Category Archives: Constitutional Rights

Suspended License Pullover

What If I Lose My License But Continue to Drive (Driving with a ...

In  Kansas v. Glover, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a police officer’s investigative stop of a vehicle is lawful even when a police officer is unaware of the identity of the driver yet performs the stop after running the vehicle’s license plate and discovering that the registered owner’s driver’s license was revoked.

BACKGROUND FACTS

A Kansas police officer on traffic patrol performed a computer DOL check and stopped Defendant’s car for the sole reason that the car’s registered owner had a suspended license. The Defendant turned out to be the registered owner, and was arrested.

The Kansas Supreme Court held that the stop violated the Fourth Amendment. It reasoned that without further suspicion that the current driver was, in fact, the registered owner of the car, a stop solely premised on information that the registered owner had a suspended license violated the Fourth Amendment.

Kansas petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review, which was granted. Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court in its 8-1 decision.

LEGAL ISSUE

Whether the Fourth Amendment allows police to stop a car when the only reason police have for the stop is that the car’s registered owner has a suspended license.

COURT’S ANALYSIS

The U.S. Supreme Court reasoned that an officer may initiate a brief investigative traffic stop when he has “a particularized and objective basis” to suspect legal wrongdoing.

“Here, the deputy’s common-sense inference that the owner of a vehicle was likely the vehicle’s driver provided more than reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop,” said the Court. “That inference is not made unreasonable merely because a vehicle’s driver is not always its registered owner or because Glover had a revoked license.”

The Court further reasoned that empirical studies demonstrate that drivers with suspended or revoked licenses frequently continue to drive. Also, the Court reasoned that Officers, like jurors, may rely on probabilities in the reasonable suspicion context.

“Moreover, the deputy here did more than that: He combined facts obtained from a database and commonsense judgments to form a reasonable suspicion that a specific individual was potentially engaged in specific criminal activity.” ~Justice Thomas, U.S. Supreme Court

My opinion?  This decision is consistent with existing Washington precedent.  Under State v. McKinney, a vehicle may be stopped based upon DOL records which indicate that the driver’s license of the  registered owner of the vehicle is suspended.  The officer need not affirmatively verify that the driver’s appearance matches that of the registered owner before making the stop, but the Terry stop must end as soon as the  officer determines that the operator of the vehicle cannot be the registered owner.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member experience a questionable traffic stop from police. Hiring an experienced and effective criminal defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

Victim’s Motive To Testify

Ulterior Motive

In State v. Bedada, the WA Court of Appeals held that in a domestic violence prosecution involving a citizen-victim and a non-citizen defendant, the trial judge mistakenly suppressed evidence of the victim’s knowledge that a criminal conviction would result in the defendant’s deportation.

BACKGROUND FACTS

After a series of alleged incidents of domestic violence, Mr. Bedada was charged with three counts of assault in the first degree and one count each of felony harassment, witness intimidation, and witness tampering.

All of these charges were primarily supported by the testimony of Mrs. Haile, who was the defendant’s wife.

At trial, the judge excluded evidence of Mr. Bedada’s non-citizen immigration status; and more specifically, that he would be deported if convicted of the crimes. As a result, Mr. Bedada was prevented from cross-examining Haile and revealing a motive for her to fabricate her testimony.

Bedada was convicted on all charges except two counts of assault in the first degree. He appeals on the argument that the judge’s decision to suppress his citizenship status was erroneous and without merit.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals explained that the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 22 of Washington’s constitution guarantee a defendant’s rights to confront the witnesses testifying against him.

Furthermore, the Court of Appeals said that under Evidence Rule (ER) 401, evidence is relevant if it tends to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more or less probable than it would be without the evidence. Also, under ER 403,  relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury.”

