Category Archives: Plain View

Marijuana Arrests Increase.

Image result for mass incarceration of blacks for drug crimes

Excellent article from reporter Timothy Williams of the New York Times discusses a new study by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch which reveals that marijuana arrests were about 13.6 percent more than the 505,681 arrests made for all violent crimes, including murder, rape and serious assaults.

The report comes in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott last month in Charlotte, N.C. Mr. Scott, 43, had attracted police attention in part because, the police said, he was smoking marijuana.

The report is the latest study to highlight the disparate treatment African-Americans often receive in the criminal justice system, including disproportionate numbers of blacks who are sent to jail when they are unable to pay court-imposed fees, or stopped by the police during traffic stops or while riding bicycles. Its many findings are disturbing.

THE REPORT’S FINDINGS:

  • Although whites are more likely than blacks to use illicit drugs — including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes — black adults were more than two-and-a-half times as likely to be arrested.
  • In Iowa, Montana and Vermont — places with relatively small populations of African Americans — blacks were more than six times as likely to be arrested on drug possession charges than whites.
  • In terms of marijuana possession, black adults were more than four times as likely to be arrested as white adults in the 39 states in which sufficient data was available.
  • In Manhattan, where blacks make up about 15 percent of the population, African-Americans are nearly 11 times as likely as whites to be arrested on drug possession.
  • African-Americans may also be more apt to face arrest, according to researchers, because they might be more likely to smoke marijuana outdoors, attracting the attention of the police.
  • The above disparities persist whether there are few or many African-Americans in a given area.

Mr. Williams also wrote that, according to criminologists, African-Americans are arrested more often than whites and others for drug possession in large part because of questionable police practices. Police departments, for example, typically send large numbers of officers to neighborhoods that have high crime rates. A result is that any offense — including minor ones like loitering, jaywalking or smoking marijuana — can lead to an arrest, which in turn drives up arrest rate statistics, leading to even greater police vigilance.

“It is selective enforcement, and the example I like to use is that you have all sorts of drug use inside elite college dorms, but you don’t see the police busting through doors,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Abandoned Cell Phone Searches

In State v. Samalia, the WA Supreme Court held that although cell phone information is protected by the Constitution, the defendant abandoned this privacy interest when he voluntarily left the cell phone in a stolen vehicle while fleeing from police.

Defendant Adrian Sutlej Samalia fled on foot from a stolen vehicle during a lawful traffic stop, leaving his cell phone behind in the vehicle. After Samalia successfully escaped, the police searched the cell phone without a warrant and made contact with one of the numbers stored in the cell phone. That contact led to Samalia’s identification as the owner of the phone and driver of the stolen vehicle.

On these facts, the State charged Samalia with Possession of a Stolen Vehicle. Samalia moved to suppress the cell phone evidence under CrR 3.6, arguing that the officers violated his constitutional rights when they seized and searched his cell phone with neither a warrant nor a valid exception to the warrant requirement.

The State responded that the warrantless search was valid under the abandonment doctrine. The trial court held that Samalia voluntarily abandoned any privacy interest that he had in the cell phone by leaving it in the stolen vehicle, which he also voluntarily abandoned, while fleeing from Office Yates. After denying Samalia’s suppression motion and subsequent motion for reconsideration, the trial court found Samalia guilty as charged in a bench trial.  Samalia appealed to Division III of the WA Court of Appeals. They upheld the trial court’s decision under the abandonment doctrine.

Ultimately, the WA Supreme Court decided the search was lawful and upheld Samalia’s conviction. It reasoned that article I, section 7 of Washington’s Constitution states that “no person shall be disturbed in his private affairs … without authority of law,” and although the WA Constitution embraces the privacy expectations protected by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution – and in some cases, may provide greater protection than the Fourth Amendment – the search was nonetheless lawful under the abandonment doctrine.

