Category Archives: Whatcom County Criminal Defense

Support Legislation Ending Felony Charges for Missing a Court Hearing

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Did you know that a person who misses just one court hearing can be charged with Bail Jumping and be convicted of a new felony simply for missing that court hearing?

Fortunately, legislation proposed by WA Representative Mike Pellicciotti could possibly end this travesty.

THE PROBLEM

When the Legislature enacted the “Bail Jumping” statute, the intent wasn’t to criminalize every missed court date or failure to appear (FTA), rather lawmakers wanted to give the courts a tool to deter people charged with serious crimes from fleeing.

The legislature gave discretion to prosecutors to add a felony charge if someone “jumped bail.” Sadly, this prosecutorial discretion is being overused. The charge of “Bail Jumping” has now led to a long list of unintended consequences that disproportionately harm Washington’s low income and most marginalized citizens.

Research shows that most people charged with “Bail Jumping” were not intentionally avoiding court. Many had difficult life circumstances that made it hard or impossible to attend a court hearing on a particular day. They were not fleeing from the court, and they wanted to resolve their cases.

Research also shows that many people who miss court are experiencing difficulties with transportation, childcare, job disruption, homelessness, health problems, mental illness and other challenges related to poverty. Under current “bail jumping” laws, Washington disproportionally and unjustly allows for longer criminal sentences for people who are low-income or experiencing a crisis for the charge of “Bail Jumping” even though that was never the legislature’s intent.

THE SOLUTION

WA HB 2231 is legislation would would amend the current Bail Jump statute in two ways: (1) it makes bail jumping a misdemeanor, and (2) it requires the state to prove that a person received written notice of the court date that the person missed.

Here is a position paper about the bill. It is supported by the WDA, ACLU, WACDL, the Northwest Community Bail Fund and numerous other organizations.  This bill sponsored is by Mike Pellicciotti of the (Democratic Party). He is a member of the Washington House of Representatives, representing District 30-Position 1.

My opinion? This is great legislation.

Please contact my office if you face felony charges which include Bail Jumping. It is a nasty, unjust felony charge. They are often used by prosecutors to coercively leverage a plea. Although there are substantive defenses to the charge, those who face barriers getting to court are frequently subject to this coercive manner of resolving cases that results in an unjust and disproportionate number of convictions for the most vulnerable.

Sexsomnia

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In State v. Pratt, the WA Court of Appeals held that Sexsomnia is an abnormal activity, similar to sleepwalking, that involves people engaging in sexual acts during sleep.  However, the trial court’s exclusion of expert testimony regarding sexsomnia did not violate the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to present a defense because no psychological evaluation could determine whether the defendant suffered from sexsomnia at the time of the offense or that the defendant had the disorder.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The State charged Mr. Pratt with child molestation in the first degree based on an allegation by the juvenile victim MB that Pratt had sexually assaulted her while they were both sleeping in a tent for her cousin’s birthday sleepover party. The party occurred at the home of Pratt’s aunt and uncle. MB is the daughter of Pratt’s aunt’s stepsister.

Before trial, Dr. C. Kirk Johnson, a psychologist, evaluated Pratt to determine if he suffered from a sleep disorder called sexsomnia. Sexsomnia is an abnormal activity, similar to sleepwalking, that involves people engaging in sexual acts during sleep. Johnson concluded that a possible explanation for Pratt’s actions included sexsomnia, but he could not confirm it happened.

At a pretrial evidentiary hearing, Pratt indicated he wanted Johnson to testify as an expert at trial about sexsomnia. Although Johnson could not conclude that Pratt had the disorder, he would testify that sexsomnia exists. Pratt wanted to use this testimony to support his general denial defense. Pratt wanted to argue at trial that if a person is asleep, they cannot be guilty because any touching would not have been done for the purpose of sexual gratification. Pratt viewed being asleep as a general denial.

The State moved to exclude the testimony on grounds of relevance. The judge was concerned that calling an expert to testify about sexsomnia could amount to “a back door diminished capacity.” The judge granted the State’s motion to exclude.

Pratt waived a jury. At a bench trial, court found Pratt guilty as charged. Over the State’s and the victim’s objections, the court imposed a SSOSA disposition. The State appealed the sentence. Pratt cross-appealed the exclusion of Dr. Johnson’s testimony.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court of Appeals reasoned that in order to be eligible for a SSOSA sentence, a defendant must have a connection with the victim which is independent of the crime. Here, Pratt was not eligible for a SSOSA sentence because it is clear that Pratt did not have an “established connection” with MB. Other than the sexual molestation, their only connections involved Pratt giving MB a skewer with marshmallows and asking MB her name.

Second, regarding the defense of Sexomnia, the Court of Appeals reasoned that under State v. Utter, Washington courts have recognized a defense of involuntary action due to sleepwalking where, at the time of the crime, the offender was clearly unconscious.