Finally, the court explained that under ER 413(a), evidence of immigration status may only be admitted when the party seeking to admit the evidence follows the procedure set forth under the rule. ER 413(a) states,

“In any criminal matter, evidence of a party’s or a witness’s immigration status shall not be admissible unless immigration status is an essential fact to prove an element of, or a defense to, the criminal offense with which the defendant is charged, or to show bias or prejudice of a witness pursuant to ER 607.” (emphasis supplied).

The court analyzed the aforementioned rules and ultimately found that plainly, evidence of a motive to fabricate on the part of Mrs. Haile— whose testimony was the principal evidence supporting every charge against Bedada — could affect a fact finder’s analysis as to whether the facts alleged by Haile were true.

“No party disputed the reliability of evidence of Bedada’s noncitizenship,” said the court. “To the extent that the trial court engaged in a balancing of the probative value and prejudicial effect of the proffered evidence, it unfortunately omitted or misapplied several critical factors necessary to a proper analysis.”

Notably, the Court of Appeals also took issue that neither the Prosecutor nor the trial judge identified any prejudicial effect — specific to this case — that might result from the introduction of evidence of Bedada’s immigration status:

“The State’s assertion did not identify, with any particularity, the prejudice that the State would encounter beyond a generalized concern of immigration as a sensitive political issue. The lack of a specific, as opposed to merely a general, prejudicial effect is significant.”

Finally, the Court found it important that Mrs. Haile was the primary witness against Bedada in every charge against him.

“She was the State’s most important witness,” said the Court. “Demonstrating bias on the part of the key witness has long been deemed an important element of a defendant’s right to present a defense.

For all of these reasons, the Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court’s decision to exclude evidence of Mr. Bedada’s immigration status constituted an abuse of discretion. Consequently, the Court reversed Mr. Bedada’s convictions.

My opinion? Good decision. Although I sympathize with the victim’s plight, it is wrong for trial courts to suppress evidence of a victim’s ulterior motives for testifying. it is powerful, relevant and probative evidence establishing motive that the victim knew that the defendant would be deported if she testified against him. Defense counsel did a great job establishing a record for appeal.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are non-citizens charged with crimes. Hiring an effective and experienced criminal defense attorney is the best step toward justice.

DUI & Opinion Evidence

Nunez trial Day 3: El Paso cops, arson investigator, medical ...

In City of Seattle v. Levesque, the WA Court of Appeals held that a police officer, who is not a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE), may not opine that a driver was showing signs of being impaired by a stimulant or that the driver was impaired by drugs at the time of an accident.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On April 29, 2015, the Seattle Police Department dispatched Officers Hinson and Officer Coe to the scene of an automobile accident involving two vehicles. Levesque had failed to stop his vehicle prior to hitting the vehicle in front of him. The accident caused moderate to severe damage, and Levesque’s vehicle could not be driven.

Officer Hinson placed Levesque under arrest for DUI.

Although Officer Hinson had received training in field sobriety tests (FSTS), he did not perform any FSTs at the scene because of Levesque’s symptoms, the absence of any alcohol smell, and the location of the accident and corresponding impracticability of FSTs. Officer Hinson did not perform a horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test for signs of impairment. Officer Hinson, who is not DRE certified, testified that he attempted to contact a DRE by radio, but no DRE was available.

For those who don’t know, a DRE  is a police officer trained to recognize impairment in drivers under the influence of drugs other than, or in addition to, alcohol.

After arresting Levesque, Officer Hinson transported Levesque to Harborview Medical Center, where he had his blood drawn. The drug analysis results showed that Levesque’s blood contained 0.14 milligrams per liter (mg/L) of amphetamine and 0.55 mg/L of methamphetamine. The City charged Levesque with DUI.

Before trial, Levesque moved in limine to exclude any testifying officer’s opinion on ultimate issues. The trial court granted the motion but ruled that an officer could state “in his opinion, based upon the totality of the circumstances, that Levesque was impaired.” The trial court also granted Levesque’s additional motion to exclude officers as experts but declared that an officer—testifying as a lay witness—could “certainly testify to what he objectively observed during the investigation.”

