Category Archives: Search Warrant

Exigent Circumstances for Warrantless Blood Draw

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In State v. Rawley, the WA Court of Appeals held that Exigent Circumstances justified the warrantless blood draw done at the scene of a car collision where the driver exhibited the effects of alcohol and a telephonic search warrant – which takes between 20 and 45 minutes in the county where the accident occurred – could not be obtained prior to the administration of medical drugs.

BACKGROUND FACTS

At 2:55 PM, Deputy Aman responded to a two-car, head-on collision. The defendant Ms. Rawley had crossed the center line, causing her vehicle to collide with another vehicle. Rawley was trapped in her vehicle.

As Deputy Aman spoke to Rawley, he noted a strong smell of alcohol and that her speech was slurred and repetitive. Rawley admitted to drinking alcohol.

The paramedics freed Rawley from the vehicle and placed her in the ambulance. Deputy Aman went to the ambulance and learned that IV fluids and medications were about to be administered to Rawley.

Deputy Aman felt exigent circumstances existed to draw Rawley’s blood to check her blood alcohol content (BAC) before administering IV fluids. The paramedic drew Rawley’s blood at 3:07 PM. IV fluids started at 3:23 PM. The ambulance left for the hospital at 3:23 PM. Rawley’s BAC was .35—over 4 times the legal limit under statute.

The State charged Rawley with felony driving under the influence. Before trial, Rawley made a CrR 3.6 motion to suppress the results of the blood draw. The trial court denied her motion. Following a bench trial, the trial court found Rawley guilty of felony driving under the influence.

Rawley appealed on the issues of whether exigent circumstances justified a warrantless blood draw.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court began by stating that warrantless searches and seizures are per se unreasonable and in violation of the Fourth Amendment and article I, section 7 of the Washington State Constitution. However, under Missouri v. McNeely, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized an exception to the warrant requirement allows a warrantless search or seizure when exigent circumstances exist.

“Exigent circumstances exist where the delay necessary to obtain a warrant is not practical because the delay would permit the destruction of evidence,” said the Court.  “But the natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood may support a finding of exigency in a specific case, for example, when delay results from the warrant application process.”

Next, the Court of Appeals addressed whether the warrantless blood draw was lawful under the exigent circumstances based on State v. Inman, a WA Court of Appeals case involving  a DUI motor vehicle injury collision occurring in a rural area with spotty phone service. In Inman, the Court held that a search warrant was not required before a blood sample collected under the exigent circumstances exception is tested for alcohol and drugs.

“The circumstances here are like those in Inman. Rawley was in a head-on collision and was trapped inside her vehicle. Her speech was slurred and Deputy Aman could smell intoxicants on her breath. Rawley admitted to drinking. One of the paramedics told Deputy Aman he would be administering IV fluids and then taking Rawley to the hospital. Deputy Aman was aware that IV fluids are generally administered if there is concern for internal injuries. In Deputy Aman’s experience, a warrant request could take on average up to 45 minutes during the day.” ~WA Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals decided Inman was similar to the present case and was properly relied upon by the trial court. “Accordingly, the trial court’s findings of fact support the trial court’s conclusion of law that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless blood draw based on Inman.”

In closing, the Court of Appeals rejected Rawley’s arguments that a police officer must inquire into the type of IV fluid being administered in order to show that exigent circumstance existed because the IV fluids would alter the blood test results.

“There is no binding legal authority requiring police officers to be knowledgeable of medicines and their effect on blood alcohol content.” ~WA Court of Appeals

With that, the Court of Appeals affirmed Rawley’s conviction for Felony DUI.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face DUI charges and evidence was obtained through a warrantless blood draw. Hiring a competent and experienced trial attorney is the first and best step toward justice.

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.

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.

Exigent Circumstances Support Warrantless Blood Draw

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In State v. Anderson, the WA Court of Appeals held that exigent circumstances supported a warrantless blood draw at the scene from a driver arrested for vehicular homicide and vehicular assault.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In October 2014, Anderson was living with his high school friend, Mr. Powers. Powers would occasionally let Anderson drive his car. The evening of October 24, 2014, Anderson drank at home and then went to a bar to watch a hockey game. About 12:30 am., Powers heard Anderson’s voice and then heard his car start. Anderson took Powers’s car without his permission.

