Category Archives: Probable Cause

Ninth Circuit Strikes Nevada Statutory Scheme Allowing Pretextual Stops

Image result for excuses for traffic stop

In United States v. Orozco, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a statute allowing Nevada law enforcement officers to stop and search commercial vehicles for no reason violates the Fourth Amendment as unlawfully pretextual.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2013, law enforcement received a tip that defendant Victor Orozco – a commercial truck driver – regularly transported illegal drugs across the border inside his semi truck. Unbeknownst to Orozco, Nevada had a statutory and administrative scheme  allowing its police officers to pull over and search commercial vehicles for contraband under the notion that these searched perform a public safety purpose.

On April 27, 2013, the tipster said Orozco would be driving through White Pine County,
Nevada. Trooper Zehr of the Nevada Highway Patrol was advised of the vehicle and its location. He was told he would have to develop his own probable cause to get the vehicle stopped because there could possibly be drugs in the vehicle, but there was nothing solid.

Troopers targeted Orozco’s truck and pulled it over. They discovered the truck had made several trips across the border. Eventually, a K-9 officer dog arrived and made a positive alert as to the presence of drugs. The troopers found a duffel bag containing twenty-six pounds of methamphetamine and six pounds of heroin in the sleeper compartment.

Prior to trial, Orozco moved to suppress the drug evidence on the ground that the inspection of his vehicle was an impermissible pretext “motivated by a desire to search for evidence of drug trafficking, rather than to conduct a commercial vehicle inspection.” However, because “safety inspections” were part of a facially valid administrative scheme, the district judge held that the stop of Orozco’s truck was lawful. Later, Orozco was convicted of two counts of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance for which he was sentenced to 192 months in prison.

LEGAL ISSUE ON APPEAL

Orozco appealed his conviction on the issue of whether the stop was justified under the administrative search doctrine, which permits stops and searches, initiated in furtherance of a valid administrative scheme, to be conducted in the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

In short, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s denial of Orozco’s motion to suppress, vacated his conviction for two counts of drug possession arising from the stop of his vehicle and remanded the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

“Nevada Highway Patrol troopers made the stop in order to investigate criminal activity, even though they lacked the quantum of evidence necessary to justify the stop,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. Based on that, the stop was not justified under the administrative search doctrine, which permits stops and searches, initiated in furtherance of a valid administrative scheme, to be conducted in the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

The Court of Appels further reasoned that although an administrative scheme allowing Nevada law enforcement officers to make stops of commercial vehicles and conduct limited inspections without reasonable suspicion was valid on its face because its purpose was to ensure the safe operation of commercial vehicles, the evidence in this case, however, established beyond doubt that the stop of the defendant’s vehicle was a pretext for a stop to investigate information of suspected criminal activity short of that necessary to give rise to reasonable suspicion.

“The stop would not have been made in the absence of a tip that the defendant was possibly carrying narcotics. Accordingly, the stop was a pretextual stop that violated the Fourth Amendment.”

The Court further emphasized that the presence of a criminal investigatory motive, by itself, does not render an administrative stop pretextual, and nor does a dual motive—one valid and one impermissible. “Rather, the defendant must show that the stop would not have occurred in the absence of an impermissible reason.”

With that, the Court reversed Orozco’s convictions.

My opinion? Good decision. Pretextual stops are often used by police officers as an excuse to initiate a stop and search of automobiles suspected of being involved in criminal activity. These stops involve police officers stopping drivers for traffic violations – minor or otherwise – to conduct investigations which are separate and unrelated to the original reasons substantiating the stop. Pretextual traffic stops give police officer a lot of discretion in who they choose to stop and for what reasons. Too much discretion. Again, good decision.

Pretrial Custody Held Unlawful

Image result for wrongfully jailed

In Manuel v. Joliet, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a person’s pretrial detention for alleged crimes can violate the Fourth Amendment if the judge’s determination of probable cause was based solely on fabricated evidence.

BACKGROUND FACTS

During a traffic stop, police officers in Joliet, Illinois, searched the defendant Elijah Manuel and found a vitamin bottle containing pills. Suspecting the pills to be illegal drugs, the officers conducted a field test, which came back negative for any controlled substance. Still, they arrested Manuel and took him to the police station.