Officer Hinson testified that through his training and experience Levesque showed signs as possibly being impaired by a stimulant. When asked to opine as to whether Levesque was impaired by drugs, Officer Hinson testified that his opinion was that Levesque was definitely impaired at the time of the accident.” Levesque objected to Officer Hinson’s testimony and requested a mistrial outside the presence of the jury following a lunch recess. The court overruled Levesque’s objections.

Also at trial, Levesque offered an alternative theory for his perceived impairment. Levesque’s defense theory was that he was prescribed medication for injuries which explain his behavior. In support of this defense, Levesque presented testimony from his physician about treatment and prescriptions that she gave Levesque prior to the accident, her diagnoses, and Levesque’s symptoms.

The jury convicted Levesque of driving while under the influence. Levesque appealed his conviction to the superior court, which reversed based on Officer Hinson’s opinion testimony. The city of Seattle (City) appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that opinion testimony must be deemed admissible by the trial court before it is offered. Opinion testimony may be admissible under ER 701 as lay testimony or ER 702 as expert testimony. However, when opinion testimony that embraces an ultimate issue is inadmissible in a criminal trial, the testimony may constitute an impermissible opinion on guilt. Furthermore, impermissible opinion testimony regarding the defendant’s guilt may be reversible error.

Here, the opinion testimony at issue consists of Officer Hinson’s statements that Levesque showed signs and symptoms of being impaired by a specific category of drug – i.e., a CNS stimulant – and that Levesque was “definitely impaired” at the time of the accident.

“We conclude that because Officer Hinson was not a drug recognition expert (DRE) and lacked otherwise sufficient training and experience, he was not qualified to opine that Levesque showed signs and symptoms consistent with having consumed a particular category of drug.” ~WA Court of Appeals

Furthermore, the Court of Appeals reasoned that because the officer’s opinion that Levesque was “definitely impaired” constituted an impermissible opinion of Levesque’s guilt, the trial court’s admission of that testimony violated Levesque’s constitutional right to have the jury determine an ultimate issue. Finally, because Levesque presented an alternative theory for his behavior, the City did not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that any reasonable jury would have convicted Levesque. “Therefore, we affirm the superior court’s reversal of Levesque’s conviction,” said the Court of Appeals.

My opinion? Excellent decision. And excellent work on behalf of his defense attorney. They did a great job of making a record for not only trying to suppress the officer’s opinion evidence during motions in limine, but also for properly objecting at the right time and preserving the issue for appeal when the officer unlawfully offered the opinion testimony.

Under Evidence Rule 704, witnesses may not testify to opinions concerning intent, guilt, or innocence in a criminal case; the truth or falsity of allegations; whether a witness has testified truthfully; or legal conclusions. This is because testimony from witnesses on these issues is not probative and is, in fact, prejudicial to criminal defendants. Good opinion.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with DUI. Hiring a competent and experienced criminal defense attorney who is well-versed on pretrial motions and the rules of evidence is the first and best step toward justice.

Entrapment & Sex Crimes

Online sting was 'clear case of entrapment:' lawyer | CTV News

In State v. Johnson, the WA Court of Appeals held that a Defendant cannot claim Entrapment for numerous attempted sex offenses by responding to a fake Craigslist add in the “Casual Encounters” section created by police officers conducting an online sting operation.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Law enforcement created a posting in the Craigslist casual encounters section. Mr. Johnson responded to the ad. His communications with the (as-yet-unknown) police led Mr. Johnson to believe the add was posted by a 13-year-old female named “Brandi” who was home alone. Mr. Johnson was instructed to drive to a minimart and await further instructions via text. Johnson drove to the designated minimart. “Brandi” then gave Johnson the address of the house and he drove toward that location. Law enforcement apprehended Johnson while on his way from the minimart to the house. At the time of his arrest, Johnson was carrying forty dollars.