Furthermore, the defense of involuntary action as a result of being asleep, therefore, should not be treated as one of diminished capacity. Instead, involuntariness due to sleep is an affirmative defense that must be proved by the defendant by a preponderance of the evidence.

In this case, however, the Court of Appeals reasoned that Dr. Johnson could not testify that Pratt suffered from sexsomnia either on the night of the sexual molestation or ever.

“The fact that this disorder exists is irrelevant without some tendency to make the existence of sexsomnia of consequence to the determination of the action more probable than it would without the evidence. No nexus existed between Pratt, sexsomnia, and his actions on the night of the molestation.”

Therefore, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court properly excluded Johnson’s testimony because it was irrelevant to both the general denial defense and to a defense of lack of volition. With that, the Court of Appeals affirmed Pratt’s conviction.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime and the defense involves being unconscious due to sleepwalking, and/or experiencing a medical condition called “slow wave sleep.” I’ve successfully obtained dismissal of criminal charges for prior clients who were asleep and/or unconscious during the commission of crimes. Expert testimony might be necessary to educate the jury of a possible Diminished Capacity defense.

New Year’s Eve DUI Patrols

Image result for A New Year but an old truth- There’s no safe place for impaired drivers to hide. 

The WA State Patrol (WSP) issued a press release stating WSP Troopers will be out looking for impaired drivers this week in preparation for the New Year. Patrols will be increased to include Troopers brought out to supplement regularly assigned patrols. WSP has partnered with five other states to form the Western States Traffic Safety Coalition. Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona are working together to save lives by removing impaired drivers from all of our roadways. The message is clear; A New Year but an old truth- There’s no safe place for impaired drivers to hide.

These extra patrols will include specially trained troopers to help identify and detect drug impaired drivers. Most WSP troopers receive additional training in drug impaired driver detection. This training, Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE) is specifically focused on detecting drivers impaired by drugs. Troopers trained as Drug Recognition Experts (DRE) will also be out to assist in identifying and detecting drug impaired drivers. DREs receive training to identify what drugs a driver may be impaired by.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face DUI or any other alcohol-related driving crimes. It’s imperative to hire an experienced defense attorney who is knowledgeable of DUI defense.

Rape By Forcible Compulsion or Consent?

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In State v. Knapp, the WA Court of Appeals held a defendant charged with rape by forcible compulsion is not entitled to a jury instruction that requires the State to prove the absence of consent beyond a reasonable doubt.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Mr. Knapp and Ms. Spaulding met in high school and were friends for more than a decade. On February 7, 2016, Ms. Spaulding was preparing to watch the Super Bowl when Knapp came to her home. Ms. Spaulding let him in. The events following this were disputed.

According to Ms. Spaulding, Knapp began to make sexual comments toward her and expressed an interest in having sex. Ms. Spaulding denied his advances. Knapp then left, but soon returned to the home, claiming he forgot his bandana. Ms. Spaulding let him in again and while she was sitting on the couch, Knapp threw her to the ground and pulled down her pants.

Ms. Spaulding screamed for her neighbors, but they did not hear her. Knapp then used his bandana to gag her. The struggle continued until Knapp pinned her against a wall and raped her. Ms. Spaulding continued to say, “No,” “Stop,” and “Don’t do this.” Knapp left, and Ms. Spaulding called her mother and then the police. Ms. Spaulding was taken to the hospital where she underwent a sexual assault examination.

According to Knapp, he and Ms. Spaulding were “friends with benefits” for years and engaged in sex together on and off. After Ms. Spaulding let him in the first time, Ms. Spaulding realized Knapp was high on methamphetamine and she hinted that she wanted some. Knapp refused to give her any. Ms. Spaulding became upset, and Knapp decided to leave.

After he left, Knapp realized he forgot his bandana and returned to retrieve it. Ms. Spaulding let him in again, and she pressed Knapp to get her high. Eventually, Ms. Spaulding offered sex for drugs. At that point, Knapp “gave in” and they had sex. Afterward, Knapp could not find the methamphetamine to give to her. Ms. Spaulding became upset and threatened to call the police and falsely accuse him of rape. Knapp left and was later arrested. The State charged Knapp with rape in the second degree by forcible compulsion.

THE TRIAL

At trial, Knapp requested a jury instruction that told the jury the State had the burden of proving an absence of consent beyond a reasonable doubt. The State opposed this instruction, arguing it was not a correct statement of the law. The State instead proposed Washington pattern jury instruction 18.25, which reads, “Evidence of consent may be taken into consideration in determining whether the defendant used forcible compulsion to have sexual intercourse.”

The trial court declined to give Knapp’s proposed instruction and instead gave the State’s. The jury found Knapp guilty of second degree rape. The trial court sentenced Knapp to a midrange sentence—110 months to life.