Around 2:00 a.m., Sergeant Jamie Douglas responded to a multivictim car crash in Auburn. At the scene, Douglas saw an “obliterated” car off the roadway, a path of debris, an uprooted tree with an 18-inch base, uprooted utility boxes, and guy wires that had been supporting a telephone pole torn out of the ground. The speed limit on the road was 35 m.p.h. but, based on the scene, Douglas estimated the car was traveling close to 100 mph. Deputy Jace Hoch had observed the car earlier traveling at about 90 mph. but could not catch it. He asked dispatch to let the Auburn Police Department know that the car was heading toward Auburn. Four of the five passengers in the car died.

Multiple individuals who responded to the scene smelled alcohol on Anderson. Anderson told paramedic Paul Nordenger that he had had “a few drinks.” Nordenger drew Anderson’s blood at the scene without a warrant. Test results showed that his blood alcohol content (BAC) was 0.19 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood and that he had 2.0 nanograms of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) per milliliter. Anderson was taken to Harborview Medical Center. Toxicologist Asa Louis testified that a second blood draw taken there showed a BAC of 0.18.

The State charged Anderson with four counts of vehicular homicide, one count of vehicular assault, one count of reckless driving, and an a sentencing aggravator for injury to the victim substantially exceeding the level of bodily harm necessary to satisfy the elements of vehicular assault. A jury convicted Anderson as charged.

Among other issues, Anderson claimed that exigent circumstances did not exist for officers to conduct a warrantless blood draw at the scene.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that as a general rule, warrantless searches and seizures are per se unreasonable, in violation of the Fourth Amendment and article I, section 7 of the Washington State Constitution. A blood test is a search and seizure. A recognized exception to the warrant requirement allows a warrantless search or seizure when exigent circumstances exist.

“A court examines the totality of the circumstances to determine whether they exist,” said the Court. “They exist where the delay necessary to obtain a warrant is not practical because the delay would permit the destruction of evidence.” Furthermore, the natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood may support a finding of exigency in a specific case, for example, when delay results from the warrant application process.”

Next, the Court of Appeals’ legal analysis focused on prior cases U.S. Supreme Court and WA Supreme Court cases. It observed that Missouri v. McNeely upheld the proposition that the presence of other officers weighs against the conclusion that exigent circumstances existed. Also, in State v. Inman, the WA Court of Appeals held that exigent circumstances for a blood draw existed when Mr.  Inman crashed his motorcycle on a rural road, injuring him and his passenger. In that case, Inman had facial trauma; including bleeding and abrasions on the face, and a deformed helmet. A bystander told police that Inman had been unconscious for five minutes before regaining consciousness. A paramedic administered emergency treatment. A responding officer spoke with lnman and smelled intoxicants on him. Finally, Inman admitted that he had been drinking before driving his motorcycle.

“The circumstances here are more like those in Inman,” said the Court of Appeals. “Similar to Inman, the trial court found that Anderson was in a high-impact collision resulting in serious injuries.  Here, Mr. Anderson sustained serious injuries that required treatment, multiple responders smelled alcohol on him, he told an officer at the scene that he had been drinking before driving, a paramedic told the first responding officer that the medics would be giving the driver medication and intubating him, the first responding officer knew from his experience in law enforcement and as a paramedic that this emergency treatment could impair the integrity of the blood sample, and that it would take 40 to 90 minutes to obtain a warrant for a blood draw.

“A warrant was not practical because the delay caused by obtaining a warrant would result in the destruction of evidence or postpone Anderson’s receipt of necessary medical care,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. “The totality of the circumstances establish that exigent circumstances existed to justify a warrantless blood draw.”

Please contact my office of you, a friend or family member are charged with an alcohol-related driving charge and police execute a warrantless blood draw. Retaining an experienced DUI attorney who is experienced with the legalities of blood draws is the first and best step toward obtaining justice.