There, an evidence technician tested the pills and got the same negative result, but claimed in his report that one of the pills tested “positive for the probable presence of ecstasy.” An arresting officer also reported that, based on his “training and experience,” he “knew the pills to be ecstasy.” On the basis of those false statements, another officer filed a sworn complaint charging Manuel with unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

Pretrial Detention

Relying exclusively on that complaint, a county court judge found probable cause to detain Manuel pending trial. While Manuel was in jail, the Illinois police laboratory tested the seized pills and reported that they contained no controlled substances. But Manuel remained in custody, spending a total of 48 days in pretrial detention.

For those who don’t know, pretrial detention refers to detaining of an accused person in a criminal case before the trial has taken place, either because of a failure to post bail or due to denial of release under a pre-trial detention statute.

Civil Rights Lawsuit

At any rate, more than two years after his arrest, but less than two years after his criminal case was dismissed, Manuel filed a civil rights lawsuit pursuant to 42 U. S. C. §1983 against Joliet and several of its police officers (collectively, the City), alleging that his arrest and detention violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

The Federal District Court dismissed Manuel’s suit, holding, (1) that the applicable two-year statute of limitations barred his unlawful arrest claim, and, (2) that under binding legal precedent, pretrial detention following the start of legal process  could not give rise to a Fourth Amendment claim. Manuel appealed the dismissal of his unlawful detention claim. however, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling. Manuel appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

The U.S. Supreme Court decided that Mr. Manuel may indeed challenge his pretrial detention on Fourth Amendment grounds even though he was in custody. It explained that the Fourth Amendment prohibits government officials from detaining a person without probable cause. Furthermore, where legal process has gone forward, but has done nothing to satisfy the probable-cause requirement, it cannot extinguish a detainee’s Fourth Amendment claim.

“That was the case here,” said the Court. “Because the judge’s determination of probable cause was based solely on fabricated evidence, it did not expunge Manuel’s Fourth Amendment claim.” Consequently, Mr. Manuel proved a valid a Fourth Amendment claim when he sought relief for his arrest and pretrial detention.

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals should have determined the claim’s accrual date, unless it finds that the City has previously waived its timeliness argument. In doing so, the court should look to the common law of torts for guidance while also closely attending to the values and purposes of the constitutional right at issue.

With that, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded.

My opinion? Good decision. Pretrial release is a huge issue in criminal law.  In Washington, both CrR 3.2 and CrRLJ 3.2.1 govern the release of people accused of crimes. The purposes of the pretrial release decision include providing due process to those accused of crime, maintaining the integrity of the judicial process by securing defendants for trial, and protecting victims, witnesses and the community from threat, danger or interference.

The judge or judicial officer decides whether to release a defendant on personal recognizance or unsecured appearance bond, release a defendant on a condition or combination of conditions, temporarily detain a defendant, or detain a defendant according to procedures outlined in these Standards.

Ultimately, the law favors the release of defendants pending adjudication of charges. Deprivation of liberty pending trial is harsh and oppressive, subjects defendants to economic and psychological hardship, interferes with their ability to defend themselves, and, in many instances, deprives their families of support.

Here, Mr. Manuel was held in jail for 48 days when police lacked probable cause on any charges. That’s awful. Fortunately justice was served when his case was dismissed and that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his lawsuit.

For more information on getting released from jail, please read my Legal Guide titled, Making Bail. And please contact my office for a free consultation if you, a friend or family member find themselves in jail.

Protective Sweeps of Homes

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In State v. Chambers, the WA Court of Appeals decided (1) the police’s “protective sweep” of the defendant’s home was improper because the defendant was arrested outside his home and the officers did not have specific facts that other armed individuals might be inside the defendant’s home, and (2) the defendant’s 3.5 Motion to Suppress statements made to police was rightfully denied because police scrupulously honored the defendant’s Fifth Amendment invocation of his right to remain silent.

In this case, defendant Lovett Chambers was drinking at the Feedback Lounge, a neighborhood bar in West Seattle that he frequented. Chambers was a convicted felon of African-American descent who moved to Seattle in 1989, worked in the construction industry, obtained degrees in computer science and started an IT business. In 1992, he got married and later purchased a house in West Seattle with his wife. A few years later, Chambers asked his wife to buy him a Colt .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun. She did so, apparently unaware that he was a convicted felon.

On the night of the incident, Mr. Chambers had numerous drinks at the Feedback Lounge. He carried and concealed his .45 pistol.   At some point, two Caucasian men entered the bar and began drinking. The gentlemen did not know Mr. Chambers. Later, all of the gentlemen departed the bar simultaneously and walked to their respective vehicles which were parked nearby each other in the parking lot.

