Federal Criminal Lawyer BlogObservations On Notable Court Decisions, News And Developments Affecting Federal Criminal Practice

Articles Posted in Fourth Amendment

Federal criminal cases are no different than cases brought in state courts such as Georgia, Florida or Alabama. The explosion of technology requires courts to balance the needs of law enforcement with the protections for individual liberty enshrined in our Constitution. Sometimes, when the suspect is investigated for a “bad” crime like targeting minors for sex, the courts simply ignore that the protections for individual liberty apply to everybody equally. In an opinion issued today by the United States Court of Appeals here in Atlanta several blocks from our offices, that court permitted the search of a cellphone that had no connection to the alleged crime from seven years earlier. The case is U.S. v. Mathis and can be read here.

In 2004, the Defendant supposedly got a then 14-year old to have sex. Remember, this was 2004, a veritable lifetime ago in the world of cellphones and communication technology. Seven long years later, the young person was by then 21, and decided to tell the police about his encounter with the Defendant back in 2004. The young person said that back in 2004 he and the Defendant had phone calls and exchanged text messages using the Defendant’s phone. Now, here’s the important part: the police knew that the Defendant, like just about everybody else, had changed cellphones in the intervening seven years.
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I previously posted here about a case in front of the United States Supreme Court that deals with how far does the rule from Georgia v. Randolph extend. Recall that in Randolph, the Supreme Court confronted the question of what happens when one resident of a home (there it was the wife) tells the police it’s OK to search the house even if they don’t have a warrant, yet the other occupant (the husband) refuses to consent to a search. In that earlier case from right here in Georgia, the Supreme Court said it is not reasonable for the police to think they have the right to enter a home and search without a warrant if one of the occupants is right there on the scene and objects to the search. Two days ago, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Fernandez v. California, which restricted this rule a bit. You can read the opinion here.

The facts in Fernandez are a little different than the case from Georgia. Mr. Fernandez shared his apartment with his wife. When the police came to the door, he refused them the right to enter, although she said it was OK. The police arrested Fernandez for other reasons, and later returned after he was in custody and asks his wife again if they could look in the apartment. She again consented, and they entered, searched, and found incriminating evidence.
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Casual readers know that we try to keep abreast of federal criminal cases, including appeals of criminal convictions involving decisions where the issue revolves around whether a particular search or seizure of evidence falls within the Fourth Amendment. As many of us know, if evidence is seized in violation of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, such evidence generally is inadmissible and cannot be used against the accused person (assuming that the Defendant in question has “standing” to contest the search). A pair of recent cases from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reached opposite conclusions on this issue. In one case, the appellate court ruled that the police violated the Constitution when they entered an apartment without a warrant. In the second case, the police installed GPS monitors on the Defendant’s vehicle without getting a warrant. In that case, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that earlier decisions from decades ago made it reasonable for the police to think they would be acting in “good faith” by installing the monitors, even if later Supreme Court rulings reached a different conclusion.

In the first case, one of Ronald Timmann’s neighbors noticed a bullet hole in her apartment wall, and the hole indicated that it was caused by a weapon that likely was discharged from inside Timman’s adjacent apartment. After the police were unsuccessful in trying to locate and talk with Timman, they decided about 39 hours later to enter his apartment. Inside they found weapons that were used to prosecute him for criminal violations. His attorneys argued that the warrantless entry into the apartment was illegal. Prosecutors pointed to the “emergency aid” exception, by which in certain situations the police are allowed to enter locations without a warrant in order to assist a person who might be in danger. Here, the appellate court decided that the situation the officers confronted wasn’t an urgent emergency. “The officers here did not receive an emergency report regarding an ongoing disturbance, but rather a service call regarding what appeared to be a bullet hole, which circumstances known to the officers indicated had been made at least 39 hours prior to when the officers made entry.” The first office on the scene “…did not encounter a tumultuous scene, nor were the officers met with chaos when they returned to the building the next day. The officers observed no violent behavior, nor did they see or hear evidence that a fight had taken place or that anyone had been hurt…” As a result, the Court held that the entry and discovery of the guns and certain statements made by Timman could not be used against him.
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Criminal cases involving search and seizures by police officers continue to bedevil the courts more than two centuries after the Fourth Amendment was added to our Constitution. As we all know, the Fourth Amendment says that there cannot be a “search” or a subsequent “seizure” of evidence unless there is a search warrant, or unless there is “probable cause.” One of the many exceptions to this rule is that the police can search if the owner of some property “consents” to the search. However, what happens when two people live there, and one says they can search, but the other refuses? A case that started here in Georgia a few years back ended up at the Supreme Court, Georgia v. Randolph. In that case, the wife told the cops they could search, the husband showed up and demanded that they not look for evidence unless they had a warrant. The cops searched anyway, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the search was illegal because the cops should not have relied on the wife’s consent when the husband refused to let them in. Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that will decide how far the rule from Randolph will extend. This recent case is Fernandez v. California, and can be accessed here.