Court Denies “Community Caretaking” Argument

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In State v. Beach, the WA Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a defendant’s Possession of Stolen Vehicle charges because the police failed to obtain a search warrant and the Community Custody Exception to the warrant requirement did not apply.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On November 27, 2017, a person called 911 to report a young child walking by himself. Officer Nixon responded to the 911 report, and took custody of the child. Officer Nixon decided to drive around the neighborhood to look for the child’s home.

Eventually, the officer saw a house with its front door open. He ran the license plate of the car in the driveway and learned that the car had been reported stolen. He called for backup. At that point, the officer’s interest in determining whether the child lived at the house was secondary to figuring out if this was a home invasion robbery.

Officers arrived. They surrounded the house, with one or two officers going to the back of the house in case someone tried to exit from the back door. Officers knocked loudly on the outside of the house and announced themselves for approximately 30 seconds. When there was no answer, they drew their guns and entered the house, yelling, “This is the Kent Police Department. Come out with your hands up!”

Mr. Beach and his girlfriend Ms. Hall emerged from a rear bedroom. They said that they were sleeping. The officers discovered the couple had outstanding warrants. The officers arrested Beach and Hall. While searching Beach upon arrest, the police found a key to the stolen car in the driveway.

The State charged Beach with one count of possession of a stolen vehicle. Beach moved to suppress any evidence resulting from the warrantless search.

The State argued that the warrantless search was valid under the community caretaking exception because there was real and immediate danger of an ongoing home invasion. The trial court conducted a hearing pursuant to CrR 3.6. After hearing testimony by officers, the court found that the State had not established that the officers were acting within the scope of their community caretaking function, and suppressed the evidence.

Beach moved to dismiss and the court granted the motion. The State appealed.

COURT’S RATIONALE & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals explained that the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Also, the WA constitution is often more protective than the Fourth Amendment, particularly where warrantless searches are concerned.

“Under our state constitution, warrantless searches are per se unreasonable unless one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement applies,” said the Court. “The burden of proof is on the State to show that a warrantless search or seizure falls within one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement.”

A. Community Caretaking Exception to the Warrant Requirement.

The Court said the community caretaking function exception encompasses situations involving emergency aid, and also routine checks on health and safety. Compared with routine checks on health and safety, the emergency aid function involves circumstances of greater urgency and searches resulting in greater intrusion.

Under the health and safety check test, the State must show that (1) the officer subjectively believed someone needed health or safety assistance, (2) a reasonable person in the same situation would 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.

Also, the State must also show that the encounter under this exception was reasonable, which depends on a balancing of the individual’s interest in freedom from police interference against the public’s interest in having the police perform a community caretaking function. Finally, the State must show that a reasonable person in the same situation would believe that there was a need for assistance.

The Court reasoned that here, there was a 911 report about a child wandering blocks away. When Nixon stopped his police car outside of the residence, the child did not indicate that he had any connection to the house. No connection between the child and the house was established until after the officers entered. “Any concern for the child was not an ongoing emergency that would merit the officers going into the home,” said the Court.

And here, the officers did not know of any requests for help from the house before they entered. They did not know anyone was unaccounted for and saw no evidence anyone had been injured. The officers did not see any broken windows, signs of forced entry, or other evidence of a break-in. Once in the doorway, Officer Nixon did not see anything in disarray inside the home that would indicate a struggle or ongoing emergency. When the officers went into the home, the house was in “fine condition.”

Consequently, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision that the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement did not apply and suppressed the evidence.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime and police conducted their search under the “Community Caretaking” exception to the warrant requirement. Possibly, evidence obtained through the search could be suppressed and the charges dismissed.

“School Search” Held Unconstitutional

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

BACKGROUND FACTS

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

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

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

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

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

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

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

School Search Exception

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

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

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

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

Here,  the search was unconstitutional.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jury Bias

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In United States v. Kecheczian, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided a trial court mistakenly  allowed a juror to decide an aggravated identity theft and possession of unauthorized access devices case, when the juror admitted during jury selection that she had her social security number previously stolen and she was unable to explicitly state that she could put her personal biases aside.