Knapp appealed on the issue of whether the jury was properly instructed on the issue of consent.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals began by saying that at trial, each party is entitled to have the jury instructed on its theory of the case when there is sufficient evidence to support that theory.

“Jury instructions are sufficient if they are supported by substantial evidence, allow the parties to argue their theories of the case, and when read as a whole properly inform the jury of the applicable law,” said the Court. “Read as a whole, the jury instructions must make the legal standard apparent to the average juror.”

Here, both parties relied heavily on State v. W.R., a case which apparently offers confusing interpretations of which party in a criminal sex case has the burden of proving consent.

The Court acknowledged that Knapp argued that W.R. stands for the proposition that the burden to prove consent has now shifted to the State, and the State must prove a lack of consent beyond a reasonable doubt. Knapp’s proposed jury instruction read: Consent means that at the time of the act of sexual intercourse there are actual words or conduct indicating a freely given agreement to have sexual intercourse. The Defendant has no burden to prove that sexual intercourse was consensual. It is the State’s burden to prove the absence of consent beyond a reasonable doubt.”

However, the Court of Appeals disagreed with Knapp:

“The court in W.R. focused on whether the burden to prove consent was correctly placed on the defendant. It did not hold that the State must prove the absence of consent.”

The Court ruled that the trial court did not commit legal error when it denied Knapp’s proposed instruction. “Knapp’s proposed instruction was an incorrect statement of the law,” it said. “W.R. did not hold that the burden to prove an absence of consent shifted to the State. Instead, it held that the burden to prove consent cannot be placed on the defendant.”

Furthermore, when read as a whole, the trial court’s instructions allowed Knapp to argue his theory of the case. “Knapp claimed the sexual intercourse was consensual,” said the Court of Appeals. “The court’s instructions on the elements of the offense and consent allowed Knapp to argue his theory of the case—that Ms. Spaulding consented to sexual intercourse and the State failed to prove forcible compulsion beyond a reasonable doubt.”

With that, the Court of appeals affirmed Knapp’s conviction.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal sex charges. Consent is a viable defense, and evidence of consent may be considered by the jury. Therefore, it’s imperative to hire a defense attorney knowledgeable of the law surrounding these issues.

State-Created Danger Doctrine and Domestic Violence Victims

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In Martinez v. City of Clovis, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that police officers investigating a DV crime breached the victim’s Due Process rights by intensifying her peril. The Court held that the State-Created Danger Doctrine applies when an officer reveals a domestic violence complaint made in confidence to an abuser while simultaneously making disparaging comments about the victim in a manner that reasonably emboldens the abuser to continue abusing the victim with impunity. Consequently, the police officers breached Due Process by intensifying the victim’s peril.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Ms. Martinez was a victim of domestic violence. After reporting an incident to police, the investigating officers took her statement in confidence as to physical and sexual abuse by her boyfriend Mr. Pennington in a hotel and then repeated the substance in the presence of the abuser. That night or the next day, Pennington again attacked Martinez, this time resulting in his arrest. Consequently, Ms. Martinez recanted her accusations out of fear that she would again be attacked. Later, Ms. Martinez sued the investigating officers and the Clovis Police Department.

LEGAL ISSUE

Whether Ms. Martinez can recover damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 from the law enforcement officers who allegedly placed her at greater risk of future abuse.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the State-Created Danger Doctrine applies because actions of the police put Martinez in greater jeopardy than if they had not arrived. It reasoned that officer Hershberger told Mr. Pennington about Martinez’s testimony relating to his prior abuse, and also stated that Martinez was not ‘the right girl’ for him.

“A reasonable jury could find that Hershberger’s disclosure provoked Pennington, and that her disparaging comments emboldened Pennington to believe that he could further abuse Martinez, including by retaliating against her for her testimony, with impunity,” said the Court. “The causal link between Hershberger’s affirmative conduct and the abuse Martinez suffered that night is supported by Martinez’s testimony that Pennington asked Martinez what she had told the officer while he was hitting her.”

“A reasonable jury could find that Pennington felt emboldened to continue his abuse with impunity.”

The Court further reasoned that the State-Created Danger Doctrine applies when an officer praises an abuser in the abuser’s presence after the abuser has been protected from arrest, in a manner that communicates to the abuser that the abuser may continue abusing the victim with impunity.

Nevertheless, the Court also decided the officers were entitled to Qualified Immunity because the law with respect to state-created danger doctrine was not clearly established. He added: “Going forward, the law in this circuit will be clearly established that such conduct is unconstitutional.”

Good opinion. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges relating to domestic violence allegations.