ABANDONMENT DOCTRINE

The Court reasoned that the “abandonment doctrine,” a person loses normal privacy interests in their property upon abandoning it. The abandonment doctrine is not rooted in any obligation by law enforcement to find the owner of property. Basically, it allows law enforcement officers to retrieve and search voluntarily abandoned property without implicating an individual’s rights. The court reasoned that in this sense, voluntarily abandoned property is different from lost or mislaid property, in which the owner maintains a privacy interest in the property and the finder may have an obligation to seek out the owner to return the property.

Thus, when an individual flees from law enforcement and leaves a cell phone behind in a stolen vehicle, a trial court may find that the cell phone is no less abandoned than any other item that was also left in the stolen vehicle.

Here, the Court declined to find an exception to the abandonment doctrine for cell phones. Consequently, the WA Supreme Court decided the trial court properly found abandonment under these facts.

In conclusion, the WA Supreme Court affirmed Samalia’s conviction on the grounds that the information derived from the search of Samalia’s cell phone was properly admitted as evidence under the abandonment doctrine.

DISSENTING OPINION

Justice Yu authored the dissenting opinion, which was also signed by Justice Stephens and Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud. In short, these dissenting justices all agreed that common law doctrines like the Abandonment Doctrine cannot be applied mechanically to new technology. Second, the abandonment doctrine applies to personal property generally and not digital technology. Third, digital cell phone data remains a private affair, even if the cell phone itself has been voluntarily abandoned.

“The people of Washington are entitled to hold safe from government intrusion the unprecedented wealth of personal information accessible through a cell phone, even if the phone itself has been voluntarily abandoned. If government officials discover a cell phone and want to search its digital data for evidence of criminal activity, they may seize and secure the cell phone to preserve any evidence it may contain, but they must obtain a warrant before searching its digital data. Because the police did not obtain a warrant here, the search was unlawful and its fruits should have been suppressed. I respectfully dissent.”

My opinion?

Last year, I discussed this case when the Court of Appeals decided it in my blog post titled, State v. Samalia: Search of Abandoned Cell Phone is Lawful. Again, I disagree with the court’s majority decision in this case. The trial court should have suppressed the cell phone search back in the beginning of this case. Under these circumstances, the abandonment doctrine is simply not the proper legal vehicle to permit a cell phone search. Using this doctrine leaps too far in the wrong direction. Kudos to the dissenting judges in this case. Although the decision was not deeply divided (6-3), the dissenters got it right. Officers need to get search warrants. Period.

My advice to the general public?

Never leave incriminating evidence on your cell phone. No pictures, videos, nothing. A lost phone could now be considered “abandoned” and searchable by authorities.

“Community Caretaking” Search Upheld as Lawful

In State v. Duncan, the WA Supreme Court decided police officers may make a limited sweep of a vehicle under the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement when (1) there is reasonable suspicion that an unsecured weapon is in the vehicle and (2) the vehicle has or shortly will be impounded and will be towed from the scene. However, this exception may not be used as a pre-text for an investigative search.

A little after midnight in Yakima one summer night in 2009, someone in a car shot into a home, grazing Kyle Mullins’ head. Other people in the home called 911 for medical assistance and to report the shooting. Callers described the car as white and possibly a Subaru or Impala. Officers were dispatched and stopped Duncan’s white Ford Taurus. Officers removed Duncan and his two passengers from the car at gunpoint, ordered them to the ground, handcuffed them, and put them in separate police cars. Without a warrant, officers opened the doors and found shell casings on the floor and a gun between the front passenger seat and the door. One officer removed the gun and placed it into an evidence bag in his own patrol car. The passengers told the police that Duncan had fired from the car and tossed the gun on the front floorboards. After the car was towed to a police annex, police obtained a warrant and made a more thorough search.

Duncan was charged with six counts of first degree assault and one count of unlawful possession of a firearm. Duncan moved to suppress the evidence under CrR 3.6 and confessions under CrR 3.5 that flowed from the traffic stop on several grounds, including that the police had insufficient grounds to stop him and that their initial warrantless search of his car was improper. At the pretrial suppression hearing, held a year and a half after the events of that summer night, the judge found that the stop was justified and that the search was reasonable, and denied the motions.