For reasons unknown, words were exchanged between Chambers and the two gentlemen, who apparently uttered racial epitaphs to each other, Mr. Chambers, or both. One of the gentleman – Michael Travis Hood – pulled a shovel from his vehicle; apparently to defend himself from Mr. Chambers. However, Chambers shot Mr. Hood three times with his .45 pistol. Chambers walked away, got into his car and drove home in his BMW.

Mr. Hood died from lethal gunshot wounds to his back.

Seattle police arrested Chambers at his home at 10:49 p.m. Officer Belgarde read Chambers his Miranda rights at 10:51 p.m. Chambers smelled of alcohol. He was “swaying,” had trouble balancing, slurred his words, and was argumentative. Officer Galbraith drove Chambers to the precinct. Officers obtained a warrant to search Chambers’ home and seized a loaded .45 caliber handgun, a spare magazine, and the BMW keys. The police impounded the BMW. Later, officers interrogated Chambers and obtained numerous incriminating statements regarding the shooting.

The State charged Chambers with murder in the second degree of Hood while armed with a deadly weapon. Chambers asserted a claim of self-defense. Before trial, Chambers filed a CrR 3.6 motion to suppress the evidence seized from his house and the statements he made. The court denied the motion to suppress the evidence seized from the house. The court concluded the police “were authorized to enter the house to conduct a protective sweep to ensure their safety.” The court also denied the motion to suppress Chambers’ statements to police and reasoned his “right to remain silent was scrupulously honored” under Michigan v. Mosley.

The jury found Chambers guilty of the lesser-included offense of manslaughter in the first degree. By special verdict, the jury found Chambers was armed with a firearm at the time he committed the crime. The court imposed the low-end standard range sentence of 78 months plus the mandatory consecutive 60-month firearm enhancement. Chambers appealed.

  1. Evidence Seized from the House Was Obtained Through a Unlawfully Conducted “Protective Sweep,” However, The Trial Court’s Decision to Deny Chambers’ Suppression Motion Was Harmless Error.

Chambers contends the court erred in denying his motion to suppress the evidence the police seized from his house: the Colt .45, a magazine clip with .45 caliber bullets, and the keys to the BMW.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution prohibit a warrantless search and seizure unless the State demonstrates that one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement applies. One recognized exception to the warrant requirement is a “protective sweep” of the home. The court further reasoned that under Maryland v. Buie the U.S. Supreme Court describes a protective sweep as a limited cursory search incident to arrest and conducted to protect the safety of police officers or others.

The Court of Appeals decided the trial court erred in concluding the police had the authority to conduct a protective sweep of Chambers’ house. First, a warrantless search of “spaces immediately adjoining the place of arrest” without probable cause or reasonable suspicion does not apply when the police arrest an individual outside his home.

Here, the undisputed facts do not support the warrantless entry and protective sweep of the kitchen under Buie and the court erred in denying the motion to suppress:

“The record does not support the conclusion that there were “articulable facts” that the kitchen harbored “an individual posing a danger.” The police had information that only Chambers shot Hood and was alone when he drove away. The findings establish the only individual in the house when police arrested Chambers was his spouse. The front door was open after the arrest and the police could see Sara was sitting on the living room couch watching television and remained in the living room.”

However, the Court of Appeals also ruled that the verdict would have been the same absent the trial court’s error. Chambers testified he acted in self-defense when he shot Hood with the Colt .45. Chambers admitted that he parked his BMW in front of the Beveridge Place Pub on January 21, that he kept a .45 caliber gun under the passenger seat of the BMW, and that he used the Colt .45 to shoot Hood near Morgan Junction Park. For these reasons, the trial court’s decision to deny Chamber’s motion to suppress was harmless error.

2. Chamber’s Incriminating Statements Are Admissible.

On appeal, Mr. Chambers asserts the detectives did not “scrupulously honor” his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. The court reasoned that the Fifth Amendment provides, in pertinent part, “No person shall be . .. compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court adopted “procedural safeguards” to protect the privilege and held that before questioning an individual in custody, the police must clearly inform the suspect of the following:

That he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if he so desires.

Here, the Court of Appeals decided that because the circumstances leading up to the police’s interview with Chambers show the police scrupulously honored Chambers’ right to cut off questioning, the court did not err in denying the motion to suppress the statements Chambers made.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that the record shows the police advised Chambers of his Miranda rights at 10:51 p.m. when he was arrested on January 21. Chambers stated he understood his rights and unequivocally said he did not want to talk to the police. The record establishes the police did not “ask the defendant any questions or persist in repeated efforts to wear him down or change his mind after he invoked his rights.” After he invoked his right to remain silent at 10:51 p.m. on January 21, the police did not question Chambers while at police headquarters. And while driving to Harborview to obtain a blood draw at 3:07 a.m. on January 22, the detectives did not ask Chambers any questions.

