State v. A.A.: Unlawful Search of Juvenile

 In State v. AA, the Washington Court of Appeals decided an officer who detained a runaway juvenile under RCW 13.32A, the Family Reconciliation Act, unlawfully removed methamphetamine and marijuana from the youth’s pocket. The court reversed his conviction.

In State v. AA, the juvenile defendant A.A. was reported as a runaway. Officer Escamilla found A.A. walking down an alley a few blocks north of his mother’s house. The Officer detains AA and conducts a search before taking AA to the Crisis Residential Center (CRC), a detention center for minors.

Officer Escamilla searched A.A. near his patrol car. During the search, the officer found methamphetamine in a coin pocket of A.A.’s pants and marijuana in another pocket. The officer then transported A.A. to a juvenile detention center, rather than the CRC. The State charged A.A. with two counts of Unlawful Possession of a Controlled Substance.

The trial court denied AA’s motion to suppress the evidence. At the CrR 3.6 hearing, Officer Escamilla testified that A.A. was “just walking down an alley” and appeared “upset,” but that he was not engaged in criminal activity and did not appear dangerous to himself or others. At a bench trial, A.A .was found guilty on both drug charges. He appealed. The Court of Appeals took the case.

The sole issue on appeal was whether the trial court mistakenly concluded Officer Escamilla’s search of  A.A. was reasonable under the Family Reconciliation Act (the Act) because A.A. was going to be transported to the CRC, a secure facility for juveniles, which requires a search of juveniles before admission.

The Court of Appeals decided that while an officer may lawfully conduct a pat-down search for weapons prior to transporting the youth, the officer may not conduct a full search.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Court reasoned that Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution  prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures. Under these provisions, warrantless searches are “per se” unreasonable. However, a search incident to a lawful arrest is a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. The exception allows an officer to search an arrestee for weapons as a measure to protect the officer or to search for evidence that may be destroyed. The community caretaking function, which allows for limited searches when it is necessary for police officers to render emergency aid or assistance, is also a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. These types of searches are “divorced” from a criminal investigation. Finally, the State has the burden of proving the search was lawful.

The Court reasoned that here, the particular circumstances did not justify the search of A.A.’s pockets. Once the officer conducted the pat-down search and determined that A.A. did not have a weapon, the search should have stopped. A.A. had not committed a crime and, therefore, there was no need to preserve evidence of a crime. A.A. did not exhibit signs of dangerousness to himself or others. The only concern was for officer safety.

Finally, the Court reasoned that although A.A. would be transported to a detention facility with other minors, this facility “was a noncriminal protective custody situation, which requires us to accord maximum weight to A.A.’s privacy interest in evaluating the reasonableness of the search.”

The Court of Appeals reversed A.A.’s conviction.

My opinion? Excellent decision. The law was simple, and simply applied. The State failed to establish an exception to the warrant requirement. Period. Good decision.