The jury returned guilty verdicts on all charges and found by special verdicts that Duncan was armed with a firearm. The judge sentenced Duncan to 1,159 months of incarceration, the top of the standard range. Duncan’s projected release date is March 26, 2099.

The case was appealed to the WA Supreme Court to decide the issue of whether the warrantless search of Duncan’s vehicle was lawful. The Court decided it was.

The Court reasoned that generally, warrantless searches and seizures are per se unreasonable. Nonetheless, there are a few jealously and carefully drawn exceptions to the warrant requirement which provide for those cases where the societal costs of obtaining a warrant, such as danger to law officers of the risk of loss or destruction of evidence, outweigh the reasons for prior recourse to a neutral magistrate. The State bears the burden of showing that the search and seizure was supported by a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement. The fruits of an unconstitutional search and seizure must be suppressed.

The Court reasoned that the search was not lawful under Arizona v. Gant for “officer safety” reasons  because the vehicles’ occupants are detained in police cars. Also the search was not lawful under the Plain View Doctrine because the officers could see the gun from outside the vehicle. Finally, the search was also not a valid inventory search because the car was not impounded.

However, the court found the search was lawful under the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement. Under that exception, officers may make a limited sweep of a vehicle when (1) there is reasonable suspicion that an unsecured weapon is in the vehicle and (2) the vehicle has or shortly will be impounded and will be towed from the scene.

We caution, however, that the community caretaking exception is a strictly limited exception to the warrant requirement. It may not, however, be used as a pretext for an investigatory search:

“It will only rarely justify intrusion into a private place or vehicle after an arrest. However, given the facts of this case and the fact that the sweep of the vehicle occurred before our opinion in Snapp, 174 Wn.2d 177, was announced, we are confident that the desire to remove an unsecured gun from the vehicle was not here used as a pretext for an otherwise unlawful search.”

With that, the Court concluded that the limited search of the vehicle was lawful and affirmed Duncan’s conviction.

My opinion? For those who don’t know, pretextual searches are unlawful. They usually describes false reasons that hide the true intentions or motivations for a legal action. If a party trying to admit the evidence can establish good reasons, the opposing party – usually, the defense – must prove that the these reasons were “pretextual,” or false, and move to suppress the “fruits” of the search.

Here, I understand the Court’s logic. I’m glad the Court appreciates the unlawfulness of pretextual searches and makes distinctions in the case at hand. Unfortunately, until now, unlawful pretext searches have been mitigated and/or simply ignored by our courts for many years.

State v. Reis: Search & Seizure in Medical Marijuana Case

In State v. Reis, the WA Supreme Court decided that although medical marijuana use is a defense, police officers can still obtain search warrants and search people’s homes if sufficient probabale cause of criminal activity exists.

In 2012, Detective Thomas Calabrese received an anonymous tip from an individual living in the Shorewood area of Burien, informing him that a man named “William” was actively growing marijuana in a house in that neighborhood. The informant, who feared retaliation by Reis, declined to provide any additional information. Detective Calabrese began investigating. He conducted stakeout surveillance of the home and watched the defendant William Reis tending to numerous marijuana plants growing in the backyard. The detective also heard a distinct humming sound coming from the northwest side of the target home and observed black plastic covering the daylight basement window. Detective Calabrese also noticed condensation on this window.

Detective Calabrese also discovered Mr. Reis had a prior DV conviction and, during that arrest, officers discovered significant evidence of a marijuana grow operation, as well as a rifle and $18,000 cash hidden in the attic. Additional searches of Reis’s financial records in 2005 connected him to a large marijuana grow operation in California. Detective Calabrese also learned that Reis had been arrested in 2011 for possession of 1.3 grams of marijuana.

Based on this information, Detective Calabrese put all of this information in an affidavit of probable cause to support a search warrant of Reis’s home. Judge Eide granted a search warrant, finding probable cause to believe that Reis was violating Washington’s Uniform Controlled Substances Act, RCW 69.50. A search of Reis’s home pursuant to the search warrant revealed plants, scales, ledgers, sales receipts, and tools indicative of a marijuana grow operation. The search also revealed 37 plants and 210.72 ounces of cannabis.