BACKGROUND FACTS

After receiving a tip that Mr. Kechedzian was linked to a fugitive operating a large credit card fraud ring, federal agents conducted a trash pull from Kechedzian’s residence. In his trash, they found two counterfeit credit cards and, based on this, the agents obtained a search warrant. The resulting search of Kechedzian’s residence and cars uncovered two USB drives containing 1,451 stolen credit card numbers in text files, a Bluetooth-enabled “skimming device” commonly used to steal credit card information from gas station pumps, and several cards with stolen data re-encoded on the magnetic strips. Bank records revealed that many of the stolen card numbers had been used fraudulently at gas stations and other retail establishments across the United States.

Kechedzian was charged with two counts of possession of 15 or more Unauthorized Access Devices and two counts of Aggravated Identity Theft. The case proceeded to trial. At the beginning of jury selection, the federal district court judge read a general statement of the case, laying out the charges against Kechedzian. The judge then asked the following:

“Does anyone feel, just based on the charges in this case, based on what this case is about, that they could not be fair and impartial to both sides? Does anyone feel that way at this point in time?”

Juror # 3 raised her hand. From there, she informed the court she was a past victim of identity fraud. Furthermore, she did not know whether she could put aside her biases. Later, at sidebar, defense counsel sought to have Juror # 3 excused for cause. However, the judge denied the motion.

“I think at the end of the day she confirmed or committed to the principles of the presumption of innocence and burden of proof,” said the judge. “I would deny the motion.” Consequently, Juror # 3 sat on Kechedzian’s jury.

The jury ultimately returned a guilty verdict, and Kechedzian was sentenced to 65 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release. The district court also ordered $114,134.76 in restitution. Kechedzian timely appealed.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & DECISION

The Court of Appeals began by saying the Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants a verdict by an impartial jury, and the bias or prejudice of even a single juror is enough to violate that guarantee. Accordingly, the presence of a biased juror cannot be harmless. The error requires a new trial without a showing of actual prejudice.  And any doubts regarding bias must be resolved against the juror. One important mechanism for ensuring impartiality is voir dire, which enables the parties to probe potential jurors for prejudice. After voir dire, counsel may challenge a prospective juror for cause, and a partial or biased juror should be removed if there is a showing of either implied or actual bias.

“Here, Kechedzian alleges bias under both theories,” said the Court.

Actual Bias Analysis

It explained that actual bias is the more common ground for excusing jurors for cause. Actual bias is the existence of a state of mind that leads to an inference that the person will not act with entire impartiality. Actual bias involves an inability to act impartially or a refusal to weigh the evidence properly It can be revealed through a juror’s express answers during voir dire, but it can also be revealed by circumstantial evidence during questioning.

The Court said that in contrast, implied bias is presumed only in extraordinary cases. “In analyzing implied bias, we look to whether an average person in the position of the juror in controversy would be prejudiced.”

Implied Bias Analysis

This Court described “implied bias” as applying to those extreme situations where the relationship between a prospective juror and some aspect of the litigation is such that it is highly unlikely that the average person could remain impartial in his deliberations under the circumstances.  Furthermore, the implied bias inquiry is an objective one. Even if a juror states or believes that she can be impartial, the court may find implied bias based on the circumstances.

The Court noted that here, although Juror # 3 was previously a victim of identity theft, this is not the type of “extreme” situation where we find implied bias. “Thus, we focus our analysis on the actual bias inquiry,” said the Court.

The Court reasoned that Juror #3 was ultimately asked if she could set aside her feelings, and act impartially and fairly to both sides of the case. She responded: “I believe so, yes.” The Court said that statement—“I believe so, yes”—appears somewhat equivocal. However, none of Juror #3’s equivocal statements could be understood as affirmative statements of impartiality. The Court reasoned that here, Juror #3 explicitly noted that she was unsure if she could put her personal biases aside.

“A juror can understand the presumption of innocence and burden of proof, yet still let personal prejudice infect her ability to be impartial.”

