Wednesday, February 26, 2014

US Supreme Court Fernandez v. California 12-7822

Decision here.

   Fernandez (and four of his fellow gangstas) robbed some guy at knife point.  During the robbery, the victim was cut, beated, and divested of $400 cash and a cell phone.  Two officers who were searching for the robbery suspect saw someone run into an apartment building and subsequently heard screaming and fighting coming from inside one of the apartments.  They waited for backup, and then knocked on the door.

   A female answered the door, looking like she had been beated.  She was crying, had fresh injuries, there was blood on her shirt, and she said she had been in a fight (she was also holding a baby and told police that there was a four year old in the apartment with her).

   Officers asked the female (Rojas) to step out of the apartment so they could conduct a protective sweep.  Fernandez then came to the door wearing his boxers.  He angrily told police that he knows his rights and that they could not enter the apartment.  The cops removed him from the apartment and arrested him for domestic violence.  Then the original robbery victim identified Lopez as the one who had robbed him, and it was off to the clink they went.

   An hour later, the police returned to Fernandez's and Rojas' apartment.  Rojas gave verbal and written consent to search the apartment.  Then the four year old showed them where daddy kept his sawed-off shotgun.  The police also found gang paraphernalia (related to the gang whose territory the robbery had occurred in), the clothes which were worn during the robbery, a butterfly knife, and some ammo.  Fernandez was eventually convicted of crimes including the robbery, DV, possession of a firearm whilst a convicted felon, and other weapons crimes.  He appealed his conviction, arguing that the evidence should have been suppressed.

   Fernandez's argument is that the search of his property was impermissible under Randolph.

   The Court gives a little background on two-party consent in its decision, citing a couple of older cases that I haven't summarized yet, so I'll go into them here.  In US v. Matlock, Matlock was arrested in his front yard for a bank robbery.  Once he was in the squad car, police asked Matlock's girlfriend for consent to search their room (rather than asking Matlock himself, which they could easily have done).  The search yielded incriminating evidence, and the court found that the search was valid because Matlock's girlfriend had common authority with him over the premises and effects that the police searched.

   In Illinois v. Rodriguez, a mad woman let the police into the apartment which she shared with Rodriguez (who was sleeping at the time), and they found drugs and paraphernalia.  Then they found out that it wasn't really her apartment, she had already moved out and no longer had any authority over the premises.  The court held that the search was reasonable anyway, because at the time of the search the police reasonably believed that it was her apartment.

   And that brings us back to Randolph... most cops are pretty familiar with this one.  Randolph's wife told police that he had cocaine in the house.  Randolph told the cop he couldn't come in, so the cop simply turned to Randolph's wife and asked her for consent to search.  The court eventually ruled that the refusal of a present party who objects to the search overrides the consent given by another party.  The court made it explicitly clear that the objecting party must be present in order to have a say in it, unless the police removed him for the purpose of overcoming (or avoiding) his objection.

   Now we're back to this case (and probably the most important paragraph of my summary).  One of Fernandez's two arguments is that his objection to the search should have stood even though he wasn't present, since the only reason he wasn't present was that the police removed him.  The Supreme Court ruled that this, like other Fourth Amendment inquiries, is not a question of the officers' subjective intentions.  The question is whether it was objectively reasonable to remove the objecting party (and in cases like this one, where there's PC to arrest for DV, a violent robbery, or both, it's reasonable to do so).  Randolph's prohibition against removing someone for the sake of overcoming their objection is only invoked if the police remove them without an objectively reasonable basis for doing so.  And just like that, Randolph went from being a complicated problem to a minor footnote.

   Fernandez's other argument is that because he objected to the search while he was present, his objection should have remained in effect until there was some sort of evidence that he had changed his mind.  The Court didn't think much of that, though.  For one thing, it creates more problems than it solves.  The court gave a hypothetical example of someone serving a fifteen year sentence, and their co-tenant still being unable to give police consent to enter their house ten years into that sentence just because at one time someone who had lived there had objected to a search.  The court also wondered if one could register in advance their objection to searches, or if they'd be putting the police in a position of having to determine whether or not the objecting party still has standing to object after being sentenced to the hypothetical fifteen year sentence.  Or would the objection only last for a specif amount of time?  How long?  And the court wondered if such standing objections would attach to specific officers, to specific agencies, to specific investigations, to any officer who knew about them, or what.

   More importantly than all of those ridiculous arguments, the Court felt that such standing objections to a search wouldn't really be in keeping with the spirit of the Randolph decision.  Randolph was decided largely based on social norms... if your average person (like a domestic violence social worker, a friend, or a relative) were invited into a house by one resident while being simultaneously warned to stay out by another resident, then they probably wouldn't feel comfortable going in.  If, on the other hand, the person warning them to stay out was removed (and they knew he wasn't going to come back during the visit), then the average person might feel more comfortable accepting the invitation.   Besides, allowing Fernandez to simply create a standing objection to police entry that overrides Rojas' consent even after he leaves would show disrespect for her independence and give Fernandez power over her that the Fourth Amendment never intended.

   Long story short, the court didn't agree with Fernandez's arguments.  Rojas' consent to search the apartment was held to be valid, and the evidence found during the search was admissible against Fernandez.  His conviction was upheld.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Tenth Circuit US v. Augustine 12-3269

Decision here.

   Not much to say about this one...