Reis moved to suppress the evidence on the basis that officers lacked probable cause to search his home. The trial court denied his motion. The WA Court of Appeals granted review. They decided the authorized use of medical marijuana under RCW 69.51A.040 does not stop an officer from searching a home for criminal activity. Although compliant use of medical marijuana under the statute is an affirmative defense, it does not negate probable cause required for a search warrant. State v. Reis, 180 Wn.App. 438, 322 P.3d 1238 (2014). The WA Supreme Court  granted review and affirmed the Court of Appeals.

The WA Supremes reasoned that RCW 69.51A.040, as passed, does not decriminalize the medical use of marijuana. Instead, the plain language of the statute establishes a limited exception to the general prohibition against marijuana that existed at the time that the search warrant in this case issued. The Court summarized it best here:

The legislature may have intended to create heightened protections for qualifying patients who registered. However, because registration is currently impossible, the statute provides qualifying patients with only an affirmative defense until the legislature is able to establish a registry. Therefore, we reject Reis’s argument and affirm the Court of Appeals.

The Court describes how the “Medical Marijuana Defense” works under RCW 69.51A.040.

There are six required “terms and conditions” contained within RCW 69.51A.040. Subsection (1) places limits on the quantity of cannabis that a qualifying patient or designated provider may possess. Subsections (2) and (3) require registration with the Department of Health-now impossible in light of the governor’s veto-and require that the patient keep their registration within their home and present it to inquiring investigating officers. Subsections (4 ), (5), and (6) require that the investigating officer not possess evidence that the qualifying patient or designated provider is converting marijuana for their own use or benefit, or otherwise violating distribution requirements or registration requirements. If a qualifying patient or designated provider complies with all of these requirements, including registration, the use of marijuana does not constitute a crime.

Here, the search was valid because the plain language of the statute and the legislative intent lead to the conclusion that a user or possessor of cannabis may raise only an affirmative defense.

My opinion? Hate to say, but the reasoning makes sense. After all, assaulting people in the street is still a crime. One must prove a defense – hypethetically speaking, self-defense – by a preponderance of the evidence in order to be found not guilty of the crime of assault. The same reasoning applies here. The medical use of marijuana does not decriminalize marijuana use – it only provides a defense if one is charged with marijuane-related crimes. Police officers can still investigate citizens and apply for search warrants if probable cause exists that a crime is being committed.

State v. Weller: Community Caretaking

In State v. Weller, the WA Court of Appeals decided an officers’ entry into a garage to privately interview children about their allegations of abuse was lawful under the health and safety check community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement. Also, the seizure of the board the children stated was used by the parents while beating the children, was lawful under the plain view exception to the warrant requirement.

Sandra and Jeffrey Weller had six children in their care. In 2011, CPS became suspicious that the Wellers were abusing the children. Eventually, CPS conducted a welfare check of the family home with the assistance of numerous police officers. The officers did not have a search warrant. Officer Aldridge asked if they could come inside and speak with Sandra and the children. Sandra stepped back from the door and the officers entered the house. The officers attempted to talk privately with the twins. Officer Jensen and CW talked in one room. Officer Aldridge and CG talked in another room, and ultimately moved into the garage for greater privacy. Both children described being beaten repeatedly with a board.

Officer Aldridge was standing in the same place as when she entered the garage when she looked around and saw a board leaning against the garage wall in plain view. She asked the children if that was the board used to beat them, and they replied that it was. Officers saw what appeared to be bloodstains on the board. Based on her observations, Officer Aldridge decided to remove the twins and the other children from the Weller residence.

