Category Archives: police

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.

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.

Driving With Wheels Off the Roadway

Image result for ON RAMP

In State v. Brooks, the WA Court of Appeals held that the neutral area separating a highway on-ramp from an adjacent lane of travel does not meet the definition of “roadway.” A driver who crosses this area is properly stopped for a violation of Driving with Wheels Off Roadway under RCW 46.61.670.

BACKGROUND FACTS

While merging onto westbound U.S. Route 97 from U.S. Route 2 in Chelan County, Jena Brooks’s car crossed over a portion of the highway designated as a “neutral area.” A neutral area is a paved triangular space separating an entrance or exit ramp from an adjacent lane of highway. The neutral area between Route 97 and its merger with westbound Route 2 is marked on each side by thick white channelizing lines. The drawing below is a depiction of a neutral area similar to the one crossed by Ms. Brooks:

Image result for ON RAMP NEUTRAL AREA

A Washington State Patrol trooper observed Ms. Brooks’s vehicular activity and performed a traffic stop. Ms. Brooks was ultimately arrested for driving on a suspended license and other misdemeanor offenses.

During proceedings in district court, Ms. Brooks filed a motion to suppress, arguing her vehicle had been stopped without probable cause. The motion was denied. Pertinent to this appeal, the district court ruled Ms. Brooks’s merger over the highway’s neutral area constituted “driving with wheels off roadway,” in violation of RCW 46.61.670. 2

Ms. Brooks was subsequently convicted of several misdemeanor offenses after a jury trial. Later, she successfully appealed the suppression ruling to the superior court. It found Washington’s definition of a roadway ambiguous in the context of a highway’s neutral area. The superior court then invoked the rule of lenity and determined Ms. Brooks should not have been stopped for driving with wheels off the roadway in violation of RCW 46.61.670.

ISSUES

The Court of Appeals addressed (1) whether the term roadway is ambiguous in the current context, and (2) if the term is ambiguous, whether the rule of lenity is an available tool of statutory construction that might benefit a defendant such as Ms. Brooks.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

“A highway’s neutral area is not a vehicle lane. It is too short to facilitate meaningful travel. And its triangular shape cannot consistently accommodate the size of a vehicle. Rather than being designed for vehicular travel, it is apparent the neutral area is designed as a buffer zone. It keeps vehicles separate so as to facilitate speed adjustment and, in the context of a highway on-ramp, safe vehicle merging.”

The Court further reasoned that National standards set by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD) confirmed its observations about the apparent design purpose of a highway’s neutral area. In short, the Court reasoned the MUTCD refers to the neutral area as an “island.” As such, it is an area intended for vehicle “separation.”

“Although a neutral area may be designated either by a wide or double solid white channelizing line, the two options carry no substantive significance” said the Court of Appeals. “Like a double white line, a solid white line can serve as an indicator that crossing is prohibited. The whole point of a neutral area is to exclude vehicles and promote orderly and efficient traffic flow,” said the Court of Appeals.

The Court concluded that Ms. Brooks failed to maintain her vehicle wheels on an area of the highway meeting the statutory definition of a roadway. A vehicle stop was therefore permitted under Washington’s wheels off roadway statute. Consequently, the superior court’s order on appeal from the district court is reversed.

Surprisingly, there’s quite a bit of caselaw on what constitutes “Driving With Wheels Off the Roadway.” Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges following after a police officer pullover where this citation led to arrest. It’s quite possible to suppress the fruits of a search based on unlawful stop, search and/or seizure.

Prosecutors Use Body Camera Evidence

Image result for police body camera evidence

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

Image result for I-940

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.

Image result for I-940

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.

Corpus Delicti & Drugs

Image result for “8-ball” coke

In State v. Hotchkiss, the WA Court of Appeals held that, despite the corpus delicti defense, the discovery of 8.1 grams of methamphetamine and $2,150 in cash during a search of the defendant’s home, provided sufficient corroborating evidence of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Law enforcement officers executed a search warrant on Hotchkiss’s residence in Vancouver. During the search, Hotchkiss admitted that he had an “8-ball” – approximately 3.8 grams – of methamphetamine in a safe and provided the officers with the code. He also stated that he procured about one 8-ball of methamphetamine every day and broke it down, and estimated that he had about 10 customers. Inside the safe, officers found 8.1 grams of methamphetamine and $2,150 in cash.

The State charged Hotchkiss with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver – methamphetamine. At a bench trial, officers testified about finding the methamphetamine and cash and about Hotchkiss’s statement that he had 10 methamphetamine customers. After the State rested, Hotchkiss requested that the trial court disregard the testimony regarding his incriminating statement under the corpus delicti rule because there was insufficient evidence corroborating his statement. The court reserved its ruling on the corpus delicti issue.

