Category Archives: police

Pretext Traffic Stop

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In State v. Hendricks, the WA Court of Appeals held that a traffic stop for Failure to Transfer Title was not unlawfully pretextual because the stop was initiated based upon running license plates as vehicles passed him and the deputy did not recognize the vehicle’s occupants until after initiating the traffic stop.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Ms. Ciulla was named as a protected party in a no contact order issued against
Hendricks. On September 8, 2016, the State charged Hendricks with violation of a no contact order, alleging that he knowingly had contact with Ciulla. Hendricks filed a CrR 3.6 motion to suppress evidence seized from the traffic stop leading to his arrest, asserting that there was no lawful basis for the traffic stop.

At the CrR 3.6 hearing, Clallam County Sheriff’s Deputy Federline testified that he
was on duty on the evening of September 7, 2016 when he saw a Mazda pickup truck and ran the license plate of the vehicle. Upon his check of the truck’s license plate, Deputy Federline found that more than 15 days had passed since ownership of the vehicle had changed, but the title had not been transferred.

When the truck passed, Deputy Federline also saw that the truck’s back license plate was partially obscured by a trailer hitch. Deputy Federline conducted a traffic stop of the truck. When Deputy Federline made contact with the vehicle’s occupants, he recognized Ciulla in the front passenger seat and Hendricks in the back seat. Deputy Federline arrested Hendricks. Following this testimony, Hendricks argued that Deputy Federline lacked authority to stop the truck based either on a failure to timely transfer title or on an obscured license plate.

The trial court denied Hendricks’s motion to suppress. Following the trial court’s denial of his CrR 3.6 suppression motion, Hendricks waived his right to a jury trial, and the matter proceeded to bench trial on a stipulated record. The trial court found Hendricks guilty of violation of no contact order. The trial court also found that Hendricks committed his offense against a family or household member. Hendricks appealed from his conviction.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution generally prohibit searches and seizures absent a warrant or a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. One such exception to the warrant requirement is an investigative stop as set forth in Terry v. Ohio, a landmark search and seizure case which applies to traffic violations. Also, a law enforcement officer may conduct a warrantless traffic stop if the officer has a reasonable and articulable suspicion that a traffic violation has occurred or is occurring.

The court rejected Hendricks’s arguments that the failure to comply with RCW 46.12.650(5)(a)’s requirement of transferring title within 15 days of delivery of a vehicle does not constitute a traffic infraction under RCW 46.63.020 because the failure to timely transfer title is not a parking, standing, stopping, or pedestrian offense.

“The plain language of RCW 46.63.020 shows that the legislature intended to treat the failure to timely register a vehicle’s title as a traffic infraction and, thus, the trial court correctly concluded that Deputy Federline had an articulable suspicion justifying his stop of the vehicle in which Hendricks was riding as a passenger.”

Next, the Court of Appeals addressed whether the stop was unlawfully pretextual.

Pretextual Traffic Stops

The Court reasoned that Article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution prohibits pretextual traffic stops. State v. Ladson, 138 Wn.2d at 358. A pretextual traffic stop occurs when a law enforcement officer  stops a vehicle in order to conduct a speculative criminal investigation unrelated to enforcement of the traffic code. Ladson, 138 Wn.2d at 349. Whether a given stop is pretextual depends on the totality of the circumstances, “including both the subjective intent of the officer as well as the objective reasonableness of the officer’s behavior.” Ladson, 138 Wn.2d at 359. A traffic stop is not pretextual even where the officer has an additional motivation for conducting the stop apart from a suspected traffic violation, so long as the officer’s purported motive in investigating a suspected traffic violation was an actual, conscious, and independent reason for the stop. State v.
Arreola, 176 Wn.2d 284, 299-300, 290 P.3d 983 (2012).

“Hendricks suggests that Deputy Federline had suspected the vehicle’s occupants of being
involved in drug activity and used the failure to timely transfer title as a pretext to investigate the vehicle and its occupants for drug related offenses,” said the Court. “This is pure speculation without any support in the record.”

The Court reasoned that Deputy Federline was the only witness at the CrR 3.6 hearing. Furthermore, the deputy testified that he was parked at an intersection running the license plates of southbound traveling vehicles when he saw the vehicle at issue. Deputy Federline began to initiate his traffic stop after finding that the title to the vehicle at issue was not timely transferred following a change in ownership. Finally, Deputy Federline recognized Hendricks and Ciulla only after initiating the traffic stop and contacting the driver of the vehicle.

“In short, Hendricks fails to identify any evidence in the record that would have supported a claim that Deputy Federline’s traffic stop was a pretext to investigate a crime unrelated to a suspected traffic infraction.”