After speaking with the children, the State filed multiple charges against the Wellers, including several charges of second, third, and fourth degree assault, and several counts of unlawful imprisonment. At trial, the Wellers tried to suppress the evidence and dismiss the case on theories

The Wellers moved to suppress the board, arguing that it was seized during an unlawful search of their residence without a warrant. They argued that the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement was inapplicable because there was no immediate threat of injury to any persons and that entry into the house was a pretext for a search for evidence of a crime. However, the trial court denied the motion to suppress, concluding in a detailed oral ruling that the officers lawfully were in the garage under the community caretaking exception and that they were authorized to seize the board because it was in plain view.

The case proceeded to a jury trial. The jury found Jeffrey guilty on most counts and the trial court sentenced him for five counts of Assault Second Degree, one count of Unlawful Imprisonment, one count of Assault Third Degree of a child, and two counts of Assault Fourth Degree. The jury also found Sandra guilty on most counts and the trial court sentenced her for four counts of Assault Second Degree and one count of Unlawful Imprisonment. The defendants appealed.

The Wellers argue that the officers seized the board used to beat CW and CG in an unlawful warrantless search of their garage, and therefore that the trial court erred in denying their CrR 3. 6 motion to suppress the board. The Court disagreed, and held that the trial court did not err when it concluded that ( 1) the officers’ entry into the garage to privately interview the children was lawful under the community caretaking function exception to the warrant requirement, and (2) the seizure of the board was lawful under the plain view exception to the warrant requirement. Some background on these legal principles is necessary.

WARRANTLESS SEARCHES

Both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington State Constitution prohibit warrantless searches and seizures unless one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement applies. The State bears the burden of demonstrating that a warrantless search or seizure falls within an exception to the warrant requirement.

 COMMUNITY CARETAKING

The community caretaking function exception to the warrant requirement arises from law enforcement officers’ community caretaking function and involves two aspects: officers rendering aid or assistance ( emergency aid exception) or making routine checks on health and safety (health and safety exception). Another exception to the warrant requirement is the plain view exception, which allows officers to seize an object if they are lawfully present in a constitutionally protected area and the object is in plain view.

A search pursuant to the community caretaking function exception must be totally divorced from  a criminal investigation. The exception does not apply where an officer’ s primary motivation is to search for evidence or make an arrest.

Here, the Court reasoned that the officers entered the garage because they were trying to find a private place to interview the children in conjunction with their welfare check. Nothing in the record suggests that the officers were searching the garage or looking for evidence.

HEALTH AND SAFETY CHECK INSPECTION

To invoke the health and safety check exception, the State must show that ( 1) the officer subjectively believed someone needed health or safety assistance, and (2) a reasonable person in the same situation would believe that there was a need for assistance, and ( 3) there was a reasonable basis to associate the need for assistance with the place searched. Next, the State must show that the encounter under this exception was reasonable, which depends upon a balancing of the individual’ s interest in freedom from police interference against the public’ s interest in having the police perform a community caretaking function.

Here, the Court reasoned that the three requirements for application of the health and safety check exception clearly were satisfied. The officers subjectively and reasonably believed that the Weller children needed health or safety assistance. A trained CPS investigator relayed to the officers her professional opinion that the Weller children were not safe and were expressing severe fear.

PLAIN VIEW

The ” plain view” exception to the warrant requirement applies when officers ( 1) have a valid justification for being in a constitutionally protected area, and ( 2) are immediately able to realize that an item they can see in plain view is associated with criminal activity. The test for determining when an item is immediately apparent for purposes of a plain view seizure is whether, considering the surrounding circumstances, the police can reasonably conclude that the item is incriminating evidence. Officers do not need to be certain that the item is associated with criminal activity – probable cause is sufficient.

Here, the Court decided the officers were lawfully present in the Wellers’ garage. Further, the surrounding facts and circumstances led the officers to believe that the board was evidence of a crime. As the welfare check progressed, the children said Mr. Weller periodically beat them with a board. Further, when the officers were in the garage, the children began to look for the board. And the children immediately confirmed that the board in the garage was in fact the board used to beat them. As a result, the Court held that the plain view exception to the warrant requirement applied to the officers’ seizure of the board.

The Court of Appeals upheld the convictions.