Holiday DUI Patrols

According to an article in the Skagit County Herald, law enforcement agencies across the state are participating in emphasis patrols that search for motorists driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Drivers impaired by alcohol, marijuana and other drugs are involved in half of all traffic deaths in Washington, according to the state Traffic Safety Commission. From 2013-17, 1,268 people were killed in such crashes.

“These tragedies are completely preventable,” commission Director Darrin Grondel said in a notice of the emphasis patrols. “As a community, we can end DUI-related deaths. We are asking for help. If you are in the position to prevent someone else from driving impaired, please be bold. Offer to call them a ride or give them a safe place to sober up.”

In a recent commission survey, 81% of respondents said they would try to prevent someone from driving impaired.

The Washington State Patrol has investigated 18 fatal collisions year to date with the majority caused by impaired drivers. The Mobile Impaired Driving Unit (MIDU) will also be deployed in a central location for all law enforcement to use during this emphasis. There will be processors on board along with a phlebotomist for search warrant blood draws if necessary. This will allow for the suspected impaired drivers to be dropped off and allow law enforcement to return to patrol for additional impaired drivers.

The MIDU is a self-contained 36 foot motorhome that has been retrofitted as a mobile DUI processing center and incident command post. The MIDU is equipped with three breath testing instruments, two temporary holding cells, three computer work stations, an incident command computer terminal, a dispatcher console with wireless access to WSP dispatch centers and a microwave downlink tower for real time broadcasts from WSP aircraft. This is a full service police station on wheels.

Body Camera Evidence Admissible

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In State v. Clayton, the WA Court of Appeals held that police body camera evidence does not violate Washington’s Privacy Act because police interactions with a suspect and witnesses or victims of the crime are not private conversations.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The charges arose from a visit by law enforcement to a Spokane home. On the evening in question, multiple officers responded to the residence following a report of shots being fired. Mr. Clayton let officers in the residence and consented to a search. There were six people in the residence in addition to the officers who entered. Three officers had active body cameras recording the investigation, but none of the residents were advised of that fact.

An officer discovered two revolvers in a dresser and also observed bullet holes in a couch, wall, and the floor. Upon learning that Mr. Clayton was ineligible to possess the revolvers, officers arrested him for unlawful possession of the weapons. The prosecutor charged two counts of unlawful possession of a firearm based on the October arrest. Clayton’s girlfriend told officers that one month earlier, Clayton had fired a shot in the apartment that struck the couch on which she was sitting.

Ultimately, the prosecutor charged Clayton with one count of second degree assault and one count of unlawful possession of a firearm for the September incident, as well as two counts of unlawful possession of a firearm for the two weapons recovered in October.

After conducting a CrR 3.6 hearing on a defense motion to suppress the recordings, the court permitted the video evidence only to the point where the officer discovered the guns and arrested Clayton. Body camera footage from one of the officers was played for the jury at trial. The jury acquitted Clayton on the assault charge, but convicted him of all three
unlawful possession charges.

COURT’S ANALYSIS

On appeal, Mr. Clayton argues that the police body camera recording was made in violation of the “Privacy Act,” rendering the evidence inadmissible.

The Court of Appeals  ultimately ruled, however, that because the police interaction with Mr. Clayton and his family was not a private conversation, there was no error.

The Court described how the Privacy Act prohibits recording a private communication unless all parties to the communication consent. Consequently, any information obtained from unknown recordings is inadmissible in court.

More specifically, a communication is private under the act when (1) the parties have a subjective expectation that it is private, and (2) that expectation is objectively reasonable.  Among other things, the subject matter of the calls, the location of the participants, the potential presence of third parties, and the roles of the participants are relevant to whether the call is private.

When it comes to body-worn cameras, law enforcement may record people who have been arrested upon (i) informing the person that a recording is being made, (ii) stating the time of the beginning and ending of the recording in the recording, and (iii) advising the person at the commencement of the recording of his or her constitutional rights. In addition, (iv) the recording may be used only for valid police or court activities. Finally, the person must be told that he or she is being recorded. However, there is no requirement that the individual consent to the recording.

In short, the Court reasoned that conversations with uniformed, on-duty law enforcement officers are typically not private conversations.

“People understand that information they provide to officers conducting an investigation is going to turn up in written police reports and may be reported in court along with the observations made by the officers . . . The conversations took place in his apartment, a place where he had some subjective expectation of privacy, but they also occurred in the presence of five others. The subject matter of the visit—a report of a gun being fired and subsequent search for the weapon—was not a private one.”

Consequently, the trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress and upheld his convictions.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member face criminal charges and the evidence involves recordings from police body-worn cameras.

Unlawful Search Of Electronic Devices at Airports

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

Warrant Quash Day!

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

A Cell Phone “Ping” Is a Search

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

BACKGROUND FACTS

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

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

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

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

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

Muhammad was arrested and charged with rape and felony murder.

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

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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