Category Archives: Possession of Stolen Motor Vehicle

Abandoned Cell Phone Searches

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

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

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

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

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

ABANDONMENT DOCTRINE

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

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

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

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

DISSENTING OPINION

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

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

My opinion?

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

My advice to the general public?

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

State v. Wisdom: Unlawful Search of Zipped Shaving Kit Bag

Interesting opinion. In State v. Wisdom, the WA Court of Appeals Division III decided the removal and warrantless inspection of a zipped shut shaving kit bag found in the front seat of a stolen vehicle the defendant was driving was not a lawful search incident to arrest because  the defendant sat handcuffed in the patrol car at the time of the seizure and search of the toiletry bag. The methamphetamine found in the zipped shut shaving kit is not lawful pursuant to the impound inventory doctrine, as unzipping the kit exceeded the lawful scope of an impound.

Defendant Heath Wisdom drove a Chevrolet pickup truck with an ATV in its back. Someone earlier reported both vehicles as stolen. Yakima County Sheriff Deputy Nate Boyer, while on patrol, passed the pickup, and Boyer’s automated license plate reader identified the pickup as stolen. Officer Boyer pulled Wisdom over and arrested him for possession of a stolen vehicle. Boyer handcuffed Wisdom, searched his body, and escorted him to the patrol vehicle. Officer Boyer found on Wisdom’s body a pipe that Wisdom admitted he used for smoking methamphetamine.

Deputy Nate Boyer advised Heath Wisdom of his Miranda rights. Officer Boyer asked if there were drugs in the truck, and Wisdom replied that methamphetamine lay on the front seat. Officer Boyer looked inside the cab of the truck and saw filters, some cleaner, and a black “shaving kit type” bag. Officer Boyer concluded that the bag contained the methamphetamine. The toiletry bag was closed, but Boyer spied money through the mesh side of the bag.

After photographing the truck, Deputy Boyer removed the bag from the vehicle, opened it, and found methamphetamine, cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, drug paraphernalia, and two thousand seven hundred dollars in cash. Heath Wisdom told Deputy Boyer that he owned the black bag. Deputy Boyer had not asked Wisdom ifhe owned the black bag before searching inside the bag.

Deputy Boyer never obtained a warrant for his search, nor did he request Heath Wisdom’s consent before opening the black bag. Law enforcement impounded the truck and ATV, since the legal owner could not be located.

The State of Washington charged Heath Wisdom with three counts of Possession of a Controlled Substance in violation of RCW 69.50.4013(1) (cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin) and one count of Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Deliver under RCW 69.50.401(1) (methamphetamine). Wisdom moved under CrR 3.6 to suppress all evidence found in the black toiletry bag. However, the trial court denied Heath Wisdom’s motion to suppress. The WA Court of Appeals accepted review of this case.

First, the Court reasoned that the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement did NOT excuse police from obtaining a search warrant before unzipping and perusing the inside of the shaving kit bag. The court’s opinion was quite lengthy in explaining the need for society to trust police, and that doing so required officers to obtain search warrants in cases like this, and that failure to do so violates a defendants rights under article I, section 7 of the WA Constitution as well as the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Court emphasized how the caselaw treats “luggage and other closed packages, bags, and containers” as unique for purposes of police searches. Washington courts recognize an individual’s privacy interest in his closed luggage, whether locked or unlocked. Indeed, the Court gave a very colorful analyses on this subject:

A person does not rummage through a woman’s purse, because ofsecrets obtained therein. A man’s shaving kit bag can be likened to a woman’s purse. The kit bag could obtain prescription drugs, condoms or other items the owner wishes shielded from the public. The bag is intended to safeguard the privacy of personal effects. Literature, medicines, and other things found inside a bag may reveal much about a person’s activities, associations and beliefs.

The Court further reasoned that Washington allows a few jealously and carefully drawn exceptions to the warrant requirement, which include exigent circumstances, searches incident to an arrest, inventory searches, plain view searches, and Terry stops. Furthermore, under Arizona v. Gant, a warrantless vehicle search incident to arrest is authorized when the arrestee would be able to obtain a weapon from the vehicle or reach evidence ofthe crime of arrest to conceal or destroy it. Here, Heath Wisdom sat handcuffed in the patrol car at the time of the seizure and search of the toiletry bag. He lacked access to the bag.

