Category Archives: Probable Cause

Firearms & Terry Stops

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In State v. Tarango, the WA Court of Appeals held that the presence of a firearm in public and the presence of an individual openly carrying a handgun in a “high-risk setting,” are insufficient, standing alone, to support an investigatory stop.

BACKGROUND FACTS

At around 2:00 in the afternoon on a winter day in 2016, Mr. Matthews drove to a neighborhood grocery store in Spokane, parking his car next to a Chevrolet Suburban in which music was playing loudly. A man was sitting in the passenger seat of the Suburban, next to its female driver. When Mr. Matthews stepped out of his car and got a better look at the passenger, who later turned out to be the defendant Mr. Tarango, he noticed that Mr. Tarango was holding a gun in his right hand, resting it on his thigh. Mr. Matthews would later describe it as a semiautomatic, Glock-style gun.

As he headed into the store, Mr. Matthews called 911 to report what he had seen, providing the 911 operator with his name and telephone number. The first officer to respond saw a vehicle meeting Mr. Matthews’s description parked on the east side of the store. He called in the license plate number and waited for backup to arrive. Before other officers could arrive, however, the Suburban left the parking area, traveling west.

The Suburban was followed by an officer and once several other officers reached the vicinity, they conducted a felony stop. According to one of the officers, the driver, Lacey Hutchinson, claimed to be the vehicle’s owner. When told why she had been pulled over, she denied having firearms in the vehicle and gave consent to search it.

After officers obtained Mr. Tarango’s identification, however, they realized he was under Department of Corrections (DOC) supervision and decided to call DOC officers to perform the search.

In searching the area within reach of where Mr. Tarango had been seated, a DOC officer observed what appeared to be the grip of a firearm located behind the passenger seat, covered by a canvas bag. When the officer moved the bag to get a better view of the visible firearm—the visible firearm turned out to be a black semiautomatic—a second firearm, a revolver, fell out. Moving the bag also revealed a couple of boxes of ammunition. At that point, officers decided to terminate the search, seal the vehicle, and obtain a search warrant. A loaded Glock Model 22 and a Colt Frontier Scout revolver were recovered when the vehicle was later searched.

The State charged Mr. Tarango, who had prior felony convictions, with two counts of first degree unlawful possession of a firearm. Because Mr. Tarango had recently failed to report to his community custody officer as ordered, he was also charged with Escape from community custody.

Before trial, Mr. Tarango moved to suppress evidence obtained as a result of the traffic stop, arguing that police lacked reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. However, the trial court denied the suppression motion. Later, at trial, the jury found Mr. Tarango guilty as charged. He appealed.

ISSUE

The issue on appeal was whether a reliable informant’s tip that Mr. Tarango was seen openly holding a handgun while seated in a vehicle in a grocery store parking lot was a sufficient basis, without more, for conducting a Terry stop of the vehicle after it left the lot.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court of Appeals held that Mr. Tarango’s motion to suppress should have been granted because officers lacked reasonable suspicion that Mr. Tarango had engaged in or was about to engage in criminal activity.

The Court reasoned that warrantless searches and seizures are per se unreasonable unless one of the few jealously and carefully drawn exceptions to the warrant requirement applies.

“A Terry investigative stop is a well-established exception,” said the Court. “The purpose of a Terry stop is to allow the police to make an intermediate response to a situation for which there is no probable cause to arrest but which calls for further investigation . . . To conduct a valid Terry stop, an officer must have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity based on specific and articulable facts known to the officer at the inception of the stop.”

Additionally, the Court of Appeals reasoned that in evaluating whether the circumstances supported a reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct, it reminded that Washington is an “open carry” state, meaning that it is legal in Washington to carry an unconcealed firearm unless the circumstances manifest an intent to intimidate another or warrant alarm for the safety of other persons.

“Since openly carrying a handgun is not only not unlawful, but is an individual right protected by the federal and state constitutions, it defies reason to contend that it can be the basis, without more, for an investigative stop.”

Here, because the officers conducting the Terry stop of the Suburban had no information that Mr. Tarango had engaged in or was about to engage in criminal activity, the officers lacked reasonable suspicion.

Consequently, the Court of Appeals ruled that Tarango’s motion to suppress should have been granted. The Court also reversed and dismissed his firearm possession convictions.

Please contact my office if, a friend or family member face criminal charges. Similar to the excellent defense attorney in this case, experienced attorneys routinely research, file and argue motions to suppress evidence when it is gained by unlawful search and seizure and in violation a defendant’s Constitutional rights.

Signalling Turns

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In State v. Brown, the WA Court of Appeals held that a driver, who moved left from a middle lane to a dedicated left turn lane while signaling his intention to change lanes, is not required to reactive his turn signal before turning left from the reserve lane unless public safety is implicated. Therefore, evidence discovered when a driver is stopped for failing to signal a turn when public safety is not implicated must be suppressed.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On the evening of March 22, 2015, Trooper Acheson of the WA State Patrol patrolled the streets of Kennewick. At 10:15 p.m., while traveling eastbound on Clearwater Avenue, Trooper Acheson saw Mr. Brown driving a Toyota Tundra, turn right from Huntington Street onto Clearwater Avenue. During the turn, the left side tires of the Tundra, a large pickup, crossed the white dashed divider line between the two eastbound lanes by one tire width for a brief moment, after which the vehicle fully returned to its lane of travel. Brown’s diversion across the dividing line did not endanger any travel. Acheson observed Brown’s tires cross the white dashed divider line, and he continued to view Brown’s driving thereafter.