“When a juror is unable to state that she will serve fairly and impartially despite being asked repeatedly for such assurances, we can have no confidence that the juror will lay aside her biases or her prejudicial personal experiences and render a fair and impartial verdict,” said the Court. “Because this is precisely what occurred here, the district court was obligated to excuse Juror #3 for cause under an actual bias theory.”

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial.

My opinion? Good decision. In my trial experience, potential jurors who have suffered as victims of crime tend to be pro-prosecution. A potential juror who does not know if they can be fair or impartial should be excused for cause. Period.

Backpage.com & Privacy

Image result for backpage.com

In In re Personal Restraint of Hopper, the WA Court of Appeals held that a defendant’s calls and text messages to the phone number listed in a Backpage.com advertisement were not private communications protected by the Washington Privacy Act.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In December 2012, Mr. Hopper searched Backpage.com with the intent of purchasing sex. Backpage operated an online classified advertising service, Its users created and posted their own ads, including ads in the adult category. This category included ads for prostitution activity, often under the guise of an adult escort or entertainment service. The ads often featured pictures of women identified by false names and ages, along with hourly rates.

Hopper saw an advertisement for a woman named “Whisper,” who he later learned was K.H. The ad stated that she was 19 years old. She was actually 16 years old. It listed a phone number that Hopper both called and contacted by text. When he contacted the number by text, he initially believed that he was communicating with K.H. But K.H.’s pimp, identified as Mr. Park, had listed his own number on the ad and was reading and responding to Hopper’s text messages.

In December 2012, police arrested Park and, with a warrant, searched his cell phone. K.H. told police that Hopper had paid to have sex with her and identified him from a photograph montage. The police located Hopper’s home address from the text messages stored on Park’s phone. The State charged Hopper with commercial sexual abuse of a minor. In March 2014, a jury convicted Hopper as charged.

Hopper appealed his conviction on arguments that his trial counsel gave ineffective
assistance by failing to move to suppress his text messages to K.H., which police found stored on Park’s cellular phone.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The WA Court of Appeals reasoned that a privacy act violation occurs when “(1) a private communication transmitted by a device. . . was (2) intercepted or recorded by use of (3) a device designed to record and/or transmit (4) without the consent of all parties to the private communication.” Hopper claims that his text messages to K.H. were “private communications” under the act because he intended them for her alone and they concerned illegal activity. Whether communications are private is a question of fact but may be decided as a question of law where, as here, the parties do not dispute the facts.

The Court of Appeals noted the Act does not define “private.” Instead, Washington courts have adopted the dictionary definition. Nevertheless, Washington courts will generally presume that each of the two parties participating in the conversation intends it to be private.

“Hopper’s subjective expectation of privacy was objectively unreasonable,” said the Court of Appeals. The Court explained that Hopper responded to an ad on Backpage.com, a website notorious for advertising prostitution activity. The ad was titled “any way you want it 19” and featured an unidentifiable woman with a fictitious name. A reasonable person would not expect that contacting a stranger by text through the phone number listed in this advertisement would provide a legitimate opportunity for a private conversation with a known person. Even Hopper admitted that “the picture wasn’t a good enough picture to clearly identify a specific person.”

“And regardless of whether Hopper was initially aware of K.H.’s pimp, it is common knowledge that prostitutes often have pimps. Thus, even though Hopper subjectively intended for his text messages to K.H. to be private, his communications were not private
because this expectation was unreasonable. Park did not violate the act when he recorded and stored Hopper’s messages to K.H. on his cell phone.”

The Court of Appeals concluded that because Hopper does not establish that these text messages were “private communications” under the act, he does not show that his counsel’s performance fell below an objectively reasonable standard of care. His claim failed. The Court of Appeals upheld Hopper’s conviction and found his attorney was not ineffective.

Contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges involving searches of cell phones. Depending on the circumstances, the evidence might be suppressible. And for more information on search warrants, please read my Legal Guide on Search & Seizure.

Facebook Photos Admissible

Image result for facebook social media admissible evidence court

The 6th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals‘ recent court decision United States v. Farrad gives a very comprehensive analysis regarding the admissibility of Facebook records. In short, the  Court held that (1) photographs from a Facebook account were properly authenticated by evidence that the photos in question came from a Facebook account registered to the defendant and the photos appeared to show the defendant in his own apartment, and (2) The Facebook photographs were self-authenticating as a business record.