Hotchkiss then testified that he and a woman who lived with him used three or four grams of methamphetamine per day. He also testified that the cash in the safe came from other people living at his residence, who paid rent of $1,150 per month in cash, and from his employment. He claimed that any statement he made to the officers about selling methamphetamine referred to his actions 20 years earlier.

On rebuttal, an officer with extensive experience dealing with methamphetamine users
and sellers testified that a typical methamphetamine dose is 0.2 to 0.4 grams. He also testified that it would be very rare that someone would possess eight grams of methamphetamine solely for personal use.

The trial court found that the quantity of methamphetamine in Hotchkiss’s possession
combined with the amount of cash recovered with the drugs was sufficient corroborating
evidence to satisfy the corpus delicti rule. The court then found Hotchkiss guilty of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver. Hotchkiss appeals his conviction.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the corpus delicti rule prevents the State from establishing that a crime occurred solely based on the defendant’s incriminating statement. The State must present corroborating evidence independent of the incriminating statement that the charged crime occurred. Without such corroborating evidence, the defendant’s statement alone is insufficient to support a conviction.

The Court then addressed the question of whether there was enough independent evidence to support the conviction for possession of methampetamine with intent to deliver.

“The general rule is that mere possession of a controlled substance, including quantities greater than needed for personal use, is not sufficient to support an inference of intent to deliver,” said the Court. Here, the State presented evidence that (1) Hotchkiss had 8.1 grams of methamphetamine in his possession; (2) given an average dose size of 0.2 to 0.4 grams, such an amount typically would produce 20 to 40 doses; and (3) it would be very rare for a person to possess that amount merely for personal use.

The Court reasoned that under the general rule, this evidence standing alone would not be sufficient either to convict Hotchkiss of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver or to provide corroborating evidence under the corpus delicti rule.

“But the State presented evidence of an additional factor suggestive of intent to deliver –
$2,150 of cash in Hotchkiss’s safe next to the methamphetamine,” said the Court. “This methamphetamine and cash evidence would be sufficient to support a conviction for possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver.”

With that, the Court of Appeals concluded that the State satisfied the corpus delicti rule and affirmed Hotchkiss’ conviction of possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver.

My opinion? Corpus Delicti is a tricky defense. It usually works best in cases where there is a gaping hole between the corroborating evidence and the defendant’s statements.

For example, let’s say that police received a 911 call about a red truck driving around in your neighborhood swerving in an out of traffic. The police respond to the call, drive to your neighborhood, and look a for a red truck. They find one parked at your home. They knock on your door. You open the door. You’re intoxicated from drinking alcohol.

“Were you driving?” asked the police.

“Yes,” you say. Police immediately arrest you for DUI.

Corpus delicti would be the appropriate defense in a case like this. Under our current DUI laws, the State must prove that not only were you driving that particular red truck, but that you were under the influence of alcohol when driving. In short, corpus delicti ensures that your statements and admission shall not be used against you in cases where there is a lack of independent evidence supporting your statements.

Please contact my office if you, a family member of friend face criminal charges with weak and/or questionable evidence supporting the charges. No matter what a person’s admissions are, we have the constitutional right to question the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the charges and perhaps argue the corpus delicti defense.

Poll: 6 In 10 Black Americans Say Police Unfairly Stopped Them Or A Relative

Image result for black motorist stopped by police

News article by Joe Neel  of NPR says that a new poll out this week finds that 60 percent of black Americans say they or a family member have been stopped or treated unfairly by police because they are black. In addition, 45 percent say they or a family member have been treated unfairly by the courts because they are black. The poll is a collaboration between NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The poll reveals the consequences of these stops for black Americans personally and across society — 31 percent of poll respondents say that fear of discrimination has led them to avoid calling the police when in need. And 61 percent say that where they live, police are more likely to use unnecessary force on a person who is black than on a white person in the same situation.

Previous polls have asked similar questions, but ours is unique in that it’s the first to ask about lifetime experiences with policing. It’s part of NPR’s ongoing series “You, Me and Them: Experiencing Discrimination in America.”

Pew Research poll in 2016 asked whether people had been unfairly stopped by police because of race or ethnicity in the previous 12 months and found that 18 percent of black people said yes. A 2015 CBS News/New York Times poll asked whether this had ever happened and found 41 percent of black people said yes.

Neel reports that the NPR poll differs from Pew in that NPR asked not only about a much longer period but also whether people had been unfairly stopped or treated because of their race or ethnicity. Also the NPR poll differ from CBS in that NPR included the word “unfairly.” Finally, the NPR poll differs from both the Pew and CBS polls because NPR asked whether a person or a family member had had this experience, which gives a better sense of the presence of these experiences in respondents’ life and surroundings.

