Unlawful Search Of Electronic Devices at Airports

icon of a border agent examining digital devices

Good news. In a major victory for privacy rights at the border, a federal court in Boston ruled that suspicionless searches of travelers’ electronic devices by federal agents at airports and other U.S. ports of entry are unconstitutional.
The ruling came in a lawsuit, Alasaad v. McAleenan, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and ACLU of Massachusetts, on behalf of 11 travelers whose smartphones and laptops were searched without individualized suspicion at U.S. ports of entry.
“This ruling significantly advances Fourth Amendment protections for millions of international travelers who enter the United States every year,” said Esha Bhandari, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “By putting an end to the government’s ability to conduct suspicionless fishing expeditions, the court reaffirms that the border is not a lawless place and that we don’t lose our privacy rights when we travel.”
“This is a great day for travelers who now can cross the international border without fear that the government will, in the absence of any suspicion, ransack the extraordinarily sensitive information we all carry in our electronic devices,” said Sophia Cope, EFF Senior Staff Attorney.
The district court order puts an end to Customs and Border Control (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) asserted authority to search and seize travelers’ devices for purposes far afield from the enforcement of immigration and customs laws. Border officers must now demonstrate individualized suspicion of illegal contraband before they can search a traveler’s device.
The number of electronic device searches at U.S. ports of entry has increased significantly. Last year, CBP conducted more than 33,000 searches, almost four times the number from just three years prior.
International travelers returning to the United States have reported numerous cases of abusive searches in recent months. While searching through the phone of Zainab Merchant, a plaintiff in the Alasaad case, a border agent knowingly rifled through privileged attorney-client communications. An immigration officer at Boston Logan Airport reportedly searched an incoming Harvard freshman’s cell phone and laptop, reprimanded the student for friends’ social media postings expressing views critical of the U.S. government, and denied the student entry into the country following the search.
Good decision!
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges because law enforcement officers conducted a questionably unlawful search. Hiring competent counsel is the first and best step toward getting justice.

Warrant Quash Day!

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In an effort to address the warrants currently in the system, the Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will be holding their annual Warrant Quash Day event Wednesday, November 20, 2019 from 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.

Anyone with an outstanding warrant, issued in Whatcom County, is encouraged to come to the event. Individuals will be issued a notice to appear document with a new court date, so they can take care of their original violation, without fear of arrest. The outstanding arrest warrant for the original charge will be removed from the warrant system.

“We are hopeful the annual Warrant Quash Day will provide a pathway for individuals to get their cases back on track,” stated Eric Richey, Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney. “We are providing community members with active warrants the opportunity to take control of their current situation.”

Participating courts include Bellingham Municipal Court, Blaine Municipal Court, Everson Municipal Court, Ferndale Municipal Court, Lynden Municipal Court, Sumas Municipal Court, and Whatcom County courts.

My opinion? This is good. I join the Prosecutor’s Office in urging defendants to quash their warrants, especially as the holidays approach. Avoid going to jail on unresolved criminal charges. And please read my Legal Guide Titled, “Quash Your Bench Warrant” and contact my office if you, a friend or family member have an open warrant for an unresolved criminal matter.

 

 

 

A Cell Phone “Ping” Is a Search

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In State v. Muhammad, the WA Supreme Court held that a warrantless cell phone “ping” is a search under the WA Constitution and the Fourth Amendment.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Police investigated the rape and murder of Ms. Ina Claire Richardson. The night she was killed, Richardson had shopped at a local grocery store.  Security cameras recorded her walking through the parking lot toward a distinctive maroon sedan. Minutes later, the vehicle’s headlights switched on, and the vehicle exited the parking lot, drove onto an access road behind a nearby hotel, and parked. Two individuals appeared in the car, which remained parked for approximately one hour. Police officers later discovered a condom wrapper at this location.

On November 10, 2014, a law enforcement officer recognized the unique features of the maroon sedan from the security footage and conducted a traffic stop. The driver was Mr. Muhammad. During the stop, the officer asked Muhammad about his vehicle, asked him whether he had gone to the grocery store or had been in the area on the night of the murder, and obtained Muhammad’s cell phone number before letting him go.