Washington’s evidence rules are either identical to, or extremely similar, to the federal rules discussed in the opinion.

BACKGROUND FACTS

After serving time in prison for a previous felony, Farrad was released from federal
custody in January 2013. Farrad came to the attention of local law enforcement sometime after June 10 of that same year, when various confidential informants and concerned citizens evidently reported observing Farrad to be in possession of one or more firearms while in Johnson City, Tennessee.

Some time later, a Officer Garrison of the Johnson City Police Department used an undercover account and sent Farrad a friend request on Facebook. After Farrad accepted the friend request, Garrison was able to see more of Farrad’s photos. One photo in particular caught his interest: a photo that showed what appeared to be three handguns sitting on a closed toilet lid in a bathroom. The photo was uploaded on October 7, 2013.

Garrison brought the photo to the attention of Johnson City police officer and FBI task
force officer Matthew Gryder, who applied on October 25, 2013, for a warrant to search Farrad’s Facebook’s records. A federal magistrate judge granted the warrant. The warrant allowed execution “on or before November 6, 2013,” and the return executed by federal law enforcement indicates that the warrant was “served electronically” on Facebook on November 1, 2013.

The resulting data yielded a series of additional photos that were central to this case: some show a person who looks like Farrad holding what appears to be a gun, while others show a closer-up version of a hand holding what appears to be a gun.

While none of the photos shows a calendar, date, or one-of-a-kind distinguishing feature, the person in the photos has relatively distinctive tattoos, and some of the photos show, as backdrop, the décor of the room in which they were taken. Facebook records revealed that the photos had been uploaded on October 11, 2013.

In September 2014, a federal grand jury charged Farrad with having, on or about October 11, 2013, knowingly possessed a firearm, namely, a Springfield, Model XD, .45 caliber, semiautomatic pistol.

On March 26, 2015, Farrad filed a pro se motion seeking an evidentiary hearing, dismissal of the indictment against him, and suppression of the Facebook photos on Fourth Amendment grounds. The magistrate judge assigned to Farrad’s case denied that motion on April 9, 2015, on the grounds that Farrad already had appointed counsel and the local rules prohibited a represented party from acting in his or her own behalf without an order of substitution. Farrad’s trial counsel did not renew Farrad’s motion.

The parties did, however, litigate the admission of the photos on evidentiary grounds.
The Government argued that the Facebook photos qualified as business records under Federal Rule of Evidence 803(6) and that they were, as such, self-authenticating under Federal Rule of Evidence 902(11).

In support of its assertion, the Government introduced a certification by a Facebook-authorized records custodian, who attested that the records provided by Facebook—including “search results for basic subscriber information, IP logs, messages, photos, and other content and records for Farrad’s Facebook identity were made and kept by the automated systems of Facebook in the course of regularly conducted activity as a regular practice of Facebook and made at or near the time the information was transmitted by the Facebook user.

In addition to disputing admissibility under Federal Rules of Evidence 401, 402, 403, 404, 405, and 406, Farrad’s trial counsel argued that the photos, despite the custodian’s affidavit having been “done correctly under the federal rules,” were “hearsay within hearsay” and did not “authenticate who took the pictures, when the pictures were taken, by whom, at what time. All that the custodian could attest to, trial counsel emphasized, was that at some point these pictures were uploaded to what was allegedly Farrad’s Facebook account, the custodian could not testify as to who took the photos, when they were taken, where they were taken.

On June 15, 2015, the district court concluded that it had found no indication of a lack of trustworthiness and that the photos qualified as business records under Rules 803(6) and 902(11). It also determined that the photos were relevant.