Nonetheless, on the way to Harborview, Chambers said he did not want to talk about what happened. While at Harborview, Chambers seemed to have “sobered up.” When they left Harborview approximately 45 minutes later, Detective Steiger advised Chambers of his Miranda rights again. Chambers stated he understood his rights and did not invoke the right to remain silent.

With that, the Court of Appeals concluded the undisputed facts support the conclusion that the right to cut off questioning was scrupulously honored.

The Court affirmed the jury verdict.

My opinion? The police should have advised Mr. Chambers of his Ferrier warnings, a topic which I have blogged many times. Ferrier warnings must be given if police officers seek to enter the home to conduct a warrantless search for evidence of a crime or contraband. Still, even if Ferrier warnings were given and Mr. Chambers denied the police entry into his home, his incriminating statements to police ultimately assigned harmless error to the unlawful search.

Bellingham Police Department Body Cameras Now Mandatory

A news article by Samantha Wohlfiel from of the Bellingham Herald reports that starting this July, Bellingham Police Department (BPD) will require all uniformed patrol officers to wear and use body cameras.

In 2014, the BPD started a voluntary program, allowing officers to use a body camera if they were willing. Now, Police Chief Cliff Cook has decided all uniformed patrol officers will need to wear the cameras while on duty:

“I think the original pilot and then the past year and a half … has shown us that having the videos is not only beneficial in cases of prosecution of individuals for crimes, as evidence of the actions of our officers, especially when they’re appropriate . . .  It also generally helps us resolve disputes or disagreements about what may have transpired between an officer and a citizen much more quickly and in a more definitive way.”

~Police Chief Cliff Cook

Initially, 18 officers volunteered for Bellingham’s program, and currently 34 officers are using the cameras, Cook said. He also mentioned that his police officers have noted that people often change their behavior for the better when they’re told they’re being filmed.

One of the main concerns for officers and community members has been privacy, Cook said:

“One of the concerns we talked about was the overriding concern about creating video of individuals in pretty personally trying situations that involve personal privacy, such as mental illness, or a domestic violence call in a private residence, or interviewing the victim of a crime. So there are provisions within the policy where officers are given discretion on whether they want to turn that camera on or not.”

~Police Chief Cliff Cook

Basically, the “policy” requires that officers turn on the cameras for any enforcement activity, an arrest, use of force or where they believe there will be the need to use force.

The department has a mix of cameras, some that are clipped on a lapel, others that are worn on glasses, but both have easily been knocked off in situations where officers were restraining someone, Cook said, so the department may shift toward other models.

Between 2014 and 2016, the total program cost has been $315,250, which includes things such as all hardware (the cameras, clips, glasses they sit on, etc.), software and docking stations, Cook told the council.

According to the article, the projected costs moving forward are about $35,000 to $56,000 per year each of the next two years for renewed data storage management.

Another concern was, of course, privacy:

“One of the concerns we talked about was the overriding concern about creating video of individuals in pretty personally trying situations that involve personal privacy, such as mental illness, or a domestic violence call in a private residence, or interviewing the victim of a crime. So there are provisions within the policy where officers are given discretion on whether they want to turn that camera on or not.”

~Police Chief Cliff Cook

The current policy requires that officers turn on the cameras for any enforcement activity, an arrest, use of force or where they believe there will be the need to use force.

My opinion? This is a step in the right direction. Body cameras make everyone behave better. They also catch evidence of what really transpired. Good move, BPD.

State v. Keodara: Overbroad Search Warrant for Cell Phone

In State v. Keodara, the WA Court of Appeals ruled that a search warrant was overbroad in violation of the particularity requirement because it allowed police to search a cell phone “for items that had no association with any criminal activity and for which there was no probable cause whatsoever.”

In 2011, the defendant Say Keodara was involved in a shooting at a bus stop.  Several weeks later, police arrested him for an unrelated incident. They searched his backpack and found his cell phone. Outside the backpack police found drugs, drug packaging and drug paraphernalia.  An officer submitted an affidavit in support of a search warrant for the contents of the cell phone. The affidavit made several generalizations about drug dealers and gang members in support of the officer’s conclusion that there was evidence of crime on the cell phone. The judge issue the warrant pursuant to the affidavit, which ultimately allowed police to search Keodara’s entire phone without any limitations.  Police searched the phone and found evidence that the State used when trying Mr. Keodara for the shooting at the bus stop.