After this encounter, law enforcement “pinged” Muhammad’s cell phone without a warrant. The ping placed Muhammad in an orchard in Lewiston, Idaho. Washington and Idaho police arrived, seized Muhammad’s cell phone, and impounded his car. Police also sought and obtained a search warrant for Muhammad’s car.

Muhammad was taken into custody. He denied any involvement in the rape and murder and eventually asked for legal counsel. Police later searched Muhammad’s car. They discovered blood on the passenger seat; in the trunk, they found latex gloves and other incriminating evidence. The police also discovered condoms in the trunk of the sedan. These condoms matched the condom wrapper found by the hotel service entrance. Finally, The blood was matched to that of Ms. Richardson. Autopsy swabs of Richardson’s vagina and fingernails revealed a limited amount of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) matching Muhammad’s profile.

The police obtained a search warrant for Muhammad’s cell phone records. These calls he made on the night of the incident connected to multiple cell towers, indicating that Muhammad was moving. One such cell tower placed Muhammad in the location where Richardson’s body was found.

Muhammad was arrested and charged with rape and felony murder.

At trial, Muhammad moved to suppress all physical evidence collected as a result of the warrantless ping of his cell phone. After a CrR 3.6 hearing, the trial court issued a written order denying the motion based in part on exigent circumstances. A jury convicted Muhammad as charged. Muhammad appealed his convictions.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

  1. The Cell Phone “Ping” Tracking Was A Warrantless Search.

The WA Supreme Court held that the “ping” tracking of Muhammad’s cell phone was indeed a search.

“When law enforcement loses sight of a suspected individual, officers need merely ask a cellular service carrier to ping that individual’s phone and almost instantaneously police acquire data on the suspect’s past and present location,” said the Court. “This location tracking technique does substantially more than binoculars or flashlights; it enables officers to see farther than even the walls of a home—it pierces through space and time to pinpoint a cell phone’s location and, with it, the phone’s owner.”

The Court further reasoned that this type of search was exactly what happened to Mr. Muhammad. “The police could not locate Muhammad,” said the Court. “They knew only that he had likely left the area after officers returned to his apartment complex and found the maroon sedan had disappeared. As Muhammad pointed out, the officers’ senses alone could not locate him unless they converted his phone into a tracking device,” said the Court.

“Historical and real-time CSLI, like text messages, reveal an intensely intimate picture into our personal lives. Our cell phones accompany us on trips taken to places we would rather keep private, such as the psychiatrist, the plastic surgeon, the abortion clinic, the AIDS treatment center, the strip club, the criminal defense attorney, the by-the-hour motel, the union meeting, the mosque, synagogue or church, the gay bar and on and on.”

              2. Exigent Circumstances Exist to Justify the Warrantless Cell Phone Search.

The Court said that because the State failed to get a warrant prior to pinging Muhammad’s cell phone, the evidence obtained pursuant to the improper search should be suppressed unless the State proves that an exception to the warrant requirement applies. “Exigent Circumstances” is one of those exceptions.

To prove exigent circumstances, the State must point to specific, articulable facts and the reasonable inferences therefrom which justify the intrusion. “The mere suspicion of flight or destruction of evidence does not satisfy this particularity requirement,”said the Court.

The Court reasoned that under the facts of this case, the State has proved exigent circumstances—specifically that Muhammad was in flight, that he might have been in the process of destroying evidence, that the evidence sought was in a mobile vehicle, and that the suspected crimes (murder and rape) were grave and violent charges.

With that, the WA Supreme Court affirmed Muhammad’s conviction.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges and the evidence was obtained through a warrantless search of cell phone data and/or location. It is imperative to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney who is well-versed in the law regarding search and seizure of this evidence.

Search Incident to Arrest

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In State v. Richards, the WA Court of Appeals held that a search of an arrestee’s person, purses or handbags extends to closed, but not locked containers found on their person at the time of arrest.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On November 11, 2017, a loss protection officer at a retail store in Woodland, observed Richards placing store merchandise into her purse. The officer approached Richards after she left the store without paying for the items in her purse. Two police officers, who were waiting outside, detained Richards and escorted her to the loss protection office.  There, the officers arrested Richards and searched her purse.