The jury found Farrad guilty. He appealed his case to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

ISSUES

Farrad raises seven arguments on appeal: (1) that there was insufficient evidence
introduced at trial to support his conviction; (2) that the Facebook photos should not have been admitted into evidence; (3) that Officers Hinkle and Garrison should not have been permitted to testify as experts; (4) that the district court should have granted Farrad’s motion for a new trial; (5) that Farrad did not in fact qualify as an armed career criminal under the ACCA; (6) that finding him to be an armed career criminal at sentencing violated his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights; and (7) that the district court should have excluded the Facebook photos on Fourth Amendment grounds.

In this blog post, we focus on the issue of whether the Facebook photos were admissible at trial.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

Admissibility of Photos

The Court reasoned that like other evidence, photographs must be authenticated prior to being admitted into evidence. To satisfy this requirement, under federal evidence rule (FRE) 901, the person seeking to admit the evidence (proponent) must produce evidence proving that the item is what the proponent claims it is. This authentication rule requires only that the court admit evidence if sufficient proof has been introduced so that a reasonable juror could find in favor of authenticity or identification.

The Court further reasoned that under FRE 902, some items – like, apparently Facebook posts – are self-authenticating. In other words, they require no extrinsic evidence of authenticity in order to be admitted. This category of self-authenticating evidence includes “certified domestic records of a regularly conducted activity”—that is, a business “record that meets the requirements of Rule 803(6)(A)–(C), so long as properly certified by a custodian or other qualified person  and so long as the evidence is subject to challenge by  the opposing party.

“The question, then, is the central one: the authentication of the photos,” said the Court. “They appeared to show Farrad, his tattoos, and (perhaps most probatively) distinctive features of Farrad’s apartment, as confirmed by police investigation . . . The district court was correct to admit them.”

Fourth Amendment Suppression

After addressing the admissibility issue, the Court went on to reject Farrad’s claim that admitting the Facebook photos violated the Fourth Amendment. The Court reasoned that while a search made by a private entity acting at the direction of law enforcement agents must comport with the Fourth Amendment, Farrad has pointed to no authority or rationale to suggest that a date of execution similarly binds a third party’s certification of its records for evidentiary purposes. “This argument lacks merit,” said the Court.

“The bottom line in this case—that Farrad has been sentenced to serve 188 months in prison because the Government found Facebook photos of him with what appears to be a gun—may well raise a lay reader’s hackles. There are likewise aspects of Farrad’s trial and
conviction—the date issue, Officer Garrison’s testimony—that are at least debatably troubling from a legal perspective. Nevertheless, we are not empowered to grant relief based on arguments not made or where errors were harmless.”

With that, the Sixth Circuit affirmed Farrad’s conviction and sentencing.

My opinion? Today’s defense attorney must be proficient in the admissibility of social media evidence. And the answers are fairly straightforward. Although the general rule is that hearsay is not admissible, and that social media evidence is hearsay, some hearsay evidence is admissible under the business record exception. Clearly, anything and everything that social media outlets like Facebook produces – from profiles to posts – are business records, arguably.

This is a classic example telling us to watch what we post on Facebook and other social media. Information is private until its not.

Search Within Curtilage

Image result for officer search under tarp

In Collins v. Virginia, the United States Supreme Court held that officers may not enter the curtilage of a house without a search warrant in order to remove the tarp from a motorcycle in order to confirm that the motorcycle was stolen.

BACKGROUND FACTS

During the investigation of two traffic incidents involving an orange and black motorcycle with an extended frame, Officer David Rhodes learned that the motorcycle likely was stolen and in the possession of petitioner Ryan Collins. Officer Rhodes discovered photographs on Collins’ Facebook profile of an orange and black motorcycle parked in the driveway of a house, drove to the house, and parked on the street. From there, he could see what appeared to be the motorcycle under a white tarp parked in the same location as the motorcycle in the photograph.

Without a search warrant, Office Rhodes walked to the top of the driveway, removed the tarp, confirmed that the motorcycle was stolen by running the license plate and vehicle identification numbers, took a photograph of the uncovered motorcycle, replaced the tarp, and returned to his car to wait for Collins. When Collins returned, Officer Rhodes arrested him.