Keodara was charged with Murder in the First Degree, three counts of Assault in the First Degree (each with a separate firearm enhancement), and Unlawful Possession of a Firearm in the First Degree. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 831 months of prison (69.25 years).

On appeal, Keodara argued that the evidence from his phone should have been suppressed because the search warrant violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and art. I, §7 of the Washington State Constitution. He also argued that his substantial prison sentence violated the Eighth Amendment.

Ultimately, the court held that although the search of Keodara’s phone violated the federal
constitution, the failure to suppress the evidence was harmless. It also held that Keodara’s sentence violated the 8th Amendment because the court failed to Keodara’s youth and other age-related factors into account. Accordingly, the court affirmed Keodara’s conviction but remanded for a new sentencing hearing.

In reaching its decision, the court reasoned that a warrant is overbroad if it fails to describe with particularity items for which probable cause exists to search. In this case, the affidavit for the warrant for Keodara’s phone contained blanket statements about what certain groups of offenders tend to do and what information they tend to store in particular places. Furthermore, the warrant’s language also allowed Keodara’s phone to be searched for items that had no association with any criminal activity and for which there was no probable cause whatsoever. The court also said the following:

Here, no evidence was seized that would have linked Keodara’s phone to the crimes listed in the warrant-unlawful possession of firearms, possession with intent to deliver or sell narcotics, or assault. Nothing in the record suggests that anyone saw Keodara use the phone to make calls or take photos. In addition, the phone was found in a backpack, separate from the drug paraphernalia or the pistol. There was no indication that evidence of firearms or drugs were found with the phone. We conclude that the warrant was overbroad and failed to satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement.

Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals also held that the trial court committed harmless error in admitting evidence police found on the phone:

Here, the untainted evidence of Keodara’s guilt was strong. Cellular phone tower records placed him near the location of the shooting, two eyewitnesses identified him, and another witness testified that Keodara contacted him and told him about the shooting. We find that the trial court’s denial of Keodara’s motion to suppress does not warrant reversal and, accordingly, we affirm his convictions.

The Court of Appeals also addressed the issue of whether Keodara’s sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. In short, the court said, “Yes.” It reasoned that the trial court did not take into account that Keodara was a juvenile at the time he committed the crimes or consider other age related factors that weigh on culpability or his capacity for rehabilitation. Based on that, the Court concluded that the sentence imposed in this case violated Keodar’s constitutional rights under the Eighth Amendment. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals vacated the sentence and remanded for a new sentencing hearing.

My opinion? Good decision. It appears that, more and more, our courts are rightfully acknowledging a Defendant’s youth at sentencing.

State v. Meza: Freezing Funds Without a Warrant Is Unlawful

In State v. Meza, the WA Court of Appeals Division II held that a trial court’s order to freeze the defendant’s bank account was not a search warrant, and therefore did not satisfy the warrant requirement for the seizure of funds.

In June 2014, John Armstrong spoke with the Lewis County sheriff’s office and alleged that Rafael Meza had swindled money from him. Deputy Justin Rogers investigated Armstrong’s allegations. Rogers contacted the Twin Star Credit Union and verified that Meza held an account that had received large wire transfers recently. Rogers also learned from Mansfield that Meza recently had informed him that he was planning to go to Mexico.

Rogers served Twin Star Credit Union with a valid search warrant for Meza’s account information. Meza’s bank statements showed a check and four wire transfers from Mansfield totaling $105,000, with the last transfer on June 18. They also showed a single wire transfer from Armstrong in the amount of $15,000 on April 11. Meza’s checking account showed that between October 2013 and June 2014, he withdrew approximately $89,000 in cash in 41 transactions involving between $3,000 and $5,000 each.

On June 27, 2014, the State charged Meza with one count of Theft in the First Degree. On the same day, the State presented an ex parte “Motion for an Order Freezing and Holding Funds” to the judge. The State asserted that the funds in Meza’s credit union accounts were “evidence in a felony offense.” The State’s motion was based on the probable cause affidavit filed with the information and asserted that there was “a high likelihood, based on the affidavit regarding probable cause, that Meza will remove said funds and leave the country.”