During the search of the purse, the officers discovered the stolen merchandise and a closed, zippered pouch. They opened the pouch and searched it, looking for theft tools used for removing secure access devices. The pouch contained drug paraphernalia, foil residue, straws, and syringes.

The State charged Richards with unlawful possession of heroin. Richards filed a motion to suppress the contents of the pouch found in her purse. The trial court considered the evidence set out above and denied the motion. Richards subsequently was convicted of possession of heroin. She appeals her conviction.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

In short, the Court of Appeals held that officers did not exceed the scope of a lawful search incident to arrest when they searched a closed pouch in Richards’s purse that she was carrying at the time of arrest. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed Richards’s conviction.

The Court reasoned that both the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution prohibit warrantless searches unless one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement applies.

One exception to the warrant requirement is a search of a person incident to a lawful arrest of that person. Under this exception, an officer making a lawful custodial arrest has authority to search the person being arrested as well articles of the arrestee’s person such as clothing and personal effects.

“An article immediately associated with the arrestee’s person may be searched if the arrestee has actual possession of it at the time of a lawful custodial arrest,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. “This rule is referred to as the ‘time of arrest’ rule. Based on this rule, an officer may search a purse or a bag in the arrestee’s possession at the time of arrest.”

However, the Court of Appeals also reasoned that the search incident to arrest exception did not apply to the search of a locked box inside a backpack an arrestee was carrying at the time of the arrest. For example, in State v. VanNess, the court concluded that the locked box in the backpack could not be searched without a warrant because the arresting officer raised no concerns about his safety and there was no indication that the officer believed that the box would contain evidence relevant to the crime of arrest.

“The issue here is whether the same rule applies to a closed, unlocked container in Richards’s purse. We conclude that it does not.”

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the search of a closed, unlocked pouch in a purse in the arrestee’s possession simply does not implicate the type of significant privacy interests that would render the search of the pouch unlawful.

The Court concluded that officers searching a purse or bag incident to arrest may lawfully search closed, unlocked containers within that purse or bag. “Accordingly, we hold that the trial court did not err in denying Richards’s motion to suppress the evidence discovered in the search of the pouch in her purse.”

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges involving a search of persons, vehicles or homes. It’s critically important to retain experienced defense counsel like myself who are knowledgeable of Washington’s search and seizure laws.

Some States Are Suppressing BAC Results

An alcohol breath test from 1937.

Excellent article in the New York Times by Stacy Cowley and  

The Times interviewed more than 100 lawyers, scientists, executives and police officers and reviewed tens of thousands of pages of court records, corporate filings, confidential emails and contracts. Together, they reveal the depth of a nationwide problem that has attracted only sporadic attention.

Judges in Massachusetts and New Jersey have thrown out more than 30,000 breath tests in the past 12 months alone. According to the authors, the invalidated tests in Massachusetts were already used to convict drivers, state records show. This month, the state will begin informing those defendants that they can seek a new trial, and lawyers are bracing for a flood of requests. So are lawyers in New Jersey, where more than 13,000 people were found guilty based on breath tests from machines that hadn’t been properly set up. This was largely because of human errors and lax governmental oversight.

A county judge in Pennsylvania called it “extremely questionable” whether any of his state’s breath tests could withstand serious scrutiny. In response, local prosecutors stopped using them. In Florida, a panel of judges described their state’s instrument as a “magic black box” with “significant and continued anomalies.”

Even some industry veterans say the machines should not be de facto arbiters of guilt. “The tests were never meant to be used that way,” said John Fusco, who ran National Patent Analytical Systems, a maker of breath-testing devices.

Yet the tests have become all but unavoidable. Every state punishes drivers who refuse to take one when ordered by a police officer.

“The consequences of the legal system’s reliance on these tests are far-reaching,” say the authors. “People are wrongfully convicted based on dubious evidence. Hundreds were never notified that their cases were built on faulty tests. And when flaws are discovered, the solution has been to discard the results — letting potentially dangerous drivers off the hook.”