Johnson was charged with (1) attempted second degree rape of a child, (2) attempted commercial sexual abuse of a minor, and (3) communication with a minor for immoral purposes. During trial, he requested the Entrapment Defense via a jury instruction. However, the trial judge denied Johnson the defense and jury instruction. The jury found him guilty of all charges.

Johnson appealed, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel and that the trial judge erred by denying the Entrapment defense.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The court explained that in order to prove the affirmative defense of entrapment, a defendant must show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he committed a crime, that the State or a State actor lured or induced him to commit the crime, and that the defendant lacked the disposition to commit the crime. A defendant may not point to the State’s absence of evidence to meet his evidentiary burden for an affirmative defense. Importantly, as a matter of law, the Court also stated the following:

“Entrapment is not a defense if law enforcement merely afforded the actor an opportunity
to commit a crime.”

“Here, Johnson points to no evidence to support an entrapment instruction,” reasoned the Court. Here, law enforcement created a Craigslist posting purporting to be a woman looking for a man to teach her how to be an adult. This add, however, was not entrapment on the part of police. The add merely presented an opportunity for Mr. Johnson to incriminate himself and commit a crime:

“Johnson initiated contact by answering the posting. Johnson testified that no one forced him to answer the posting. Although Johnson stated he wanted to be cautious because ‘Brandi’ was underage, he steered the conversation into explicitly sexual territory by graphically explaining his sexual desires to the purported thirteen-year-old. When ‘Brandi’ suggested meeting at a later time, Johnson declined, stating that he was available to meet. There is no evidence that law enforcement lured or induced Johnson.”

The court also rejected Johnson’s argument that he was entitled to an entrapment instruction because the State failed to show he had a predisposition to commit the crimes against children, and there was no evidence of a history regarding perverse activity towards children.

“But pointing to the State’s absence of evidence does not meet Johnson’s evidentiary burden for his affirmative defense,” said the Court. Instead, explained he Court, the evidence shows that law enforcement merely afforded Johnson the opportunity to commit his crimes. Johnson willingly responded to the posting, steered the conversation to explicitly sexual topics, testified that he wanted to meet the person, and drove to the agreed locations.

The Court of Appeals concluded that because Johnson failed to show any evidence entitling him to a jury instruction on entrapment, the trial court did not err by refusing to instruct the jury on entrapment. The court also denied Mr. Johnson’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel.

My opinion? Entrapment is a very difficult defense to prove under these circumstances. Law enforcement officers are allowed to engage in sting operations, whereby they create circumstances that allow individuals to take criminal actions that they can then be arrested and prosecuted for. These are considered “opportunities” for individuals believed to be involved in criminal behavior to commit crimes. An opportunity is considered very different from entrapment and involves merely the temptation to violate the law, not being forced to do so.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges where Entrapment could be a substantive defense. Hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney is the first and best step towards justice.

Justice for the Jailed

Image result for d defendants incarcerated coronavirus

Great Op-ed article in the Seattle Times written by public defender Brandon Davis describes the challenges of getting justice for jailed defendants in the age of Coronavirus.

Mr. Davis poignantly says that given the scope of this crisis, it is inevitable that the virus will spread in King county’s two jails, where an estimated 2,000 people are currently housed. He says that even the simple act of handcuffing adds a risk — you can’t cover your mouth if you cough while your hands are tied behind your back. Additionally, Mr. Davis potently describes how the shadow cast by CV-19 detrimentally affects his ability to access numerous professionals involved in the justice system:

“I can’t visit my clients in jail without putting myself at risk. I can’t do site visits and interview witnesses. I can’t ask our social workers to meet with clients and put together treatment plans. I can’t negotiate with prosecutors in-person — it’s difficult to even get them on the phone.”

Mr. Davis points out that jury trials are suspended until April 24, and it is possible the suspension will last much longer. And once trials resume, there will be a massive backlog.

“The Sixth Amendment guarantees a right to a speedy trial, but because of the coronavirus, those who are being held on bond amounts they cannot afford are looking at many more months in an unsafe jail. COVID-19 has ground the criminal legal system to a halt, which is understandable in a pandemic of this magnitude, but our clients in jail are the ones left suffering because of it,” says Mr. Davis.