Collins was indicted by a Virginia grand jury for receiving stolen property. He filed a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence that Officer Rhodes had obtained as a result of the warrantless search of the motorcycle on the grounds that Officer Rhodes violated the Fourth Amendment when he trespassed on the house’s curtilage to conduct a search. The trial court denied Collins’ motion to suppress the evidence. Collins was convicted as charged. The Virginia Court of Appeals affirmed. The Virginia State Supreme Court also affirmed, holding that the warrantless search was justified under the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception to the warrant requirement.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Supreme Court held the automobile exception to the warrant requirement does not permit the warrantless entry of a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein.

“This case arises at the intersection of two components of the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence: the automobile exception to the warrant requirement and the protection extended to the curtilage of a home.”

Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court. First, the court discussed the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. Basically, under the exception, a vehicle may be searched without a warrant when the evidence or contraband may possibly be removed from the scene due to the mobility of a vehicle and it is not practical to secure a warrant without jeopardizing the potential evidence.  For instance, the automobile exception allows an officer to make a warrantless traffic stop and search a truck of a vehicle when gun parts were observed in plain view on the front seat of the vehicle.

Here, the Supreme Court emphasized that the automobile exception rationales applied only to automobiles and not to houses, and therefore supported their different treatment as a constitutional matter. “When these justifications are present, officers may search an automobile without a warrant so long as they have probable cause,” said the Court.

The court also discussed “curtilage.” In short, curtilage includes the area immediately surrounding a dwelling, and it counts as part of the home for many legal purposes, including searches. “Curtilage—the area immediately surrounding and associated with the home—is considered part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes,” said the Court. Thus, when an officer physically intrudes on the curtilage to gather evidence, a Fourth Amendment search has occurred and is presumptively unreasonable absent a warrant.

Consequently, the court reasoned that the part of the driveway where Collins’ motorcycle was parked and subsequently searched is curtilage:

“When Officer Rhodes searched the motorcycle, it was parked inside a partially enclosed top portion of the driveway that abuts the house. Just like the front porch, side garden, or area outside the front window, that enclosure constitutes an area adjacent to the home and to which the activity of home life extends.” Jardines, 569 U. S., at 6, 7.”

The Court also reasoned because the scope of the automobile exception extends no further than the automobile itself, it did not justify Officer Rhodes’ invasion of the curtilage. “Nothing in this Court’s case law suggests that the automobile exception gives an officer the right to enter a home or its curtilage to access a vehicle without a warrant,” said the Court. “Such an expansion would both undervalue the core Fourth Amendment protection afforded to the home and its curtilage and untether the exception from the justifications underlying it.”

This Court also reasoned that just as an officer must have a lawful right of access to any contraband he discovers in plain view in order to seize it without a warrant, and just as an officer must have a lawful right of access in order to arrest a person in his home, so, too, an officer must have a lawful right of access to a vehicle in order to search it pursuant to the automobile exception. “To allow otherwise would unmoor the exception from its justifications, render hollow the core Fourth Amendment protection the Constitution extends to the house and its curtilage, and transform what was meant to be an exception into a tool with far broader application,” said the Court.

Furthermore, the Court disagreed with Virginia’s proposed bright line rule for an automobile exception that would not permit warrantless entry only of the house itself or another fixed structure, e.g., a garage, inside the curtilage. “This Court has long been clear that curtilage is afforded constitutional protection, and creating a carve-out for certain types of curtilage seems more likely to create confusion than does uniform application of the Court’s doctrine,” said the Court. “Virginia’s rule also rests on a mistaken premise, for the ability to observe inside curtilage from a lawful vantage point is not the same as the right to enter curtilage without a warrant to search for information not otherwise accessible.”

Finally, the Court held that Virginia’s rule automatically would grant constitutional rights to those persons with the financial means to afford residences with garages but deprive those persons without such resources of any individualized consideration as to whether the areas in which they store their vehicles qualify as curtilage.

With that, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded Collins’ conviction for receiving stolen property.

Justice Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsberg, Breyer, Kagan and Gorsuch joined the majority opinion.  Justice Thomas also filed a concurring opinion. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member’s house is searched by law enforcement officers who don’t have a search warrant. It’s quite possible to suppress evidence based on an unlawful search and get any criminal charges dismissed.