Detective Unsworth testified that he found the ads on Backpage’s public website. Each ad included photographs of a young woman, information about the sexual services that could be provided, the price, and Butler’s telephone number as the contact.

Exhibits #3 and #4 compiled the ads that were online, more photographs that Detective Unsworth had not seen online, the date each ad was posted, and the poster’s fictitious name, mailing address, and e-mail address. Backpage provided the certification from its records custodian in response to a search warrant for business records.

The State provided these exhibits to Butler months before trial as part of discovery. The trial court admitted the exhibits over Butler’s objection.

The jury found Butler guilty as charged. On Appeal, Butler argues the Exhibits #3, #4 and #5 were wrongfully admitted.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND DECISION

Butler argues Exhibits #3, #4 and #5 were inadmissible because the State did not give proper notice under RCW 10.96.030(3). This statute contains an exception to the general rule requiring witness testimony to admit business records. To ensure the opposing party has a fair opportunity to challenge the business records and certification, the statute provides in part:

“A party intending to offer a record into evidence under this section must provide written notice of that intention to all adverse parties, and must make the record and affidavit, declaration, or certification available for inspection sufficiently in advance of their offer into evidence to provide an adverse party with a fair opportunity to challenge them.”

The court reasoned that approaching these issues is similar to approaching the child hearsay rule: basically, cases addressing the child hearsay statute have upheld the admission of statements without prior notice “so long as the adverse party had or was offered an opportunity to prepare to challenge the statements.”

Here, Butler argued the State was required to provide a separate written notice to inform him that it intended to rely on RCW 10.96.030 for admission of the business records. But months before trial, the State provided the certification of the Backpage records custodian, together with the Backpage business records. Mid-trial, the State also offered to produce the custodian for live testimony and a defense interview. This allowed Butler ample opportunity to prepare to challenge the records. With that, the Court denied Butler’s arguments:

“Consistent with the cases addressing the child hearsay statute, we conclude the lack of written notice required by RCW 10.96.030 did not cause any prejudice to Butler. He had ample opportunity to prepare to challenge the business records when the State provided all of the proposed business records and the certification from the records custodian months prior to trial.”

Moreover, the Court reasoned that the State offered to call the records custodian as a witness and to allow Butler to interview the custodian. However, Butler declined to request a continuance to interview the witness.

Finally, the Court of appeals rejected arguments that the Backpage ads bolstered N.C.’s testimony tying Butler to the Backpage evidence. The Court reasoned that even without the admission of the Backpage ads, overwhelming evidence links Butler to his exploitation of N.C.:

“The physical evidence, text messages, jail phone calls, testimony from N.C., and successful undercover sting operation provide overwhelming evidence that Butler promoted the prostitution of N.C.”

Consequently, the Court concluded that the lack of written notice required by RCW 10.96.030 did not cause prejudice to Butler. Overwhelming evidence supported Butler’s guilt.

State v. Froehrich: Unlawful Inventory Search

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In State v. Froehlich, the WA Court of Appeals Division II upheld the suppression of methampetamine found in a vehicle because the defendant’s car was unlawfully searched.

BACKGROUND

Ms. Froehlich was driving her car. She collided with a pickup truck waiting at a stop sign. After the collision, the car came to rest on the right shoulder of the highway. It was not obstructing traffic. A Washington State Patrol Trooper arrived at the scene. By this time, Froehlich was seated in the pickup truck that she had hit.

Ms. Froehlich eventually left the scene in an ambulance after talking with police at the scene. One trooper followed her to the hospital to do sobriety testing, and she was not arrested. However, the trooper at the scene of the accident decided to impound her car. At the scene, he performed an inventory search of the vehicle which also included the search of Froerich’s purse which she left inside the car. He found methamphetamine.

Ms. Froehrich was charged with Unlawful Possession of a Controlled Substance With Intent to Manufacture or Deliver. Froehlich filed a motion to suppress the methamphetamine, arguing in part that the Trooper had no reason to impound the car and failed to consider reasonable alternatives to impoundment. The trial court granted the motion, suppressed the evidence and ultimately dismissed the charges. The State appealed.

ANALYSIS

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that the impoundment was not lawful and therefore the search was not lawful because (1) under the community caretaking exception, the State did not prove that the impounding officer considered whether Froehlich, her spouse, or her friends were available to remove the vehicle; and (2) even though there was statutory authority for impoundment, the State failed to prove that the impounding officer considered all reasonable alternatives.

The Court reasoned that both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution prohibit warrantless searches unless an exceptions to the warrant requirement applies. One exception to the warrant requirement is a non-investigatory, good faith inventory search of an impounded vehicle. Law enforcement may lawfully impound a vehicle for three reasons: (1) as evidence of a crime, (2) under the community caretaking function, or (3) when the driver has committed a traffic offense for which the legislature has expressly authorized impoundment. Even if one of these reasons exists, however, an officer may impound a vehicle only if there are no reasonable alternatives.

Here, the Trooper’s impoundment of Froehlich’s car was not lawful under the community caretaking function because there were reasonable alternatives to impoundment. Here, the Trooper never asked Froehlich about arranging to have someone else remove the car as an alternative to impoundment, and the State presented no evidence that the Trooper considered Froehlich’s ability to arrange for the car’s removal.

CONCLUSION

Because Richardson unlawfully impounded the vehicle, his seizure of methamphetamine from Froehlich’s purse was unlawful.

My opinion? Good decision. Very simple, straightforward and correct analysis. As usual, I’m extremely impressed with Division II’s handling of search and seizure issues, especially when it comes to vehicle searches. Here, it’s clear that police officers cannot go about impounding people’s vehicles and searching through belongings when reasonable legal alternatives exist.

DUI: Men vs. Women

Image result for Drunk women and men

Great news article from the Bellingham Herald discusses the physiological differences in alcohol impairment levels experienced between men and women.

In Who Gets Arrested More for DUI: Men or Women?,  author Doug Dahl states that over the past couple decades, alcohol-impaired driving has steadily been decreasing, however, the reduction in impaired driving doesn’t apply to women. Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force.

Apparently, in a recent 10-year period, DUI arrests for men decreased by 7.5 percent while DUI arrests for women increased by 28.8 percent.

“According to the CDC, the average weight of an American man is 196 pounds, while the average American woman weighs 166 pounds,” said Dahl.  “Also, because of differences in enzymes, hormones and body fat percentages between men and women, women generally metabolize alcohol at a slower rate.” Simply put, says Dahl, women get drunk faster and stay drunk longer than men:

“To be clear, both of our imaginary people in this example shouldn’t drive. A BAC of .06 will cause impairment. It’s a big enough concern that legislators in some states, including Washington, have proposed reducing the legal limit to .05.”

Mr. Dahl further states that the level of impairment between a BAC of .06 and .09 is significant. According to a study of impaired driving crashes, a driver with a BAC of .06 is about 1.6 times more likely to cause a crash than a sober driver. For a driver with a BAC of .09, that jumps up to 3.5 times more likely. “Don’t judge your own impairment based on how someone else handles the same amount of alcohol, and always have a plan for a safe ride home before going out for drinks,” says Dahl.

Regardless of your gender, please contact my office if you, a friend or relative faces charges of DUI. These charges are serious, threaten careers and can significantly limit one’s driving privileges.


Alexander F. Ransom

Attorney at Law
Criminal Defense Lawyer

119 North Commercial St.
Suite #1420
Bellingham, WA 98225

Phone: (360) 746-2642
Fax: (360) 746-2949

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