Shortly after entering Clearwater Avenue, Mr. Brown signaled his intent to change lanes, and to move to the left or inner eastbound lane, by activating his left turn signal that blinked numerous times. Brown entered the inner lane of the two lanes.

Soon, Mr. Brown approached the intersection of Clearwater Avenue and Highway 395, where the eastbound lanes widen to three lanes. The innermost of the three lanes becomes a designated left turn only lane. Brown again wished to change lanes so he could turn left. Brown signaled his intent to move left into the dedicated turn lane. Brown maneuvered his vehicle into the dedicated turn lane, at which point the left turn signal cycled-off.

Mr. Brown stopped his vehicle in the dedicated left turn lane while awaiting the light to turn green. He did not reactivate his turn signal. Trooper Acheson pulled behind Brown. No other traffic was present on eastbound Clearwater Avenue. When the light turned green, Brown turned left onto northbound Highway 395. Trooper Mason Acheson then activated his patrol vehicle’s emergency light and stopped Brown.

Trooper Acheson stopped David Brown based on Brown’s crossing the eastbound lanes’ divider line during his turn from Huntington Street onto Clearwater Avenue. He did not stop Brown based on Brown’s failure to signal his left turn onto Highway 395. After stopping Brown, Trooper Acheson investigated Brown for suspicion of driving under the influence of intoxicants (DUI). Acheson arrested Brown for DUI.

Brown filed a motion to suppress evidence garnered from the stop of his car by Trooper Acheson. The court concluded that, because Brown violated no traffic law, Trooper Acheson lacked probable cause to initiate the traffic stop. Therefore, the court suppressed all evidence gained from the stop and thereafter dismissed the prosecution.

The Prosecutor appealed the dismissal to the superior court. According to the superior court, David Brown violated RCW 46.61.305(2), which requires a continuous signal of one’s intent to turn during the last one hundred feet before turning left. Because Trooper Mason Acheson observed Brown’s failure to continuously signal before turning left onto the highway, Acheson gained reasonable suspicion of a traffic infraction. The superior court remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.

Mr. Brown appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that RCW 46.61.305(2) declares that a driver must, “when required,” continuously signal an intention to turn or cross lanes during at least the last one hundred feet traveled before turning or moving lanes. This appeal asks if this statute compels a driver, who moved left from a middle lane to a dedicated left turn lane while signally his intention to change lanes, to reactivate his turn signal before turning left from the reserved turn lane.

“We hold that the statute only requires use of a signal in circumstances that implicate public safety. Because the circumstances surrounding David Brown’s left-hand turn from a left-turn-only lane did not jeopardize public safety, we hold that Trooper Acheson lacked grounds to stop David Brown’s vehicle.”

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed the superior court, reinstated the district court’s grant of David Brown’s motion to suppress and dismissed the charge of driving while under the influence.

My opinion? Good decision. It makes sense that unless public safety is an issue, police officers shouldn’t have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to pull over a vehicle that’s clearly in the left-turn lane even though their vehicle turn signal is not activated. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges of DUI, Reckless Driving, Driving While License Suspended or other criminal traffic violations.

“School Search” Held Unconstitutional

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In State v. A.S., the WA Court of Appeals held that drugs found in a 14-year-old child’s backpack in a search conducted by the vice-principal were rightfully suppressed because the search was not reasonable when the child (1) was not a student of the school, (2) the vice principal knew nothing about the child’s history or school record, (3) there was no record of a drug problem at the school, and (4) there was no exigent circumstance to conduct the search as police officers were already on their way to the school.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On April 11, 2016, Meadowdale High School staff received information about an alleged threat involving then 14-year-old A.S., who was not a Meadowdale student. Meadowdale staff looked up A.S.’s picture using the district’s computer system so that they would be able to identify her should she appear on campus.

Later that day, the Vice-Principal of Meadowdale summonsed A.S. to his office, and later, the Principal’s office. A.S. was not very cooperative with being questioned.

At some point while A.S. was in Kniseley’s office, the Vice-Principal noticed an odor that he recognized as marijuana emanating from A.S. The Vice-Principal then searched A.S.’s backpack, which was sitting next to her, and found suspected marijuana and drug paraphernalia. A.S. did not say or do anything to resist the search of her backpack.

A.S. was later charged with possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of a controlled substance. Prior to trial, A.S. moved to suppress the evidence of the suspected marijuana and drug paraphernalia found in her backpack, arguing that the evidence was the fruit of an unlawful search and seizure. Specifically, A.S. argued that the “school search exception” to the warrant requirement did not apply to her because she was not a Meadowdale student when the Vice-Principal searched her backpack and even if the exception did apply, the search was not reasonable.

