State v. Meza: Freezing Funds Without a Warrant Is Unlawful

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In State v. Meza, the WA Court of Appeals Division II held that a trial court’s order to freeze the defendant’s bank account was not a search warrant, and therefore did not satisfy the warrant requirement for the seizure of funds.

In June 2014, John Armstrong spoke with the Lewis County sheriff’s office and alleged that Rafael Meza had swindled money from him. Deputy Justin Rogers investigated Armstrong’s allegations. Rogers contacted the Twin Star Credit Union and verified that Meza held an account that had received large wire transfers recently. Rogers also learned from Mansfield that Meza recently had informed him that he was planning to go to Mexico.

Rogers served Twin Star Credit Union with a valid search warrant for Meza’s account information. Meza’s bank statements showed a check and four wire transfers from Mansfield totaling $105,000, with the last transfer on June 18. They also showed a single wire transfer from Armstrong in the amount of $15,000 on April 11. Meza’s checking account showed that between October 2013 and June 2014, he withdrew approximately $89,000 in cash in 41 transactions involving between $3,000 and $5,000 each.

On June 27, 2014, the State charged Meza with one count of Theft in the First Degree. On the same day, the State presented an ex parte “Motion for an Order Freezing and Holding Funds” to the judge. The State asserted that the funds in Meza’s credit union accounts were “evidence in a felony offense.” The State’s motion was based on the probable cause affidavit filed with the information and asserted that there was “a high likelihood, based on the affidavit regarding probable cause, that Meza will remove said funds and leave the country.”

Importantly, the State did not request a search warrant for the credit union funds or reference CrR 2.3 in its motion.

Nevertheless, the trial court signed an order directing Twin Star Credit Union to “freeze and hold all accounts in the name of . . . Meza . . . as evidence in a criminal proceeding, until further order of this Court.” Also, neither the motion nor the order cited any legal authority for freezing Meza’s accounts.

In January 2015, Meza filed a motion to vacate the trial court’s order. Meza argued that there was no legal authority for the order. The trial court denied Meza’s motion to vacate the order, saying there was probable cause to believe that Meza’s account was related to the charged crime. The court concluded that it had the authority to freeze Meza’s funds under CrR 2.3. In addition, the trial court ruled that Meza’s account qualified as both evidence of a crime and the proceeds of a crime. Meza filed a motion for discretionary review. The WA Court of Appeals accepted the case.

The WA Court of Appeals reasoned that The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Similarly, article I, section 7 of the Washington Constitution provides that “no person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.” These provisions generally prohibit warrantless searches and seizures unless one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement applies.

Consequently, reasoned the court, a person’s banking records fall within the constitutional protection of private affairs. Although no Washington case has addressed whether funds in a bank account can be seized without a warrant it defies reason to extend constitutional protection to bank account records but not to the funds reflected in those records. The Court emphasized that the seizure of funds is as much a threat to security in a person’s effects and a disturbance of a person’s private affairs as the seizure of the records regarding those funds:

“Here, the State cites no statute, court rule, or other authority allowing the seizure of a defendant’s bank account in these circumstances. Therefore, the seizure was not authorized by law.”

Finally, the Court rejected the State’s argument that under State v. Garcia-Salgado the trial court’s order is the functional equivalent of a search warrant.

“We hold that the Garcia-Salgado holding is limited to cases where the trial court’s order is authorized by law. Allowing a court order to function as a warrant when there is no independent authority for a seizure would render CrR 2.3 meaningless. Limiting the scope of Garcia-Salgado preserves the integrity of CrR 2.3. We hold that Garcia-Salgado is inapplicable and that the trial court’s order cannot be treated as the functional equivalent of a warrant.”

Based on these decision the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in ordering the seizure of Meza’s credit union account.

My opinion? GOOD opinion. Very sensible and reasonable. It’s refreshing that the Court of Appeals followed the law and made the right decision.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.