My opinion? Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with DUI charges or any other alcohol-related driving charges. The “science” behind DUI investigations is very suspect. Hand-held portable breath tests like Alco-Sensor IV, contain fuel cells that react to the alcohol in exhaled breaths and generate an electric current — the stronger the current, the higher the alcohol level. They are inexpensive and easy to maintain, but their results can be inconsistent. Older women sometimes have trouble producing enough breath to get the machines to work. Toothpaste, mouthwash and breath mints — even hand sanitizer and burping — may throw off the test results.

Inventory Searches, Automatic Standing, & Stolen Vehicles.

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In State v. Peck, the WA Supreme Court found that persons found in possession of a stolen vehicle may challenge the search of that vehicle.  However, closed containers, other than items that “possess the same aura of privacy as a purse, shaving kit, or personal luggage” and locked containers, may be opened  during an inventory search of a stolen vehicle.  The search, of course, must not be used as a pretext for an investigatory search.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Two Kittitas County sheriffs deputies responded to a suspected theft in progress at a home in rural Ellensburg. When the deputies arrived, they discovered two individuals outside the home, along with a pickup truck stuck in the driveway’s unplowed snow. The deputies handcuffed the two men and eventually learned that they were Mr. Peck and Clark Tellvik. Two more deputies then arrived. One of them entered the pickup truck’s license plate into a law-enforcement database and learned that the truck had been reported stolen.

Officers impounded the vehicle. They searched the pickup without obtaining a search warrant because they believed that Peck and Tellvik did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a stolen vehicle. Police discovered methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia inside the vehicle.

Peck and Tellvik were charged with several crimes, including possession of a stolen vehicle and possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. The defendants moved to suppress the contraband found in the black zippered nylon case. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, finding the inventory search to be proper and finding no evidence of pretext. A jury subsequently convicted each defendant of the charged drug possession and stolen vehicle offenses. Peck and Tellvik were subsequently convicted. Both appealed their controlled substance convictions. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress. The WA Supreme Court granted review.

ISSUES

  1. Whether defendants have standing to challenge the scope of a warrantless inventory search of a vehicle when that vehicle is stolen.
  2. Whether a proper inventory search extends to opening an innocuous, unlocked container of unknown ownership found in a stolen vehicle associated with defendants who were apprehended while burglarizing a home.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

  1. Defendants have standing to challenge the scope of a warrantless inventory search of a vehicle, even when that vehicle is stolen.

First, the WA Supreme Court held the defendants have standing to challenge the search. It reasoned that a defendant has automatic standing to challenge a search if (1) possession is an essential element of the charged offense and (2) the defendant was in possession
of the contraband at the time of the contested search or seizure. And a defendant
has automatic standing to challenge the legality of a seizure even though he or
she could not technically have a privacy interest in such property.

“Peck and Tellvik have automatic standing to challenge the inventory search,” said the Court. It reasoned that the first prong of the test was satisfied because both were charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. Furthermore, the second prong is satisfied because Peck and Tellvik were in possession of the truck up until the time of the search. “As such, Peck and Tellvik have automatic standing to
challenge the warrantless inventory search of the black zippered nylon case.”

2. A proper inventory search extends to opening an unlocked container of unknown ownership found in a stolen vehicle.

The WA Supreme Court began by saying that warrantless searches are unreasonable. Despite that rule, a warrantless search is valid if one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement applies. One of those narrow exceptions is a noninvestigatory inventory search. Inventory searches have long been recognized as a practical necessity.

“To be valid, inventory searches must be conducted in good faith and not as a pretext for an investigatory search.”

The court explained that Inventory searches are also limited in both scope and purpose. They are permissible because they (1) protect the vehicle owner’s (or occupants’) property, (2) protect law enforcement agencies/officers and temporary storage bailees from false claims of theft, and (3) protect police officers and the public from potential danger. Unlike a probable cause search and search incident to arrest, officers conducting an inventory search perform an administrative or caretaking function.