The trial court denied A.S.’s motion and, following a stipulated bench trial, convicted A.S. of both possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of a controlled substance. A.S. appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that under both the Washington Constitution and U.S. Constitution, a government actor must obtain a search warrant supported by probable cause to conduct a search unless an exception applies. Under pre-existing case-law, the exceptions to the warrant requirement are “‘jealously and carefully drawn.”

School Search Exception

One of these exceptions is the “school search exception,” which allows school authorities to conduct a search of a student without probable cause if the search is reasonable under all the circumstances. A search is reasonable if it is: (1) justified at its inception; and (2) reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the interference in the first place.

The Court further reasoned that under ordinary circumstances, a search of a student by a teacher or other school official will be ‘justified at its inception’ when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school. And, a search will be permitted in scope “when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.

Finally, Washington courts have established the following factors from State v. Brooks and State v. McKinnon as relevant in determining whether school officials had reasonable grounds for conducting a warrantless search:

“The child’s age, history, and school record, the prevalence and seriousness of the problem in the school to which the search was directed, the exigency to make the search without delay, and the probative value and reliability of the information used as a justification for the search.”

Here,  the search was unconstitutional.

First, A.S. was not a student of the school and the Vice-Principal knew nothing about the child’s history or school record. Specifically, nothing in the record suggests that the Vice-Principal, who guessed that A.S. was middle school aged, knew anything about A.S.’s history or school record. Indeed, the Vice-Principal testified that when he looked up A.S. in the district database, he was only interested in her picture.

Furthermore, there was no evidence that drug use was a drug problem at Meadowdale. Rather, when asked whether Meadowdale had a drug problem, the Vice-Principal responded, “I don’t believe so.” He also testified that he did not deal with drugs on a regular basis as a school administrator and that Meadowdale had only “occasional incidents” on its campus involving students bringing drugs or drug paraphernalia on campus.

Additionally, there was no exigency to conduct the search without delay, given that the police had been called, and A.S.—who had been told that the police were called—gave no indication that she was trying to leave the principal’s office.

And finally, the odor of marijuana alone did not create an exigent circumstance, particularly where the Vice-Principal had no other reason to believe that A.S. used marijuana or that her backpack would contain marijuana. For these same reasons, the search of A.S.’s backpack was not justified at its inception.

My opinion? Good decision. In an educational context, school officials have a substantial interest in maintaining discipline and order on school grounds. However, the search conducted in this case did not promote that interest.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime involving a questionable search by the authorities. Hiring a competent, experienced and knowledgeable defense attorney is the first step toward gaining justice.

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.

Cell Site Location Information

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In Carpenter v. United States, the United States Supreme Court held that the government generally needs a search warrant to collect troves of location data about the customers of cellphone companies.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In April 2011, police arrested four men suspected of committing a string of armed robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in and around Detroit. One of the men confessed that the group had robbed nine different stores in Michigan and Ohio between December 2010 and March 2011, supported by a shifting ensemble of 15 other men who served as getaway drivers and lookouts. The robber who confessed to the crimes gave the FBI his own cellphone number and the numbers of other participants; the FBI then reviewed his call records to identify still more numbers that he had called around the time of the robberies.

In May and June 2011, the FBI applied for three federal court orders from magistrate judges to obtain “transactional records” from various wireless carriers for 16 different phone numbers. As part of those applications, the FBI recited that these records included “all subscriber information, toll records and call detail records including listed and unlisted numbers dialed or otherwise transmitted to and from [the] target telephones from December 1, 2010 to present,” as well as “cell site information for the target telephones at call origination and at call termination for incoming and outgoing calls.”

The FBI also stated that these records would “provide evidence that Timothy Carpenter and other known and unknown individuals” had violated the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951. The magistrates granted the applications pursuant to the Stored Communications Act, under which the government may require the disclosure of certain telecommunications records when “specific and articulable facts show that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the contents of a wire or electronic communication, or the records or other information sought, are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.”

The government later charged Carpenter with six counts of aiding and abetting robbery that affected interstate commerce, in violation of the Hobbs Act, and aiding and abetting the use or carriage of a firearm during a federal crime of violence. Before trial, Carpenter and Sanders moved to suppress the government’s cell-site evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds, arguing that the records could be seized only with a warrant supported by probable cause. The district court denied the motion.

At trial, seven accomplices testified that Carpenter organized most of the robberies and
often supplied the guns. They also testified that Carpenter and his half-brother Sanders had served as lookouts during the robberies. According to these witnesses, Carpenter typically waited in a stolen car across the street from the targeted store. At his signal, the robbers entered the store, brandished their guns, herded customers and employees to the back, and ordered the employees to fill the robbers’ bags with new smartphones. After each robbery, the team met nearby to dispose of the guns and getaway vehicle and to sell the stolen phones.