Importantly, the State did not request a search warrant for the credit union funds or reference CrR 2.3 in its motion.

Nevertheless, the trial court signed an order directing Twin Star Credit Union to “freeze and hold all accounts in the name of . . . Meza . . . as evidence in a criminal proceeding, until further order of this Court.” Also, neither the motion nor the order cited any legal authority for freezing Meza’s accounts.

In January 2015, Meza filed a motion to vacate the trial court’s order. Meza argued that there was no legal authority for the order. The trial court denied Meza’s motion to vacate the order, saying there was probable cause to believe that Meza’s account was related to the charged crime. The court concluded that it had the authority to freeze Meza’s funds under CrR 2.3. In addition, the trial court ruled that Meza’s account qualified as both evidence of a crime and the proceeds of a crime. Meza filed a motion for discretionary review. The WA Court of Appeals accepted the case.

The WA Court of Appeals reasoned that The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Similarly, article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution provides that “no person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.” These provisions generally prohibit warrantless searches and seizures unless one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement applies.

Consequently, reasoned the court, a person’s banking records fall within the constitutional protection of private affairs. Although no Washington case has addressed whether funds in a bank account can be seized without a warrant it defies reason to extend constitutional protection to bank account records but not to the funds reflected in those records. The Court emphasized that the seizure of funds is as much a threat to security in a person’s effects and a disturbance of a person’s private affairs as the seizure of the records regarding those funds:

“Here, the State cites no statute, court rule, or other authority allowing the seizure of a defendant’s bank account in these circumstances. Therefore, the seizure was not authorized by law.”

Finally, the Court rejected the State’s argument that under State v. Garcia-Salgado the trial court’s order is the functional equivalent of a search warrant.

“We hold that the Garcia-Salgado holding is limited to cases where the trial court’s order is authorized by law. Allowing a court order to function as a warrant when there is no independent authority for a seizure would render CrR 2.3 meaningless. Limiting the scope of Garcia-Salgado preserves the integrity of CrR 2.3. We hold that Garcia-Salgado is inapplicable and that the trial court’s order cannot be treated as the functional equivalent of a warrant.”

Based on these decision the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in ordering the seizure of Meza’s credit union account.

My opinion? GOOD opinion. Very sensible and reasonable. It’s refreshing that the COurt of Appeals followed the law and made the right decision.

Stingray “Spy” Devices

This undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows the StingRay II, manufactured by Harris Corporation, of Melbourne, Fla., a cellular site simulator used for surveillance purposes. (AP Photo/U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

Intimidating, no?

This suitcase-sized device, called Hailstorm or Stingray, is a controversial cellular phone surveillance device manufactured by the Harris Corporation. It is designed to sweep up basic cellphone data from a neighborhood and identify unique subscriber numbers. That data is then transmitted to the police, allowing them to locate a phone without the user even making a call or sending a text message. It’s the newest, most advanced technology in spyware which essentially allows police to observe, record and otherwise pinpoint your cell phone activity. And, of course, a growing number of police departments are purchasing these devices.

Stingrays cost as much as $400,000 and acts as a fake cell tower. The system, typically installed in a vehicle so it can be moved into any neighborhood, tricks all nearby phones into connecting to it and feeding data to police. In some states, the devices are available to any local police department via state surveillance units. The federal government funds most of the purchases, via anti-terror grants.

These devices are used to spy on people’s words, locations and associations. Stingrays can capture everything from metadata (who called whom, when, and sometimes from where) to the content of calls.

A news article from USA Today titled, Cellphone Data Spying: It’s Not Just the NSA describes how numerous police agencies across the country refuse to admit whether they’ve used Stingrays in surveillance. According to the article, most police agencies deny public records requests, arguing that criminals or terrorists could use the information to thwart important crime-fighting and surveillance techniques. Police maintain that cellphone data can help solve crimes, track fugitives or abducted children or even foil a terror attack.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has investigated the use of Stingrays and has also successfully identified 54 agencies in 21 states and the District of Columbia that own Stingrays. Many agencies continue to shroud their purchase and use of Stingrays in secrecy.

A growing number of courts and legal authorities are increasingly wary on whether Stingrays violate citizen’s rights against unlawful search under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For example,  in FROM SMARTPHONES TO STINGRAYS: CAN THE FOURTH AMENDMENT KEEP UP WITH THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY? attorney Brittany Hampton wrote a Note in the University of Louisville Law Review which discussed the questionable use of the Stingray devices by police agencies.