The Court reasoned that under these circumstances, it was proper for police to do more than merely inventory the unlocked nylon case as a sealed unit. First, the police knew the vehicle was stolen. Second, Peck and Tellvik were arrested while in the process of burglarizing a home and were observed taking items from the home and its surroundings. Responding officers testified that a purpose in conducting an inventory search of the truck was to determine ownership of both the truck and its various contents. Third, the search was not pretextual. And finally, the innocuous nature of the container at issue is important: a nylon case that looked like it contained CDs does not possess the same aura of privacy as a purse, shaving kit, or personal luggage.

“Here, where the vehicle was stolen, Peck and Tellvik were arrested immediately outside of a home that they were currently  burglarizing, and the trial court explicitly found no evidence of pretext, the search was proper.”

The WA Supreme Court concluded that under the facts of this case, the search was a lawful inventory search. Accordingly, it reversed the Court of Appeals and upheld the denial of the motion to suppress. Justices Gordon McCloud, Madsen, Yu, and Chief Justice Fairhurst dissented.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges involving vehicle searches. It is imperative to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney who will defend your rights.

The Role of the Prosecutor

The Role of the Prosecutor

Ever wondered about the role of a prosecutor and their work within the community? Check out our new video!Thank you to the Karpel Foundation and the San Diego County District Attorney Office for their support in making this video.

Posted by National District Attorneys Association on Thursday, August 8, 2019

Have you ever thought about the role of a prosecutor and their work within the community?

Well, look no further. The National District Attorneys Association released a video titled, “The Role of the Prosecutor.”

Overall, it’s a good video. It accurately shows how prosecutors go about presenting cases against individuals who are suspected of breaking the law, initiating criminal investigations, conducting trials and recommending the sentencing of offenders.

Although defense attorneys and prosecutors are adversaries in the criminal justice system, it’s extremely important for them to develop and maintain cordial relationships. According to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, “The overwhelming majority (90 to 95 percent) of cases result in plea bargaining.”

Plea bargains are agreements between defendants and prosecutors in which defendants agree to plead guilty to some or all of the charges against them in exchange for concessions from the prosecutors. These agreements allow prosecutors to focus their time and resources on other cases, and reduce the number of trials that judges need to oversee.

In plea bargains, the defense lawyer and prosecutor discuss the case, and one or the other proposes a deal. The negotiations can be lengthy and conducted only after both parties have had a chance to research and investigate the case. Or, they can be minute-long exchanges in the courthouse hallway. Prosecutors usually agree to reduce a defendant’s punishment. They often accomplish this by reducing the number of charges of the severity of the charges against defendants. They might also agree to recommend that defendants receive reduced sentences. In this process, good criminal defense attorneys are persuasively effective at explaining the facts, the law and their defense theory.

Great criminal defense attorneys, however, have decent working relationships with prosecutors. These relationships are built on years of mutual respect and working on cases together in a straightforward, honest, ethical manner.  Often, prosecutors know nothing more than the police reports and criminal histories of the defendants they bring charges against. They lack context and insight into why the parties involved criminal investigations behave certain ways. Based on that working relationship, great criminal defense attorneys are adept at humanizing their clients and persuading an otherwise hardened prosecutor to consider the deeper complexities of a case.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges. It’s important to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney like myself who appreciates the role of the prosecutor and works with them on a regular basis.

Violent Crime Decreases – Except Rape

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Excellent article by Jamiles Lartey and Weihua Li of the Marshall Project describes new evidence showing that despite the overall drop in violent crime, rape rises for the sixth straight year.

The 2018 National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), released Tuesday, is managed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Justice Department. According to the authors, the data suggests that the violent crime rate in the U.S. remains on a decades-long downward trend, falling by 3.9 percent in 2018. Overall, the violent crime rate has plunged by more than 50 percent since the early 1990s. The drops came across categories of violent offenses, including murder, non-negligent manslaughter and robbery, and property crimes like burglary, larceny and vehicle thefts, while aggravated assault numbers remained about flat.

However, rape and sexual assault crimes are increased slightly for 2018. This follows consistent trends that sexual assault crimes have risen for the last six years.

So why the increase?