He describes a story where, on a Saturday, he had to assist his clients in King County Jail.  Before the hearings began, all 20 or so defendants are crammed in “the tank,” which is a small holding cell. Mr. Davis and his colleagues had to enter the tank to talk to each and every one of the incarcerated defendants.

“The visuals could not be starker,” wrote Mr. Davis. “The judge and the prosecutor were at a safe remove, but public defenders were working side-by-side with our clients, all of us at risk. Public health concerns the whole public, and whether the court and the prosecutors would like to admit it, people in jail are part of the public, too.”

I salute Mr. Davis for sharing his insights and writing such a fantastic article. The Coronavirus pandemic is a terrible blight on our communities. It not only affects the contaminated, but people like Mr. Davis who try to help them, too.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are presently incarcerated and want help getting released from jail. Under the circumstances, judges and prosecutors might be persuaded to release defendants or lower bail during this terribly volatile and troubling time.

Blaine Police Department Asks For ‘Nefarious Behavior to Cease’ Due to Coronavirus

Image result for funny police

Humorous article from David Rasbach of the Bellingham Herald reports a Facebook post by the Blaine Police Department Monday, March 16, read: “Due to local cases of #COVID-19, BPD is asking all criminal activity and nefarious behavior to cease.” The post went on to thank all criminals in advance for their cooperation:

According to Rashbach, the post drew 120 reactions and was shared 66 times in its first 40 minutes.

“Schools, restaurants and bars may be closed,” reported Mr. Rashbach. “The Canadians are considering shuttering the border. And it’s almost impossible to find an available pack of toilet paper or a bottle of hand sanitizer anywhere. But one Whatcom County law enforcement agency is still hoping some good can come out of the novel coronavirus pandemic — or at least some good humor.”

Well said, Mr. Rashbach!

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges during this harsh time of the Coronavirus pandemic. All people faced facing criminal charges have a constitutional right to the presumption of innocence. Hiring a competent, experienced defense attorney is tantamount to safeguarding these rights.

Meth Hurts Opioid Treatment

Image result for meth and opioids

The Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment  published a new study which found that methamphetamine use was associated with more than twice the risk for dropping out of treatment for opioid-use disorder.

The origins of the study are interesting. Apparently, Judith Tsui, a UW Medicine clinician specializing in addiction treatment, was seeing more and more patients she was treating for opioid-use disorder also using methamphetamines, a powerful, highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system.

She would start the patients on buprenorphine, a medication to treat opioid use disorder, but they would often drop out. So she and colleagues wanted to see if this was a common problem. They conducted a large study (799 people) at three sites — Harborview Adult Medicine Clinic in Seattle and Evergreen Treatment Services in Olympia and Grays Harbor.

“This study confirms anecdotally what we sensed,” said Tsui. “The next step is to build into treatment models how we can help those patients who struggle both with opioids and methamphetamines to be successful.”

“A substantial proportion of these patients are homeless and may use meth to stay awake at night just to stay safe and keep an eye on their belongings.”              ~Judith Tsui, UW Medicine Clinician

Dr. Tsui also said patients also tell her the streets are flooded with the drug and it’s hard for them to say no. Some patients have requested treatment with prescribed stimulant medications like Adderall and Ritalin to help them stop using methamphetamines.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges for illegal possession and/or distribution of unlawful drugs. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. In many cases – including drug cases in particular – the legality of how law enforcement officials obtained the evidence used to support the State’s case is a central and debatable issue. If the government’s conduct violated a person’s rights, the evidence is deemed inadmissible. And without the necessary evidence to prove the criminal charges, the judge may dismiss the State’s case.

A Cell Phone “Ping” Is a Search

Image result for cell phone ping

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.

Inventory Searches, Automatic Standing, & Stolen Vehicles.

Image result for meth in car

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.

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.