Furthermore, under State v. Snapp, the Court reasoned the WA Constitution disapproves expansive application of the search-incident-to arrest exception to the period of time after the arrestee is secured and attendant risks to officers have passed. When a search can be delayed without running afoul of concerns for officer safety or to preserve evidence of the crime of arrest from concealment or destruction by the arrestee, and does not fall within another applicable exception, the warrant must be obtained. The police officer can prevent destruction of evidence by holding the bag as a sealed unit until obtaining a warrant.

Finally, the Court ruled that the police officer’s inventorying of the pickup’s contents did NOT excuse the need to obtain a search warrant. Inventory searches, unlike other searches, are not conducted to discover evidence of crime. Although a routine inventory search does not require a warrant, a police department policy should not, however, justify an unconstitutional search. The permitted extent of an inventory search pursuant to police department policy must be restricted to effectuating the purposes that justify the exception warrant clause.

In conclusion, the Court of Appeals held the warrantless search inside of Mr. Wisdom’s black bag was not justified by either a search incident to arrest or an inventory search. The court reversed the trial court’s denial of Mr. Wisdom’s motion to suppress evidence, reversed his four convictions, and dismissed all charges filed against him.

Good opinion.

State v. Samalia: Search of Abandoned Cell Phone is Lawful

In State v. Samalia, the WA Court of Appeals upheld the defendant’s conviction for Possession of a Stolen Motor Vehicle under RCW 9A.56.068 because the police used evidence from the defendant’s cell phone found in the abandoned stolen vehicle after he fled from the vehicle and evaded pursuit.

Yakima Police Officer Ryan Yates was on patrol when his vehicle license plate reader indicated he had passed a stolen vehicle. The officer followed the stolen vehicle. The driver got out of the vehicle and faced towards Officer Yates. The driver would not obey Officer Yates’ command to get back in the vehicle and fled. Officer Yates pursued the male driver but he got away.

Officer Yates searched the car and found a cell phone in the center console. Officer Yates conducted some investigations and discovered that the phone belonged to the defendant Mr. Samilia. Later, Officer Yates located Mr. Samalia’s picture in a police database. Officer Yates then identified Mr. Samalia from the database picture as the fleeing man who had been driving the stolen vehicle.

The State charged Mr. Samalia with possession of a stolen motor vehicle. He moved unsuccessfully to suppress the cell phone evidence under ER 3.6. From the above facts, the trial court concluded the cell phone was abandoned, therefore, Mr. Samalia no longer had an expectation of privacy in it. Following a bench trial, the court found Mr. Sam alia guilty as charged. He appealed.

The court reasoned that a warrantless search and/or seizure violates the WA Constitution unless it falls under one of ”’a few jealously guarded exceptions” to the warrant requirement. Searching voluntarily abandoned property is an exception to the warrant requirement. In other words, law enforcement may retrieve and search voluntarily abandoned property without a warrant or probable cause.

The court also considered the status of the area where the cell phone was located. Here, the search area was an unattended stolen vehicle that Mr. Samalia had been driving and had fled from when a police officer approached and directed him to return to the vehicle. Consequently, the court found that a suspect’s hasty flight under these circumstances is sufficient evidence of an intent to abandon the vehicle. In conclusion, because the cell phone was abandoned; used in pursuit of the fleeing suspect, and not directly used to identify Mr. Samalia, the court held that the trial court did not err in denying suppression of Mr. Samalia’s identification from a police database.

My opinion?

I disagree with the court’s decision. This decision is too great a leap in the wrong direction; and fails to follow Washington’s current jurisprudence. Despite the Court’s reasoning, there is NO reported Washington decision which has directly addressed whether a citizen relinquishes his reasonable expectation of privacy in the data on his cell phone by leaving the phone behind at the scene of a crime.

Our jurisprudence says police must generally secure a warrant before conducting a search of data on a cell phone – even one that has been left behind in a place where its owner has no privacy interest. Requiring a search warrant will assure that there is probable cause to believe that the defendant is involved in criminal activity and that evidence of the criminal activity can be found in the data on the cell phone.