Consequently, the Court held that because the record lacked of any evidence supporting a claim that Deputy Federline conducted a pretextual traffic stop, Hendricks can show neither deficient performance nor resulting prejudice from defense counsel’s decision to decline raising the issue at the CrR 3.6 hearing.  Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed Hendrick’s conviction.

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member was contacted by police under circumstances which appear unlawfully pretextual. Despite the above case, Washington case law protects the rights of those who appear to be searched and seized under fabricated pretenses.

Bellingham’s Most Dangerous Intersections

Informative article by David Rasbach of the Bellingham Herald reports on statistics provided by the Bellingham Police Department Traffic Division showing Bellingham’s most dangerous intersection.

Apparently, at least in terms of the sheer number of accidents, West Bakerview Road and Northwest Drive reigns as the most dangerous intersection in the city.

In a distracted driving study conducted by its traffic division from January 2016 through June 2017, Bellingham Police received 1,350 reports of accidents within city limits, regardless of severity or injury. Of those, 43 accidents occurred at the intersection of Bakerview and Northwest — the highest total of any intersection in town.

Rasbach also reports that three of the top four most dangerous intersections during the 18-month study were in that same corridor: West Bakerview Road and Eliza Avenuehad the third highest accident total with 22 wrecks, while West Bakerview Road and Cordata Parkway was fourth highest with 18.

The only intersection breaking up Bakerview’s stranglehold on the top of Bellingham’s dangerous intersections list — Lakeway Drive and Lincoln Street, which had 25 reported accidents — is very similar, with two busy shopping centers and a school occupying three of the four corners. Nearby Lakeway Drive and King Street tied for sixth-most dangerous with Woburn Street and Barkley Boulevard with 14 reported accidents, each.

Also, the lone roundabout at Cordata Parkway and West Kellogg Road had 16 accidents reported.

Please contact my office if you, a family member or friend are criminally charged for traffic-related incidents. Unfortunately, it’s very easy to be charged with DUI, Reckless Driving, Negligent Driving, Driving While License Suspended, Eluding and/or numerous traffic citations. Bellingham’s dangerous intersections only exacerbate the situation and make it more likely that an unlawful pretextual pullover will happen.

Most of all, drive safe!

Celebrate the Fourth of July Responsibly

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When celebrating holidays, many people gather with friends and family, decorating their homes and enjoying time together. However, some holiday celebrations often include consuming substances like illegal drugs and alcohol.

In 2016, Americans spent more than $1 billion on cold beverages for their Fourth of July celebrations. That amount was higher than what was spent on burgers and hotdogs, combined. According to CNBC, the Fourth of July is the country’s largest beer-drinking holiday. The popular holiday also surpassed New Year’s as the most dangerous holiday of the year, especially when it comes to traveling on the roadways. According to the Los Angeles Times, there was an average of 127 fatal car crashes each year on July 4 between 2008 and 2012. Of those who died, 41 percent of people had elevated blood alcohol levels.

So how did the day that was meant to celebrate America’s birthday become a day where people choose to drink? The Fourth of July is a federal holiday, which means that most businesses are closed and the employees of those businesses get to enjoy the day off. Jeffrey Spring, a spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California, told the Los Angeles Times that it’s more than just celebrating a day off of work. “They tend to try to cram a lot into these weekends and that’s where they get into trouble,” Spring said. In other words, a paid holiday is taken to new heights due to the excitement of having a free day to themselves.

Some advice? Please remember that beneath all the celebration, the Fourth of July is more than just about alcoholic drinks and setting off fireworks. In 1776, the thirteen American colonies declared themselves independent from the British Empire, thus the United States of America was born. Also known as Independence Day, the day celebrates the birth of the country. It can be commemorated in speeches presented by politicians, celebrities hosting private events, or military personnel saluting the United States at noon on the holiday by shooting off a rifle.

The Fourth of July is important to celebrate for its historical significance. This holiday is a time to remind people not only of the hard work and dedication it took to become the country that the United States is today, but to encourage people to live their lives to their fullest potential.

Don’t let the Fourth of July become a catalyst for illegal behavior.

However, please call my office if you, a friend or family member consume intoxicants this Fourth of July and later find yourselves facing criminal charges. It’s imperative to hire responsive and experienced defense counsel when contacted by law enforcement.

Gun Safes Are Searchable

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

BACKGROUND FACTS

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

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

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

The addendum authorized the seizure of evidence including,

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

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

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

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

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

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

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Particularity Requirement for Search Warrants

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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

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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.

Excessive Force?

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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

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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:

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I-940 & Police Misconduct

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

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

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De-Escalate Washington

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

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

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

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

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

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

Law Enforcement Response to I-940

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

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