Category Archives: Nexus

Probation Searches

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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.

Overbroad Parolee Searches

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In State v. Livingston, the WA Court of Appeals Division II held that evidence collected during a warrantless search of the defendant’s vehicle following the defendant’s arrest on a D.O.C. warrant is only admissible if there is a nexus between the community custody violation and the searched property.

On May 29, 2014, DOC Officer Thomas Grabski observed a person, later identified as Darian Livingston, who he recognized as having an outstanding DOC arrest warrant; Livingston was washing a vehicle alone at a car wash. Officer Grabski called for assistance, and two more officers arrived to assist him.

When the additional officers arrived, Livingston was talking with a person on a motorcycle. The person on the motorcycle drove away when the officers approached. Livingston was the only person near the vehicle. After confirming Livingston’s identity and the warrant, the officers arrested Livingston.

The officers then asked Livingston about the vehicle he had been washing. He said it belonged to his girlfriend who had gone to a nearby store, but he later admitted that his girlfriend was in Seattle and could not pick up the vehicle.

Livingston also admitted that he regularly drove the vehicle and that he had placed the key on the motorcycle when he first saw the officers. At the time of his arrest, Livingston was on active DOC probation. The DOC warrant issued in his name said there was “reasonable cause to believe Mr. Livingston] violated a condition of community custody.

DOC Officers Grabski and Joshua Boyd conducted a “compliance search” of the vehicle. When they conducted the search of the vehicle, the officers did not have any information about the nature of the violation that triggered the issuance of the DOC warrant.

Inside the vehicle, the officers found mail and other documents with Livingston’s name on them, a single pill, and a prescription bottle containing eight pills. In the vehicle’s trunk, the officers found a black backpack containing scented oils, a loaded .40 caliber handgun, a box of ammunition, and more mail addressed to Livingston. During booking, Livingston revealed that he was also carrying a baggie of cocaine on his person.

The State charged Livingston with first degree unlawful possession of a firearm (count I), unlawful possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver (cocaine) (count II), bail jumping (count III), unlawful possession of a controlled substance (oxycodone) (count IV), and unlawful possession of a controlled substance (hydrocodone/dihydrocodeinone) (count V). Before trial, Livingston moved to suppress the evidence discovered during the vehicle search. The judge denied Livingston’s motion. He appealed.

Livingston argued that the trial court erred in deciding that the vehicle search was lawful under RCW 9.94A.631(1) because the officers had a reasonable belief that he had violated a community custody condition or sentencing requirement. Instead, he asked the Court of Appeals to follow State v. Jardinez and hold that to justify such a search, the property searched must relate to the violation that the community custody officer (CCO) believed had occurred.

First, the Court of Appeals reasoned that both article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibit warrantless searches unless an exception exists. Washington law recognizes, however, that probationers and parolees have a diminished right of privacy that permits warrantless searches based on reasonable cause to believe that a violation of probation has occurred. This reduced expectation of privacy for parolees is recognized in RCW 9.94A.631(1), which states,

If there is reasonable cause to believe that an offender has violated a condition or requirement of the sentence, a [CCO] may require an offender to submit to a search and seizure of the offender’s person, residence, automobile, or other personal property.

Second, the Court reasoned that pursuant to State v. Jardinez, there must be a nexus between the violation and the searched property. In Jardinez, the defendant’s parole officer searched his iPhone for no reason and found evidence linking Mr. Jardinez to criminal behavior. He was charged and convicted. On his appeal, the Court of Appeals examined the following official comment from the Sentencing Guidelines Commission (Commission) on RCW 9.94A.631(1):

“The Commission intends that [CCOs] exercise their arrest powers sparingly, with due consideration for the seriousness of the violation alleged and the impact of confinement on jail population. Violations may be charged by the [CCO] upon notice of violation and summons, without arrest. The search and seizure authorized by this section should relate to the violation which the [CCO] believes to have occurred.”

Noting that Washington courts “have repeatedly relied on the Commission’s comments as indicia of the legislature’s intent,” Division Three concluded that the italicized portion of this comment “demands a nexus between the searched property and the alleged crime.” Following Jardinez, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred when it failed to consider whether there was a nexus between the violation and the searched property.

With that, the Court affirmed Mr. Livingston’s bail jumping conviction, count III, and his unlawful possession of a controlled substance conviction charged as count II. However, the court reversed the order denying Livingston’s motion to suppress the evidence discovered in the vehicle search and remanded Livingston’s case back to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

My opinion? Good decision. i blogged about Jardinez in another post, and found that opinion compelling as well. Excellent use of prior precedents and stare decisis.