Also at trial, the Government admitted cell-site location information (CSLI) provided by Carpenter’s wireless carriers. The State’s expert witness created maps showing that Carpenter’s phone was within a half-mile to two miles of the location of each of the robberies around the time the robberies happened. Hess used MetroPCS call-detail records, for example, to show that Carpenter was within that proximity of a Detroit Radio Shack that was robbed around 10:35 a.m. on December 13, 2010. Specifically, MetroPCS records showed that at 10:24 a.m. Carpenter’s phone received a call that lasted about four minutes. At the start and end of the call, Carpenter’s phone drew its signal from MetroPCS tower 173, sectors 1 and 2, located southwest of the store and whose signals point northeast.

After the robbery, Carpenter placed an eight-minute call originating at tower 145, sector 3, located northeast of the store, its signal pointing southwest; when the call ended, Carpenter’s phone was receiving its signal from tower 164, sector 1, alongside Interstate 94, north of the Radio Shack. The expert witness provided similar analysis
concerning the locations of Carpenter’s phone at the time of a December 18, 2010 robbery in Detroit; a March 4, 2011 robbery in Warren, Ohio; and an April 5, 2011 robbery in Detroit. See Carpenter App’x at 12-15.

The jury convicted Carpenter on all of the Hobbs Act counts and convicted him on all but one of the gun counts. Carpenter’s convictions subjected him to four mandatory-minimum prison sentences of 25 years, each to be served consecutively, leaving him with a Sentencing Guidelines range of 1,395 to 1,428 months’ prison. The district court sentenced Carpenter to 1,395 months’ imprisonment. He appealed his convictions and sentences.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

Justice Roberts delivered the majority opinion of the Supreme Court.

Preliminarily, the Court held that the Government’s acquisition of Carpenter’s cell-site records was a Fourth Amendment search. It reasoned that Fourth Amendment protects not only property interests but certain expectations of privacy as well.

“Thus, when an individual seeks to preserve something as private, and his expectation of privacy is one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable, official intrusion into that sphere generally qualifies as a search and requires a warrant supported by probable cause,” said the Court.

“Tracking a person’s past movements through CSLI partakes of many of the qualities of GPS monitoring considered in Jones—it is detailed, encyclopedic, and effortlessly compiled.”

The Court further reasoned that cell phone location information is not truly “shared” as the term is normally understood. “First, cell phones and the services they provide are such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life, that carrying one is indispensable to participation in modern society,” said the Court. “Second, a cell phone logs a cell-site record by dint of its operation, without any affirmative act on the user’s part beyond powering up.”

Finally, the Court reasoned that the Government did not obtain a warrant supported by probable cause before acquiring Carpenter’s cell-site records. It acquired those records pursuant to a court order under the Stored Communications Act, which required the Government to show reasonable grounds for believing that the records were relevant and material to an ongoing investigation. “That showing falls well short of the probable cause required for a warrant,” said the Court. “Consequently, an order issued under §2703(d) is not a permissible mechanism for accessing historical cell-site records. Not all orders compelling the production of documents will require a showing of probable cause.”

Justice Ginsberg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Kennedy filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Thomas and Alito joined. Justice Gorsuch also filed a dissenting opinion.

It’s imperative to hire competent defense counsel willing to argue motions to suppress information that the Government creatively – and sometimes illegally – obtains. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are arrested for crimes involving searches of cell phones and/or cell phone records.

Inventory Searches of Cars

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In United States v. Johnson, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a suspicionless inventory search is only proper when it is performed to secure and to protect an arrestee’s property and to protect the police department against fraudulent claims of lost or stolen property. Evidence removed from the defendant’s car could not be justified under the inventory-search doctrine where the officers explicitly admitted that they seized the items in an effort to search for evidence of criminal activity.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On April 10, 2014, Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputies located Mr. Johnson—who had an outstanding warrant for his arrest based on a post-prison supervision violation—at the Clackamas Inn, just south of Portland, Oregon. The deputies followed Johnson to a residence in the nearby town of Gladstone and called Portland Police Bureau (PPB) Officers Corona and Ables for assistance in arresting him.

The officers did not approach Johnson at the residence, but instead waited outside. After about 20 minutes, Johnson left, and again the officers followed him. At a nearby intersection, the officers finally stopped Johnson by loosely boxing in his car; one car approached Johnson from behind while another approached from the front, effectively blocking Johnson’s ability to drive away. The cars all came to a stop within a few feet of each other, and although there was enough room for Johnson to pull his car to the side of the road, he instead parked in the lane of traffic, disrupting the flow of passing cars. When approached by the officers, Johnson could not provide proof of insurance for the car, which he was borrowing, nor could he give anything other than the first name of the car’s owner. Johnson did not know how the police could contact the owner.

The officers arrested Johnson on the outstanding warrant. After the arrest, the officers searched Johnson and found a folding knife in his front pocket, $7,100 in cash in $20 and $100 denominations in his rear pants pocket, and $150 in cash in his wallet. Johnson said that he had recently inherited the $7,100 and that he planned to purchase a car with it.