The police suspected Walter Fernandez of being involved in a stabbing. They went to his building and heard screaming from in and near his apartment. His girlfriend answered the door, and appeared to be bloody and bruised. Mr. Fernandez, who was inside, told the police “Get out. I know my rights. You can’t come in.” Despite not being allowed to enter, the cops took Fernandez into custody on suspicion of domestic violence . About an hour later, the police returned and obtained the girlfriend’s consent to search the apartment. You guessed it, they found evidence used to later convict Fernanzed of the stabbing crime.
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In a case that criminal defense lawyers here in Atlanta and around the country need to all read, yesterday the United States Supreme Court ruled that the police can take DNA samples from people who are merely arrested for serious crimes, and that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution does not prohibit this practice. The decision can be found here. I predicted in a previous post that this would be a close decision, and it was: 5-4. One major surprise was that Justice Breyer, normally a friend of personal liberties, sided with the majority in ruling that warrantless extraction of DNA samples passes constitutional scrutiny. The dissent was sort of “Nino and the Ladies”, with Justice Antonin Scalia being joined by the three female Justices, Sotomayor, Ginsberg and Kagan.

Recall that this case involved Alonzo King, who was arrested in Maryland for menacing a crowd with a gun. Under Maryland law, the police extracted a DNA swab which was later sent to and made a part of a national database. Sometime later still, King’s DNA was matched to a rape investigation from six years earlier. The Maryland Supreme Court threw out King’s conviction because the DNA was extracted without a warrant nor was there any individualized suspicion that justified taking the DNA sample. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Maryland judges, and instead compared the process of taking DNA with other activities during the criminal booking process such as photographing and fingerprinting suspects when they are booked.
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Criminal defense lawyers here in Atlanta, throughout Georgia and the rest of the Nation, whether in federal court or state court, all need to be aware of developments in the law, especially such hot topic areas like search and seizure. Many attorneys are able to either win, or at least put their client’s case in a better posture, by pointing out that the investigating officials either did or came close to going over the Constitutional line when obtaining incriminating evidence. I’ve written in earlier posts about how more and more courts are grappling with search and seizure rules when applying modern technology to the Fourth Amendment, the rule created by the Founders of our country in the 18th century.

Another of these rulings came out the other day, and was issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. That case held that when the police arrest a person, they generally cannot look through the person’s cell phone unless they first get a warrant. The First Circuit case applies to federal criminal matters that arise in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Puerto Rico. An earlier ruling by the Seventh Circuit (which is governing authority in federal cases in Illinois, indiana and Wisconsin) came to a different result, holding that no warrant is needed. Look to see this issue going up the the United States Supreme Court at some point in the not too distant future.
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We occasionally handle cases in Florida, and since I am also licensed in the Sunshine State we pay attention to legal issues happening there. As readers of this Blog realize, I have a fascination with how the law is developing in the intersection between modern technology and the Eighteenth Century rules enshrined in our Fourth Amendment, and have written on such issues, such as in this post. Two weeks ago me and my law partner Carl had a big oral argument in front of a federal judge concerning such issues, so this area of the law is on my mind currently.

The Florida Supreme Court issued what could be a very important decision last week, Smallwood v. Florida. In that case, a police officer arrested Mr. Smallwood for an armed robbery that happened the previous day. The robber had taken currency from a local store. After the arrest, the police officer opened up Smallwood’s smartphone, looking through his pictures. Like too many foolish criminals, Mr. Smallwood had apparently taken pictures so he could brag about his crime, photos that showed the gun, the money, and his girlfriend all in proximity to the loot. The defense attorney argued that Mr. Smallwood, like all of us, had an expectation of privacy in the contents of his cell phone, and that a search without a warrant was therefore unreasonable and illegal. The trial court and intermediate appellate judges sided with the prosecution, ruling that the older Supreme Court cases on searches incident to an arrest justified the officer’s actions. One of these older cases was issued in 1973, United States v. Robinson. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court said it was OK for the arresting officer to look through a package of cigarettes in the Defendant’s pocket after the arrest, a peek which led to the discovery of heroin.
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Earlier this week, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Davis v. United States. The Court will resolve a federal circuit court split: whether the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule applies to a search that is later ruled unconstitutional. This March, the Eleventh Circuit held in Davis that the exclusionary rule does not apply when the police conduct a search reasonably relying on well-settled precedent, even if that precedent is later overturned. We hope the Court reverses this decision.