In her article, Ms. Hampton argues that individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their movements when using their cellphones; therefore, the use of the Stingray constitutes a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. She also discusses the need for the United States Supreme Court to develop a clear warrant requirement for the monitoring of an individual using the Stingray device. Ultimately, Hampton advocates a warrant requirement for utilizing the Stingray devices for police tracking purposes because the warrantless use of the Stingray is an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.

My opinion? I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Hampton, the ACLU and other legal experts on this issues. Using Stingrays is an unlawful search. Quite frankly, the government should not have carte blanche secret access to people’s cell phone use and information. It’s overly intrusive and distasteful that the government can, without warning, essentially use people’s cell data as pretextual evidence to investigate our whereabouts, listen to our conversations and ultimately charge us with crimes.

Even worse – and speaking as a criminal defense attorney – it’s disturbing that police agencies can use the information obtained from Stingrays as probable cause to obtain search warrants of people’s homes and seize evidence therein. Moreover, if I move to suppress the evidence gained from the search warrant as the fruits of an unlawful search, local police agencies deny and circumvent my Motions to Compel Evidence and Public Disclosure Requests by simply having the feds conduct the Stingray search. This is bad.

Stay tuned . . .

 

Is Texting While Driving the New DUI?

 

Police Officer Posing As Construction Worker

Recently, Marietta Police dressed up as a construction workers at a busy intersection to catch distracted drivers who were text messaging while driving. The police go as far as busting drivers who are texting while stopped at red lights. It appears that going undercover is an effective way to bust drivers texting, tweeting or checking emails behind the wheel.

“What we’ve done here is we’re able to put officers in the roads so we’re able to get close enough almost inside their cars so we can look down and see exactly what they’re doing on their phones,” said Marietta police Officer Nick Serkedakis. “I really think this is the DUI of the future. Impairment is still a problem, but this distracted driving is killing as many people as drunk drivers.”

The tickets are $150 and one point on your license.

Can a program like this – one where WA police officers pose as construction workers at certain locations to observe texting drivers – be implemented in Washington State?

Probably not.

This program is very similar to DUI checkpoints, which were basically outlawed in 2008. For those who don’t know, sobriety checkpoints (also called DUI checkpoints) are locations where law enforcment officers are stationed to check drivers for signs of intoxication and impairment. Many jurisdictions utilize sobriety checkpoints as part of their larger drunk driving deterrance program. Due to legal issues surrounding their use, not all states conduct sobriety checkpoints. Some states have laws authorizing their use. Others forbid them or are silent on the issue.

According to the Government’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA), Washington State is one of only 12 states which do not conduct DUI checkpoints. The story is interesting. In 2008, then-Governor Christine Gregoire wanted the state Legislature to authorize police to set up sobriety spot checks, a practice unseen in Washington since the state Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1988 under City of Seattle v. Messiani.

Some background is necessary. In Messiani, the Washington State Supreme Court decided that the Seattle Police Department’s sobriety checkpoint program was constitutional. In short, police officers set up roadblocks where all oncoming motorists were stopped. The police lacked warrants and any particular suspicion of criminal activity. The City of Seattle argued that the State’s interest in the legal operation of vehicles outweighs any privacy interest under Article I, Section 7 of the WA Constitution. Ultimately, the Washington State Supreme Court concluded that the City of Seattle’s position was unlawful, and held that sobriety checkpoints were unconstitutional.

At any rate, Governor Gregoire’s proposed DUI Checkpoint legislation failed. The ACLU even got involved. In the end, Legislators simply lacked the political will overturn the WA Supreme Court’s City of Seattle v. Messiani. 

Unlike Washington, however, Georgia has  actively legalized DUI checkpoints. They are conducted weekly and aggressively; and upheld under the State of Georgia’s Constitution.

Due to the differences, I can’t see WA police officers successfully pulling off an anti-text messaging campaign like the Georgia police officers can. This campaign is too similar to DUI checkpoints, which are illegal in Washington State.

State v. E.J.J.: Exercising Freedom of Speech is NOT Obstructing.

Barclays Center protest in Brooklyn, NY on December 1, 2014.

Excellent opinion.

In State v. E.J.J., the Washington Supreme Court  held that a juvenile offender, who called the officers abusive names, yelled, and used profanity toward the officers while the officers were engaged in a criminal investigation, CANNOT be convicted of obstructing a law enforcement officer. The words the juvenile directed at the officers are protected by the First Amendment. The obstruction statute is also not violated by a citizen’s presence at a scene, provided the citizen does not physically interfere with police. 