Because Johnson’s car was blocking traffic and because Johnson could not provide contact information for the car’s owner, the officers ordered it to be towed and impounded, pursuant to PPB policy. Prior to the tow, the officers conducted an inventory search of the car, again pursuant to local policy. From the interior of the car, the officers collected a combination stun gun and flashlight, a glass pipe with white residue, a jacket, and two cellphones. From the trunk, the officers collected a backpack and a duffel bag. Officer Corona testified that, when he moved the backpack and duffel in order to search for other items in the trunk, the bags felt heavy and the backpack made a metallic “clink” when he set it down on the pavement. PPB stored each of the seized pieces of property in the County property and evidence warehouse, and the $7,100 was taken into custody by the County Sherriff’s Office. Officer Corona recorded each item seized on an accompanying arrest report; the Sheriff’s Office prepared a property receipt for the $7,100 in seized cash.

A week later, Officer Corona submitted an affidavit to secure a warrant to search the seized backpack, duffel bag, and cell phones. The affidavit referred to a 2009 police report (which Corona read after arresting Johnson) that stated Johnson had previously been found with cash, weapons, and drugs in a safe concealed in his vehicle. Officer Corona’s affidavit stated that, based on the circumstances of Johnson’s recent arrest, he had probable cause to believe the bags seized from the trunk would contain similar lockboxes, and that the phones would contain evidence of drug dealing.

A warrant was duly signed by a local magistrate judge, and a search of the backpack revealed a small safe containing two bags of methamphetamine, drug-packaging materials, syringes, and a digital scale. The duffel bag contained Johnson’s personal items, and one of the cellphones contained text messages regarding drug trafficking.

Johnson was indicted on one charge of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine in an amount of 50 grams or more, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(A)(viii).

Before trial, Johnson moved to suppress the evidence found in the car and on his person at arrest. Primarily, Johnson challenged the evidence supporting the warrant to search the backpack and cellphones, arguing that it did not amount to probable cause. Johnson also argued that the officers unlawfully manipulated the bags they seized from the car in order to get a sense for what they might contain and that the inventory search of his car was invalid.

The federal district court denied the motion, concluding that there was probable cause to stop and to arrest Johnson on the outstanding warrant, the officers validly impounded Johnson’s car because it was blocking traffic, the subsequent inventory of the vehicle was “lawful because PPB mandates officers to conduct an inventory of impounded vehicles,” and the search warrant was supported by probable cause.

At trial, the government introduced the evidence found in Johnson’s car and on his person, with a particular focus on the items of evidence found in the backpack, the messages from the cellphone, and the $7,100 in cash. The jury found him guilty.

Approximately four months later, Johnson filed a motion for new trial on the basis of, among other things, two pieces of supposedly newly discovered evidence: (1) evidence showing that Johnson had indeed recently received an inheritance; and (2) a receipt from the private company that towed and impounded his car, which stated that they found various additional items of property in the car that were not listed in Officer Corona’s arrest report. After a hearing, the district court denied the motion for a new trial upon the conclusion that none of the supposedly new evidence would have resulted in a likely acquittal.

Johnson was sentenced to 188 months in prison, and he now timely appeals.

LEGAL ISSUE

Whether the trial court erred in failing to suppress evidence that was seized by City of Portland police officers during their inventory search of a criminal defendant and the car he was driving at the time of his arrest.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Johnson argued that the officers’ inspection of his car exceeded the constitutionally permissible bounds for an inventory search.

The Ninth Circuit reasoned that as an exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, police may, without a warrant, impound and search a motor vehicle so long as they do so in conformance with the standardized procedures of the local police department and in furtherance of a community caretaking purpose, such as promoting public safety or the efficient flow of traffic. The purpose of such a search is to produce an inventory of the items in the car, in order to protect an owner’s property while it is in the custody of the police, to insure against claims of lost, stolen, or vandalized property, and to guard the police from danger. Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1, 4 (1990). Thus, the purpose of the search must be non-investigative; it must be conducted on the basis of something other than suspicion of evidence of criminal activity. The search cannot be “a ruse for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence.” Wells, 495 U.S. at 4.

The Court of Appeals further reasoned that an administrative search may be invalid where the officer’s subjective purpose was to find evidence of crime. However, the mere presence of a criminal investigatory motive or a dual motive—one valid, and one impermissible— does not render an administrative stop or search invalid. Instead, the issue is whether the challenged search or seizure would have occurred in the absence of an impermissible reason.

“We thus must determine whether Johnson has produced evidence that demonstrates the officers would not have searched and seized items from the car he was driving but for an impermissible motive,” said the Court of Appeals.

“Under our circuit’s law, a suspicionless inventory search does not permit officers to search or to seize items simply because they believe the items might be of evidentiary value,” said the Court.  It reasoned that as explained above, the purpose of such a search must be unrelated to criminal investigation; it must function instead to secure and to protect an arrestee’s property, and likewise to protect the police department against fraudulent claims of lost or stolen property.

“Thus, the officers’ statements directly admitting that they searched and seized items from Johnson’s car specifically to gather evidence of a suspected crime are sufficient to conclude that the warrantless search of the car was unreasonable,” said the Court, citing Orozco; a case where the Ninth Circuit found pretext where the police officers admitted that their subjective purpose was to find evidence of crime.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that the officers’ search and seizure of such evidence cannot be justified under the inventory-search doctrine:

“In the face of such evidence, it is clear to us that the officers’ decision to seize the money, bags, and cellphones from Johnson and his car would not have occurred without an improper motivation to gather evidence of crime.”

Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that because the government has not offered any justification for the seizure of such property other than the inventory-search doctrine, the district court erred in denying Johnson’s motion to suppress. Therefore, evidence gathered from Johnson and his vehicle was inadmissible.

With that, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the federal district court’s denial of Johnson’s motion to suppress the evidence found on his person and in the car he was driving at the time of his arrest is reversed, his conviction and sentence are vacated, and the case is remanded back to the district court for further proceedings.

My opinion? Good decision. Clearly, the search conducted by police officers in this case went beyond the scope of a lawful inventory search. Please contact my office if you, a friend of family member face criminal charges involving a questionable search. The evidence might be suppressible under a well-argued pretrial motion.

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.

Probable Cause & Parties

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In District of Colombia v. Wesby, the United States Supreme Court decided that police officers had probable cause to arrest partygoers at a home when the totality of the circumstances make it clearly obvious that criminal activity was happening.

BACKGROUND

District of Columbia police officers responded to a complaint about loud music and illegal activities in a vacant house. Inside, they found the house nearly barren and in disarray. The officers smelled marijuana and observed beer bottles and cups of liquor on the floor, which was dirty. They found a make-shift strip club in the living room.  Several women were wearing only bras and thongs, with cash tucked into their garter belts. The women were giving lap dances while other partygoers watched. Most of the onlookers were holding cash and cups of alcohol.

The officers found more debauchery upstairs. A naked woman and several men were in the bedroom. A bare mattress—the only one in the house—was on the floor, along with some lit candles and multiple open condom wrappers. A used condom was on the windowsill. The officers found one partygoer hiding in an upstairs closet, and another who had shut himself in the bathroom and refused to come out.

Many partygoers scattered when they saw the uniformed officers, and some hid. The officers questioned everyone and got inconsistent stories. Two women identified “Peaches” as the house’s tenant and said that she had given the partygoers permission to have the party. But Peaches was not there. When the officers spoke by phone to Peaches, she was nervous, agitated, and evasive. At first, she claimed that she was renting the house and had given the partygoers permission to have the party, but she eventually admitted that she did not have permission to use the house. The owner confirmed that he had not given anyone permission to be there.

At that point, the officers arrested the 21 partygoers for Unlawful Entry. The police transported the partygoers to the police station, where the lieutenant decided to charge them with Disorderly Conduct. The partygoers were released, and the charges were eventually dropped.

Several partygoers sued for False Arrest under the Fourth Amendment. The Federal District Court concluded that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest the partygoers for unlawful entry and that two of the officers, petitioners here, were not entitled to qualified immunity. A divided panel of the D. C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. Eventually, this case went to the U.S. Supreme court.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

  1. The Officers Had Probable Cause to Arrest.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that police officers had probable cause to arrest the partygoers. The Court reasoned that considering the “totality of the circumstances” under Maryland v. Pringle, the officers made an “entirely reasonable inference” that the partygoers knew they did not have permission to be in the house.

Taken together, the condition of the house and the conduct of the partygoers allowed the officers to make several common-sense conclusions about human behavior. Because most homeowners do not live in such conditions or permit such activities in their homes, the officers could infer that the partygoers knew the party was not authorized. Furthermore, the Court reasoned that officers also could infer that the partygoers knew that they were not supposed to be in the house because they scattered and hid when the officers arrived. Also, the partygoers’ vague and implausible answers to questioning also gave the officers reason to infer that the partygoers were lying and that their lies suggested a guilty mind. Finally, Peaches’ lying and evasive behavior gave the officers reason to discredit everything she said.

2. The Lower Court Failed to Conduct the Correct Analysis.

The Supreme Court explained that the lower court failed to follow two basic and well-established principles of law. First, it viewed each fact in isolation, rather than as a factor in the totality of the circumstances. Second, it believed that it could dismiss outright any circumstances that were susceptible of innocent explanation. Instead, it should have asked whether a reasonable officer could conclude—considering all of the surrounding circumstances, including the plausibility of the explanation itself—that there was a substantial chance of criminal activity.

   3. The Officers Were Entitled to Qualified Immunity.

For those who don’t know, Qualified Immunity protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff‘s rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right. When determining whether or not a right was “clearly established,” courts consider whether a hypothetical reasonable official would have known that the defendant’s conduct violated the plaintiff’s rights. Courts conducting this analysis apply the law that was in force at the time of the alleged violation, not the law in effect when the court considers the case.

The Court ruled that here, officers are entitled to qualified immunity under 42 U. S. C. §1983 unless the unlawfulness of their conduct was clearly established at the time. To be clearly established, a legal principle must be “settled law,” and it must clearly prohibit the officer’s conduct in the particular circumstances before him. In the warrantless arrest context, “a body of relevant case law” is usually necessary to “ ‘clearly establish’ the answer” with respect to probable cause. Brosseau v. Haugen.

With that, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded the lower court’s decision.

Contact my office of you, a friend or family member’s house party was interrupted by police who conducted arrests. Competent defense counsel can ascertain whether constitutional rights were violated in the search and seizure of persons and property.