Neel also reports that the black American data from our poll, released Tuesday, were compiled from 802 black Americans as part of a large national representative probability survey of 3,453 adults from Jan. 26 to April 9. The margin of error for the full black American sample is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

It is imperative to contact a competent attorney if you, a friend or family member were pulled over, searched and/or seized by police under suspicious circumstances. Please contact my office for a free consultation.

Excessive Tasing

Image result for police tasing

In Jones v. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Dept., the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that any reasonable officer would have known that continuous, repeated, and simultaneous tasings could only be justified by an immediate or significant risk of serious injury or death to officers or the public. However, such force generally cannot be used on a prone suspect who exhibits no resistance, carries no weapon, is surrounded by sufficient officers to restrain him and is not suspected of a violent crime.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In the early morning of December 11, 2010, Officer Mark Hatten of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department pulled over Anthony Jones for a routine traffic stop. Hatten ordered Jones out of the car so he could pat him down for weapons. Jones obeyed at first but then started to turn toward Hatten. Scared of the much larger Jones, Hatten drew his firearm, pointed it at Jones and ordered him to turn back around. Instead, Jones sprinted away.

Hatten called for backup and pursued Jones. Hatten didn’t believe deadly force was necessary because Jones hadn’t threatened him and didn’t appear to have a weapon.

As he waited for other officers to arrive, Hatten used his taser to subdue Jones. Hatten fired his taser twice, causing Jones’s body to “lock up” and fall to the ground face down with his hands underneath him. Hatten proceeded to kneel on Jones’s back in an attempt to handcuff Jones, keeping his taser pressed to Jones’s thigh and repeatedly pulling the trigger.

Hatten continued to tase Jones even after backup arrived. Backup consisted of four officers: Richard Fonbuena on Hatten’s right side, who helped handcuff Jones; Steven Skenandore, who controlled Jones’s legs and feet; Timothy English at Jones’s head, who applied a taser to Jones’s upper back; and Michael Johnson, who arrived last and ordered the tasing to stop. Johnson wanted his officers to “back off on the tasers so that Jones’s muscles would relax.” According to Johnson, Jones “didn’t look like he was physically resisting” and there were “enough officers” to take Jones into custody.

In all, Jones was subjected to taser shocks for over ninety seconds: Hatten tased Jones essentially nonstop that whole time—with some applications lasting as long as nineteen seconds—and, for ten of those seconds, English simultaneously applied his taser.

Once the officers stopped tasing Jones, his body went limp. They sat him up but Jones was nonresponsive and twitching; his eyes were glazed over and rolled back into his head. The officers tried and failed to resuscitate him. Jones was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. The coroner’s report concluded that “police restraining procedures”—including the tasings—contributed to Jones’s death.

Jones’s parents sued the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and all of the officers involved in restraining Jones. They alleged Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations as well as various state law torts. However, the lower district court granted summary judgment for the defendants on all claims. The plaintiff’s appealed.

LEGAL ISSUE

Whether police officers are entitled to qualified immunity when they’re alleged to have caused the death of a suspect by using tasers repeatedly and simultaneously for an extended period.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

As a preliminary matter, the Court of Appeals held that under Fed. R. Civ. P. 17, the lower district court abused its discretion by failing to give plaintiffs a reasonable opportunity to substitute the proper party and thus cure the defective complaint.

Next, the Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether the officers were reasonable in the degree of force they deployed. They held that the officers’ repeated and simultaneous use of tasers for over ninety seconds was unreasonable and that a jury could reasonably conclude that the officers knew or should have known that these actions created a substantial risk of serious injury or death:

” . . . any reasonable officer would have known that continuous, repeated, and simultaneous tasings could only be justified by an immediate or significant risk of serious injury or death to officers or the public.”

The Court also reasoned that that such force generally cannot be used on a prone suspect who exhibits no resistance, carries no weapon, is surrounded by sufficient officers to restrain him and is not suspected of a violent crime. Furthermore, it reasoned that given that there was clearly established Fourth Amendment law and a jury could reasonably conclude that the officers used excessive force, the question of qualified immunity must proceed to trial.

Furthermore, the Court held that the plaintiff’s state law battery and negligence claims were triable, and should not have been dismissed by the lower district court. It said that while there was no evidence that any of the officers acted out of hostility or improper motive, there was a factual dispute as to whether the repeated and simultaneous tasings were so excessive under the circumstances that they amounted to willful or deliberate disregard of Jones’s rights. The Court of Appeals therefore remanded plaintiffs’ battery and negligence claims.