   After another pair of drug dealers were arrested, they rolled on Augustine.  Police used that information to get a warrant for Augustine's house, which led to the discovery of incriminating evidence.  Augustine was arrested, and made some incriminating statements post-Miranda.  He was convicted of two counts of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, and appealed his conviction.

   He argued that the warrant was based on an affidavit which did not establish probable cause.  Interestingly, the trial court never decided whether or not the affidavit supported probable cause.  Instead, they decided that the good faith exception rendered the evidence admissible even if the affidavit fell short.  Augustine argued that the affidavit was so devoid of factual support as to render the good faith exception inapplicable.

   The information in the affidavit seemed pretty straightforward to me.  I thought there was PC.  The Tenth Circuit decided not to decide that, but decided to agree with the trial court that even if the affidavit fell short, it was good enough that the good faith exception would apply.  So the evidence was admissible.

   As far as Miranda goes... Augustine waived his rights and told the officers that he was not under the influence of any drugs, and that he was supposed to take some prescription drugs (stuff they prescribe for mental illness).  He apparently seemed sober and coherent during the interrogation, and made a lot of admissions that he probably wished he could take back when his case went to trial.  At a few points during the interrogation, he mentioned that he would like to take his prescription drugs (but never said he wouldn't continue the interview without them).  His argument on appeal was that he actually was under the influence of illegal drugs and that he needed his prescription drugs, and that therefore his Miranda waiver was not knowing, voluntary, or intentional.

   The trial court didn't buy it, and neither did the Tenth Circuit.  Augustine's Miranda waiver was held to be valid.  His convictions were upheld.

Colorado Supreme Court Grassi v. People 11SC720

Decision here.

   Grassi, driving whilst drunk, ran his car off the roadway for no apparent reason (other than his drunkenness).  He was seriously hurt in the accident and transported to the hospital where he remained unconscious for several hours.  His passenger was killed.

   Like most calls this big, the investigation involved more than one officer.  There were at least two officers investigating at the scene (one who was an accident reconstructionist, one who was not but was the first responding officer), both of whom concluded that there was no external cause of the accident and that the driver had just followed the fog line off of the roadway, which is something drunks sometimes do.  There was a supervisor, who did a fine job of delegating other tasks.  And there was the officer who the supervisor sent to the hospital, with the instructions to obtain a blood draw if he determined that alcohol was a factor in this accident.

   The officer who went to the hospital was apparently assigned this task before the accident investigation had been completed (which only makes sense).  Even though Grassi was still unconscious, the officer could smell a strong odor of alcohol from his breath.  He ordered a couple of blood draws, both of which were completed after the accident reconstructionist had determined that the accident was caused by Grassi's bad driving.  The blood test later revealed that Grassi was drunk (the decision doesn't tell us just how drunk, but over the legal limit).

   Grassi was convicted of Vehicular Homicide, Manslaughter, and DUI.  He appealed his conviction launching a somewhat mystifying attack on the fellow officer rule.  His argument goes like this: the fellow officer rule allows one cop to act on information from another, but at the time that the third trooper was assigned to go to the hospital to potentially do a blood draw, the accident investigation wasn't completed yet so there was no probable cause.  Also, the officers at the accident scene didn't necessarily communicate all of their findings directly to the one at the hospital.  Therefore, the blood draw was done without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

   The Supreme Court explains that the fellow officer rule allows officers to act on information known to other officers related to the same investigation, so long as two requirements are met: 1- the officers have to be acting as part of a coordinated investigation, and 2- the police must collectively possess the information required to justify the action at the time the action is taken.  Given that those two conditions are met, the courts aren't going to nit-pick who told who what when.  The courts also aren't going to ask us to make search and seizure decisions based only on the information available at the time that we were assigned to an investigation (which is what Grassi wanted); instead, we can use the information available at the time that we conduct the search or seizure.

   In this case, the officers were all obviously acting as part of a coordinated investigation.  And the information known to the police at the time supported probable cause, so the blood draw was good and Grassi's conviction was affirmed.

   That "coordinated investigation" part is what differentiates this case from wall stops.  In a case of a wall stop (where investigating officers tell another officer to find their own reason to stop someone who they think is a Bad Guy), the officer making the stop is specifically NOT acting as part of a coordinated investigation.  By withholding their suspicions (or by telling the officer to ignore their suspicions and find his own), the investigators are specifically cutting the officer out of the coordinated investigation, and so the fellow officer rule can not be used to justify wall stops (that's from a case where the officer making the stop tried to justify the stop by using a traffic violation that wasn't actually a violation).  

Friday, February 7, 2014

Tenth Circuit US v. Serrato 12-8040

Decision here.

   Not much to say about this one, really.  Serrato was one of several drug dealers busted in an ongoing investigation, and one of two who pled not guilty and stood trial together.  He was convicted, and appealed.

   Most of the appeal deals with objections to comments made by the prosecutor during the trial, or with sentence enhancements.  There's a little bit at the end about a traffic stop that Serrato wanted to have suppressed.

   The traffic stop was conducted after law enforcement learned from surveillance that a couple different vans were going to be going to a specific garage for a drug transaction.  Serrato was driving one of the vans.  He was stopped, identified, and released after about ten minutes.

   The Court held that the information from surveillance was enough to support reasonable suspicion that Serrato was involved in criminal activity when he was stopped.  Even if it hadn't been, he was also speeding.  

   Serrato & co's convictions were upheld.