In Davis, the defendant was a passenger in a routine traffic stop in Alabama. He gave the police officers a false name. When asked to exit the vehicle, Davis removed his jacket and left it in the car, then was taken toward a group of bystanders. The bystanders provided his real name, leading to Davis’s arrest for giving a false name. In the search incident to his arrest, the officers found a gun in the jacket, which was still in the car. Davis was convicted of possession of a firearm and sentenced to more than 18 years.

As we explained in this post, the Supreme Court decided Arizona v. Gant in April 2009. The Court held that police are authorized “to search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search,” unless some evidence related to the crime of arrest may be in the vehicle. This decision rendered the search in Davis unconstitutional.

In applying Gant to searches predating the decision, the Ninth and Tenth Circuits disagreed on whether the exclusionary rule must be applied to searches now rendered unconstitutional. The Eleventh Circuit joined the Tenth in holding that the good faith exception prevented exclusion of evidence from such searches. The Fifth Circuit has held similarly prior to Gant, but the Seventh Circuit was skeptical.

We hope the Supreme Court protects defendants’ constitutional rights and reverses the Eleventh Circuit’s decision.

The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion in Davis is available here.
The petition for certiorari is available here.
The brief in opposition is available here.

The United States Supreme Court announced last month that it will review a case involving the “exigent circumstances” exception to the Constitution’s requirement that the police get a search warrant before conducting a search or seizing property. We regularly confront similar matters when we litigate federal cases here in Georgia, Alabama and Florida and when one of these cases is taken up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. This case, Kentucky v. King, likely will clear up whether this particular exception to the warrant requirement can apply when the police themselves create the exigency that otherwise mandates that they act before getting a search warrant.

The police chased a suspected drug dealer into a hallway where he could have entered one of two doors. A strong smell of marijuana came from one of the doors. The officers knocked on that door and announced their presence, after which they heard sounds consistent with destruction of evidence. They then broke open the door, discovering drugs and the unfortunate Mr. King inside.

Our Constitution says that it is unreasonable to conduct a search and seizure unless a judicial officer has issued a warrant. Over the years, the courts have created so many exceptions to the warrant requirement that it looks more like Swiss cheese than a rule to protect privacy. The “exigent circumstances” exception means that the police get to break down doors without a warrant if there is some immediate need to act, for example when persons inside are destroying evidence, someone inside needs immediate help, or there is an immediate danger to the police coming from inside the residence. However, over the years the police have gotten smart and often create the exigent circumstance that lets them get around the warrant requirement. The courts have reacted to these situations in a variety of ways.

In Kentucky v. King the State lost in the lower courts when the Kentucky Supreme Court said that the officers should have reasonably anticipated that their knocking would goad those inside into making noise similar to destroying evidence, thus creating the very exigency that authorized the officers to enter without a warrant. The State explained in its Petition for a Writ of Certiorari that there are at least five different tests being applied by the various lower courts when dealing with similar situations.

We look forward to seeing how the U.S. Supreme Court rules, which likely will not occur until next year. The opinion below and briefs supporting and opposing the petition for certiorari are available here.

Last week in Rehberg v. Paulk, the Eleventh Circuit held that sending “emails to third parties constitute[s] a voluntary relinquishment of the right to privacy in that information.” In this case, the investigators subpoenaed the emails directly from the Internet Service Provider (ISP) through which Rehberg transmitted his messages. The Court held that he did not have a valid expectation of privacy in the email information, so he failed to state a Fourth Amendment violation.

This ruling might be a dangerous precedent, for several reasons. First, the Court of Appeals says that none of us has any privacy in our emails the moment we hit the ‘send’ button. Second, this means that the government can get our otherwise private messages from every ISP we use to connect us with the outside world. This ruling represents one more step towards a lack of privacy, and in favor of the government’s ability to intrude into our lives.

The opinion in Rehberg v. Paulk is here.
A lengthy analysis by Orin Kerr on why the Eleventh Circuit got this wrong is here at the Volokh Conspiracy.