Emergency Blood Draws

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In State v. Inman, the WA Court of Appeals held that a warrantless blood draw was proper under exigent circumstances where: (a) the injury collision occurred in a rural area; (b) there is spotty phone service; (c) a search warrant takes 30-45 minutes to create; and (d) helicopters airlifted the DUI suspect to a hospital. A search warrant is not required before a blood sample collected under the exigent circumstances exception is tested for alcohol and drugs.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In May 2015, Inman and Margie Vanderhoof were injured in a motorcycle accident on a
rural road. Inman was the driver of the motorcycle and Vanderhoof was his passenger. Captain Tim Manly, the first paramedic on the scene, observed a motorcycle in a ditch and two people lying down in a driveway approximately 20 to 25 feet away. Captain Manly observed that Inman had facial trauma, including bleeding and abrasions on the face, and a deformed helmet. Based on Inman’s injuries, Captain Manly believed that the accident was a high-trauma incident.

Captain Manly learned from a bystander that Inman had been unconscious for approximately five minutes after the collision before regaining consciousness. Manly
administered emergency treatment to Inman, which included placing Inman in a C-Spine, a device designed to immobilize the spine to prevent paralysis.

While Captain Manly provided Inman with treatment, Sergeant Galin Hester of the Washington State Patrol contacted Vanderhoof, who complained of pelvic pain. Sergeant Hester spoke with Inman and smelled intoxicants on him.

Later, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy Brandon Przygocki arrived on the scene and observed a motorcycle in a ditch with significant front-end damage.  He contacted Inman in the ambulance and, smelling alcohol, asked whether Inman had been drinking and driving. Inman admitted he had been driving the motorcycle and that he had been drinking before he drove.

Deputy Przygocki believed he had probable cause to believe Inman was driving under the influence. Helicopters came to airlift Inman and Vanderhoof to the nearest trauma center. Deputy Przygocki knew that preparation of a search warrant affidavit takes 30-45 minutes. There was no reliable cell phone coverage in the rural area. Deputy Przygocki conducted a warrantless blood draw after reading a special evidence warning to Inman informing him that he was under arrest and that a blood sample was being seized to determine the concentration of alcohol in his blood.

There is a process by which a search warrant for a blood draw may be obtained
telephonically and executed by an officer at the hospital to which Inman was being transported. However, this process is problematic and, in the experience of Officer Hester, had never worked in the past.

TRIAL COURT PROCEDURES

Inman was charged with vehicular assault while under the influence and filed a motion to
suppress evidence of the warrantless blood draw. He argued that the implied consent statute authorized a warrantless blood draw but that the implied consent statute was not constitutional, so there was no valid authority for the blood draw. He also argued that the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement did not justify a warrantless blood draw in this case.

In response, the State argued that Inman’s blood was lawfully drawn pursuant to the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.

The trial court heard testimony from six witnesses, who testified consistently with the
factual findings summarized above. The trial court orally ruled that exigent circumstances justified the blood draw and later entered written findings of fact and conclusions of law.

Inman filed a reconsideration motion. He argued that there was no probable cause for DUI. He also argued that, even assuming that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless blood draw, a warrant was needed to test the blood. The State disagreed.

The trial court denied Inman’s reconsideration motion. The trial court concluded that Deputy Przygocki had probable cause to believe Inman had committed a DUI. In addition, the trial court concluded that the warrantless blood draw was justified under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. Finally, the trial court concluded that because the blood was lawfully seized under exigent circumstances, no warrant was required to test the blood. After a stipulated facts trial, the trial court found Inman guilty of vehicular assault. Inman appealed.

COURT’S CONCLUSIONS AND ANALYSIS

  1. The Arrest Was Supported by Probable Cause.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that under both the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution, an arrest is lawful only when supported by probable cause. Probable cause exists when the arresting officer, at the time of the arrest, has knowledge of facts sufficient to cause a reasonable officer to believe that an offense has been committed. Whether probable cause exists depends on the totality of the circumstances.

Here, Deputy Przygocki had probable cause to believe Inman had committed a DUI. When Deputy Przygocki arrived on the scene, he observed a motorcycle in a ditch with significant front-end damage and, after running the license plates, knew the vehicle belonged to Inman. Deputy Przygocki learned from Sergeant Hester that Inman was in the ambulance and smelled of alcohol. Deputy Przygocki then contacted Inman in the ambulance, and Inman admitted he had been driving the motorcycle and that he had been drinking before he drove.

“Based on these facts, Deputy Przygocki knew that Inman was driving the motorcycle after drinking alcohol when he crashed. This knowledge is sufficient to cause a reasonable officer to believe that Inman was driving a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol,” said the Court of Appeals.

2. Exigent Circumstances Supported a Warrantless Blood Draw.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that a warrantless search is impermissible under both article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, unless an exception to the warrant requirement authorizes the search. Drawing a person’s blood for alcohol testing is a search triggering these constitutional protections. A warrantless search is allowed if exigent circumstances exist.  The exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement applies where the delay necessary to obtain a warrant is not practical because the delay would permit the destruction of evidence.