In a twist, however, The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower district court’s dismissal of the
Fourteenth Amendment claim. It said that even assuming all the facts Plaintiffs alleged, there was no evidence that the officers acted with a purpose of harming Jones that was unconnected to a legitimate law enforcement objective.

In another twist, the Court of Appeals held that the Plaintiffs’ false arrest and false imprisonment claims failed because there was no evidence that the decision to arrest Jones lacked justification, let alone that it was made in bad faith. The Court of Appeals therefore affirmed the dismissal of that claim.

My opinion? A well-reasoned, good decision. Although the Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of some of the Plaintiffs’ claims due to lack of evidence, the Court was ultimately convinced that the officers’ repeated and simultaneous use of tasers for over ninety seconds was unreasonable. Good decision.

Should Police Always Be Allowed to Shoot?

Image result for cop fires gun

Great article from Lawyer Monthly on the issue of whether police should be allowed to use deadly and lethal force under various circumstances.

It wrote that according to civil rights attorney Rodney Diggs with Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt, “The LAPD faces a need for systemic change”. In May 2017, the LA police commission unanimously approved 25 new recommendations, after discovering alarming findings in the LAPD’s first ever, Use of Force Report.

Diggs, who has handled multiple wrongful death lawsuits stemming from officer-involved shootings and individuals with mental disabilities, believes these recommendations are a step in the right direction.

 

“Over the years I have practiced, I have seen [approximately] 50-60% increase in wrongful death cases related to individuals suffering from mental disabilities/illness.”

According to the article, Lawyer Monthly surmised that such a vast increase of wrongful deaths is cause for huge concern. Therefore, what accounts towards this increase?

“The changes are due to the officer’s lack of being trained and dealing with individuals who suffer from mental illnesses,” says Diggs. “Conventional police training directly clashes with effective tactics for resolving a typical mental health crisis. Unfortunately, much of that training relies on a command-and-control approach that can lead to dangerous escalations in the use of force.”

HANDLING CITIZENS WITH MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES

“It’s more of a lack of training,” said Diggs. “Proper training takes time and money and the reason to why departments may not choose to use resources needed to train officers, is because the value may be hard to quantify. Once departments realize that it may cost money upfront for training but ultimately will save money and lives, they will see the return on investment.”

Training ought to enhance the public’s trust and to lessen the cases we are seeing involving mishandling alleged perpetrators. Rodney says: “Training will teach officers that they do not have to approach a situation and take action right away.  But in a medical emergency, slowing it down, getting additional resources and perhaps even stepping back should be the norm.

“When the public sees that someone’s life is saved because an officer properly assessed a situation and now that family doesn’t have to lose a loved one, then the public will trust that the police are equipped to handle these situations.”

MEDIA

“Additionally, the media plays a big role in the perception of its viewers,” said Diggs. He elaborated that the media can either assist in enhancing the public’s trust or incite fear. “So if we want to bridge the gap between officers and civilians, the media needs to highlight instances in which officers do the right thing in a very sticky situation.”

USE OF WEAPONRY

“Use of force is never acceptable unless the force used is objectively reasonable and used only when necessary to accomplish lawful objectives,” said Diggs. “Officers have to assess the situation and determine which use of force should be used in their specific situation.”

USE OF FORCE AND WEAPONRY

In the article, Rodney outlines the factors officers should use when deciding whether to use force and what type of force option to use:

(1) Whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the officer or others;

(2) The severity of the crime;

(3) Whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest; and

(4) Whether the suspect is a flight risk or attempting to escape custody.

Further, deadly force should only be used if there is an immediate threat of death or severe bodily injury to the officer or another.

However, implementing an effective process will not be easy. The article states that one possible method of improving often involves implementing better and stronger sanctions; so, we wonder whether those involved in wrongful deaths need to be better sanctioned.

STRONGER SANCTIONS

“A lot of times we see that criminally, officers are not charged with murder or even disciplined within their own departments,” said Diggs. “Despite the monetary compensation that may be awarded to families, the officers face no discipline and the money that is being paid is not being paid out of the officer’s pockets.  Monetary compensation by way of settlement, or event civil verdicts, does not equate police reform.

“Greater sanctions would cause a deterrent and would cause officers to think twice and consider the reasonable and appropriate force options available to them or opt not to use force, especially deadly force, when it’s not needed,” says Diggs.

The OIG Report of National Best Practices report itself discusses the following options:

  • Increased de-escalation training, and adopting de-escalation as a formal agency policy.
  • Discouraging force against those who pose a danger only to themselves.
  • Other options, such as chemical spray and personal protection shields.
  • Providing prompt supervisory response to critical incidents to reduce the likelihood of unnecessary force.

You can read the full proposed report here.

My opinion? Great article with excellent suggestions from Mr. Diggs.