Apparently, in 2013, the FBI changed its outdated parameters of rape—then defined as the forcible “carnal knowledge of a female”—to a more modern definition structured around consent, rather than force. Ever since, the rate has been on a steady surge, up more than 18 percent in that period.

“It’s not yet clear why rapes have risen so swiftly. It’s a notoriously underreported crime and many have theorized that the changing social atmosphere, including the #metoo movement and increased awareness around campus rape, may be prompting survivors to report at a higher rate.”

Kristen Houser, a spokesperson for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said another possible outcome of that social and cultural change is assault survivors being better able to simply understand that what they’ve experienced was in fact a crime.

“We may well have more ability to recognize experiences for the crimes that they are and be able to name them, which I don’t think has been true historically. And that’s a result of more people talking about it, reporting on it, reading it, etc.,” Houser said.

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a sexual assault. These charges are debilitating. Simply being charged negatively impacts reputations, employment opportunities and freedom. Therefore, it’s imperative to hire an experienced and effective defense attorney who will conduct proactive investigations, argue pretrial motions and defend your rights at trial.

Reconsider Long Prison Sentences?

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Excellent article in Inside Sources by director of Strategic Initiatives at The Sentencing Project argues our society must reconsider long prison sentences.

Gotsch writes that a measure of rationality has come to federal sentencing after President Trump signed the First Step Act. The legislation has led to almost 1,700 people receiving sentence reductions, most of whom have been freed. Ninety-one percent are African American. Douglas and dozens of others sentenced to die in prison are among the beneficiaries.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that the resentencing provisions of the First Step Act reduced the average sentence of 20 years by an average of six years for those who qualified.

“The reductions, while modest, are profound for the people and families ensnared by long prison terms, and who have been generally left out of criminal justice reforms until now,” writes Gotsch.

“Congress should take its next step to address a broader cohort of incarcerated people with lengthy sentences.”

Gotsch’s arguments hinge on the fact that lengthy prison sentences seem inappropriate for prison populations that essentially “age out” of crime. Half of the people in federal prisons are serving sentences longer than 10 years. Almost 20 percent of the population is more than 50 years old.

“Criminal justice research has long confirmed that people generally age out of crime, so long sentences provide diminishing returns for public safety,” says Gotsch. “Tax dollars that could be used to invest in youth, improve schools, expand drug treatment and medical and mental health care, are instead invested in prisons to incarcerate a growing elder population despite their limited likelihood of recidivism. Policy should reflect the research.”

The Second Look Act, newly introduced sentencing reform legislation from Senator Cory Booker and Representative Karen Bass, follows the lead of experts on crime and punishment and offers a transformational approach. The bill seeks to curb long sentences by offering a sentencing review by a federal judge to people with sentences longer than 10 years. Individuals who have served at least 10 years must show they are rehabilitated and are not a threat to public safety to qualify for a sentence reduction. People who are 50 or older would have a presumption of release because of their substantially lower recidivism rates.

“For the bipartisan lawmakers in Washington, and the 2020 presidential candidates who have pledged to address the problems in the criminal justice system, a broader approach to challenge mass incarceration and promote public safety is long overdue,” says Gotsch.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges which could include a prison sentence. It’s very important to hire an experienced, competent competent attorney who can either prepare a strong case for jury trial or navigate a plea deal which avoids prison.

WA Supreme Court Invalidates “Community Caretaking” Search

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In State v. Boissellethe WA Supreme Court held a police officer’s warrantless entry into the defendant’s duplex in this case violated article I, section 7 of the WA Constitution because their emergency aid function search was a unlawful pretext for a criminal investigation as the officers were suspicious, if not convinced, that a crime had taken place before entering the unit.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Law enforcement officers were dispatched to Mr. Boisselle’s home after two anonymous 911 calls reported that a man shot and possibly killed someone at the residence. While responding to the calls, the officers learned that the residence was related to an ongoing missing person/homicide investigation. Unable to determine whether someone was alive inside the home, the officers entered the residence and conducted a warrantless search, discovering evidence of a murder therein. Boisselle  was arrested and jailed.