Here, juvenile defendant E.J.J. was charged with Obstructing a Law Enforcement Officer under RCW 9A.76.020(1). Under this law, a person is guilty of obstructing a law enforcement officer if the person willfully hinders, delays, or obstructs any law enforcement officer in the discharge of his or her official powers or duties. Obstructing is a gross misdemeanor punishable up to 1 year in jail and a $5,000.00 fine.

This case began as a call for police assistance to E.J.J. ‘s house to help with his intoxicated, out-of-control sister, R.J. (a juvenile at the time). The police responded and began their intervention by escorting R.J. out of the house 10 to 15 feet away from the front door, where the officers attempted to calm her down. E.J.J. grew concerned when he saw an officer reach for what he perceived to be a nightstick. E.J.J. exited the house and stood on the porch, telling the officers that R.J. was his sister and that they should not use the nightstick. The officers advised him that they were in the middle of their investigation and instructed him multiple times to leave the scene and return to the house.

Initially, E.J.J. did not comply, questioning why he had to return to the house. When, eventually, he did return to his home, he stood in the open doorway and continued his verbal interaction with the officers. The house had double doors: a wrought iron screen door, through which someone could see out and communicate through, and a second, solid wood door.

The officers directed E.J.J. multiple times to close the solid wood door and to withdraw further into the home, but E.J.J. refused, stating that he wanted to supervise the scene from the doorway ( 10 to 15 feet away from the other officers and R.J.) to make sure that R.J. was not harmed. E.J.J. continued to stand behind the closed wrought iron door. Multiple times, an officer reached into the home to close the solid door. E.J.J. would immediately reopen it. At this point, E.J.J. was irate, yelling profanities and calling the officers abusive names. An officer warned E.J.J. that he could be arrested for obstruction. After E.J.J. continued to reopen the solid door, an officer put him under arrest for obstruction of a law enforcement officer. The entire interaction lasted approximately 10 to 15 minutes.

E.J.J. was found guilty at trial. he appealed his conviction to the WA Court of Appeals. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals upheld E.J.J.’s conviction. The case was again appealed, only this time to the WA Supreme Court.

 The WA Supreme Court reasoned that many court cases have consistently and strongly held that people cannot be held liable when exercising their right to speak. “While E.J.J. ‘s words may have been disrespectful, discourteous, and annoying, they are nonetheless constitutionally protected.”

The Court further reasoned that our cases have consistently required conduct in order to establish obstruction of an officer. In other words, a conviction for obstruction may not be based solely on an individual’s speech because the speech itself is constitutionally protected. This review is also consistent with the approach established by the United States Supreme Court’s See Street v. New York.”

The WA Supreme Court had many reasons for disagreeing with the WA Court of Appeals. First, the WA Supremes disagreed that E.J .J.’ s physical approach toward the officers was sufficient evidence of conduct to support his conviction: “E.J.J. did not physically interfere with or touch either the police or his sister. Furthermore, the trial court’s findings of fact provide that E.J.J. did not make any threatening movements toward the officers at any time.”

Second, the WA Supremes disagreed that E.J.J.’s presence at the scene escalated the situation: “E.J.J. ‘s mere presence at the scene cannot constitute conduct. E.J.J. had every right to stand on his own property, provided he did not physically interfere with police.”

Third, the WA Supremes disagreed that E.J.J.’s refusal to obey the officers’ repeated requests to leave the scene was sufficient evidence of conduct: “This exchange is so intertwined with E.J.J.’s protected speech that we find insufficient evidence of E.J.J. ‘s conduct to support his conviction on this basis.”

Finally, the WA Supremes disagreed there was evidence of obstruction because an officer was eventually required to escort E.J.J. back to the home, thus delaying officers: “Inconvenience cannot, taken alone, justify an arrest for obstruction.” The Court concluded with the following:

“Where individuals exercise their constitutional rights to criticize how the police are handling a situation, they cannot be concerned about risking a criminal conviction for obstruction. Such a conviction is not permitted under the First Amendment. After a comprehensive review of the record and the trial court’s findings, the decision of the trial court is reversed and charges are dismissed.”

My opinion? EXCELLENT decision. I’ve had many, many clients charged with Obstructing simply because they voiced a heated opinion with law enforcement officers during an investigation. Although it’s never okay to be disrespectful toward law enforcement, obstructing requires conduct – plain and simple. I’m pleased our Washington Supreme Court made the right decision.

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.