“The natural dissipation of an intoxicating substance in a suspect’s blood may be a factor in determining whether exigent circumstances justify a warrantless blood search, but courts determine exigency under the totality of the circumstances on a case-by-case basis.”

The Court of Appeals held that under the circumstances, obtaining a warrant was not practical. Inman and Vanderhoof were both injured from a motorcycle accident that resulted in significant front-end damage to the motorcycle, which was found in a ditch. Both Inman and Vanderhoof received emergency medical services, and Inman was receiving treatment for possible spine injuries. At the time of the blood draw, helicopters were coming to airlift Inman and Vanderhoof to the nearest hospital. It would have taken at least 45 minutes to prepare and obtain judicial approval for a search warrant. Deputy Przygocki lacked reliable cell phone coverage in the rural area, so obtaining a telephonic warrant may have been a challenge.

CONCLUSION

The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court did not err in denying Inman’s suppression motion. First, there was probable cause to arrest Inman for DUI. Second, exigent circumstances existed to authorize a warrantless blood draw. Third, the implied consent statute does not bar a warrantless search under exigent circumstances. Finally, a legal blood draw under the exigent circumstances exception allows testing of the blood without a warrant when there is probable cause to arrest for DUI.

My opinion? Exigent circumstances are one of many arguments that the government uses to get around search warrant requirements. Contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges involving DUI, blood draws, or exigent circumstances which arguably circumvent the need for officers to obtain search warrants. In difficult cases like the one described above, competent legal counsel is definitely needed to protect constitutional rights against unlawful search and seizure.

Invalid Search Warrant

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In State v. Youngs, the WA Court of Appeals suppressed evidence of the defendant’s blood test collected after a search warrant because the search warrant application did not contain sufficient facts to establish that the suspect was driving the car.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In the early morning hours of May 15, 2013, a Washington State Patrol Trooper arrested Youngs after driving a car involved in a rollover collision. The judge issued the warrant based on the Affidavit in Support of Search Warrant for Evidence of a Driving While Under the Influence of Intoxicants (DUI).

This affidavit is a largely preprinted form to which the law enforcement officer may add information.

Following the blood draw, the State charged Youngs with DUI. Youngs moved to suppress evidence obtained under authority of the warrant. The district court denied the motion. Youngs then agreed to a stipulated bench trial based on the police report and blood alcohol report. The district court found Youngs guilty and sentenced him.

Youngs sought review in the superior court. The Court affirmed based on the content in the state trooper’s affidavit. Eventually, the WA Court of Appeals granted Youngs’s appeal.

ISSUE

The question was whether the trooper’s search warrant affidavit had sufficient facts for a judge to make an independent decision whether there was probable cause that the defendant was driving.

COURT’S DECISION & ANALYSIS

 

The Court decided that although the factual information concerning intoxication is sufficient and unchallenged in this case, the factual information to establish driving is insufficient.

The Court reasoned that a judge may only issue a search warrant upon probable cause. The warrant must be supported by an affidavit identifying the place to be searched and the items to be seized. The affidavit must contain sufficient facts to convince an ordinary person that the defendant is probably engaged in criminal activity.

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that judges must evaluate the relevant affidavit “‘in a commonsense manner, rather than hypertechnically, and any doubts are resolved in favor of the warrant. Thus, a “negligent or innocent mistake” in drafting the affidavit will not void it. Also, judges may draw reasonable inferences from the stated facts.

However, the Court also reasoned that inferences alone, without an otherwise substantial basis of facts, are insufficient. The affidavit may provide summary statements so long as it also expresses the facts and circumstances underlying that summary.

Here, the Court found technical problems with the affidavit. For example, one problem is that the preprinted language in the form—”ceased driving/was found in physical control of a motor vehicle” — suggests that it is intended to apply to two different crimes. One crime is “Driving While Under the Influence under RCW 46.61.502, while the other is “Physical Control of Vehicle While Under the Influence under RCW 46.61.504, which is a totally separate and different crime with different elements for the State to prove:

The Court said that unlike the act of driving, which may be readily observed, “physical control” is a conclusion drawn from other facts. For example, a police officer may reach this conclusion based on the defendant’s proximity to the vehicle, possession of keys to it, or similar observable circumstances.  Because the magistrate must independently determine whether probable cause exists, he or she cannot simply accept such a conclusion without supporting allegations. Therefore, ruled the Court, the statements in the search warrant affidavit are conclusory, general, and insufficient to support probable cause that Youngs was driving the vehicle.

With that, the Court reversed Youngs’ conviction and remanded the case back to the district court with directions to suppress the evidence obtained by the warrant.

My opinion? Excellent decision. Sure, it’s sometimes safe to assume that the sole driver of a car involved in a collision is, in fact, the driver. However, it muddies the waters even further when law enforcement officers issuing search warrants fail to clarify whether the crime of straight DUI or Physical Control DUI took place. These crimes are very different. One crimes involves officers seeing the defendant drive (straight DUI) while the other crime does not (Physical Control DUI). Combined with the fact that there was missing information regarding the defendant’s driving at all, this combination of errors makes for an ineffective search warrant.

Again, good decision.