Boisselle moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the officers’ warrantless search was unlawfully pretextual  under article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution. The trial court denied Boisselle’s motion, concluding that the officers’ search fell within the emergency aid function of the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement. Following a jury trial, Boisselle was convicted of second degree murder and second degree unlawful possession of a firearm. The Court of Appeals affirmed his convictions.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

I. The Community Caretaking Exception

First, the WA Supreme Court agreed that the application of the community caretaking exception has become muddled, and took this opportunity to clarify the appropriate factors in determining whether an officer has exercised his or her emergency aid community caretaking function.

“The community caretaking exception is one such exception to the warrant requirement,” said the Court. “Under the community caretaking exception, law enforcement officers may make a limited invasion of constitutionally protected privacy rights when it is necessary for officers to perform their community caretaking functions.” The Court explained this exception recognizes that law enforcement officers are “jacks of all trades” and frequently engage in community caretaking functions that are unrelated to the detection and investigation of crime, including delivering emergency messages, giving directions, searching for lost children, assisting stranded motorists, and rendering first aid.

Next, the Court created the following multi-part test for evaluating whether an officer exercised his or her community caretaking function when conducting a warrantless search:

(1) Was the community caretaking exception used as a pretext for criminal investigation? If the court finds pretext, the analysis ends. If the court determines that the exception was not a pretext, the analysis continues is question is answered negatively, the analysis continues.

(2)(a) If the search fell within an officer’s general community caretaking function, such as the performance of a routine check on health or safety, the court must determine whether the search was “reasonable.” “Reasonableness” depends upon a balancing of a citizen’s privacy interest in freedom from police intrusion against the public’s interest in having police perform a community caretaking function.

(2)(b) If the search fell within an officer’s emergency aid function which arises from a police officer’s community caretaking responsibility to come to the aid of persons believed to be in danger of death or physical harm, the court, before determining whether the search is “reasonable,” must first determine whether: “(1) the officer subjectively believed that an emergency existed requiring that he or she provide immediate assistance to protect or preserve life or property, or to prevent serious injury, (2) a reasonable person in the same situation would similarly believe that there was a need for assistance, and (3) there was a reasonable basis to associate the need for assistance with the place searched.”

II. The Warrantless Search of Boisselle’s Home Was Pretextual.

The Court reasoned that an unlawful pretextual search occurs when occurs when officers rely on some legal authorization as a mere pretense to dispense with a warrant when the true reason for the seizure is not exempt from the warrant requirement. When determining whether a given search is pretextual, the court should consider the totality of the circumstances, including both the subjective intent of the officer as well as the objective reasonableness of the officer’s behavior.

“Viewing the totality of the circumstances, we are unconvinced that the officers’ search of Boisselle’s home was not a pretext for a criminal investigation.”

The Court reasoned that here, law enforcement’s involvement began because of two anonymous 911 calls reporting a crime. When the officers arrived at Boisselle’s duplex unit, they noticed a smell that could be attributed to a decomposing body, and they sought to confirm whether a crime had been committed or if a crime victim was inside. The officers were eventually able to see into the unit and saw signs of a struggle and missing carpet, which could be a sign that someone sought to cover up a crime scene.

“Taken together, these facts demonstrate that the officers were suspicious, if not convinced, that a crime had taken place,” said the Court. “Because of the officers significant suspicions, the search of Boisselle’s home was necessarily associated with the detection and investigation of criminal activity.”

Accordingly, the Court held the officers’ warrantless search did not fall under the emergency aid function of the community caretaking exception, and it violated article I, section 7 of the WA Constitution. Thus, the trial court erred in denying Boisselle’s motion to suppress. “We reverse the Court of Appeals and remand to the trial court for further proceedings,” said the Court.

My opinion? Grisly as the facts appear to be, the Court reached the right decision. Freedom from government intrusion lies at the very foundation of Western law and culture, and is one of our nation’s most cherished freedoms. That’s why we insist on police obtaining warrants, unless exigent circumstances dictates otherwise.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member were charges with a crime involving an unlawful pretextual search. Hiring competent defense counsel is the first and best step toward achieving justice.