Category Archives: 4th Amendment – Search & Seizure

Brooklyn 99 used the Stingray as a Plot Device

We’ve talked about the secretive Stingray devices several times on crimcourts, and I’ve even talked about them on local TV. Stingrays are devices that mimic cell phone towers and can allow law enforcement to secretly collect cell phone data. The problem is, without a warrant, they can be used to unconstitutionally invade people’s privacy and to collect overbroad types of data from innocent citizens. It’s a clear violation of the constitutional prohibition on unreasonable searches.

On the pair of shows of the fictional New York police precinct “Brooklyn 99” which aired last night, the officers of the 99th precinct discover the new NYPD police commissioner has started using a Stingray to illegally collect data. The good guys set up a sting operation to bust the commissioner and end the illegal data collection program- a Stingray-sting! Hijinks ensue, but I won’t spoil the outcome for those who haven’t seen it. Nonetheless, it’s impressive that a comedy show used a hot button topic as the basis for an episode.

Sarasota Police try to Charge an Attorney Defending Her Client

Sarasota defense attorney, and friend of the firm, Varinia Van Ness had criminal charges sought by the Sarasota Police against her for her representation of her client. The mere fact that officers would even consider trying to charge a defense attorney for zealously doing her job is shocking. It’s petty, retaliatory, and an affront to our adversarial system of justice. Fortunately, the officer’s multiple attempts to file charges were rebuffed by cooler heads.

Attorney Varinia Van Ness, via
http://www.vannesslawgroup.com/

It started when two Sarasota detectives sought to serve search warrants on Ms. Van Ness’ client and his phone. The parties agreed to meet at Van Ness’ office but about 10 minutes into the meeting, it was revealed that a Detective Derek Galbraith had activated a recording device without notifying Ms. Van Ness. When she found out, she insisted he either terminate the recording, or to leave the office. He declined to turn it off, but he also declined to leave the office. She indicated he was trespassing, but he still wouldn’t leave and Van Ness eventually called 911 to get him to leave.

After detectives left, they tried to serve the warrants again at the client’s work, at his brother’s house, and even at his ex-girlfriend’s home. Van Ness and her client agreed to meet at the police department. When the Detectives read the phone warrant, a spelling error was noticed in the client’s name, and Van Ness and her client left the room, though they ultimately did submit a DNA sample. Later that day, Detective Dan Riley from the Sarasota PD requested that a warrant be issued for the arrest of attorney Van Ness for obstruction of justice.

Fortunately, the warrant was never issued. It was submitted to a judge who recognized that the case involved a defense attorney doing her job, which would be a valid challenge to the warrant. He said it would have to be reviewed the State Attorneys office to see if formal charges were warranted. Sarasota PD didn’t give up, and submitted the warrant request to the State Attorney’s office. The local SAO had a conflict of interest, and the case was reassigned to the 20th Judicial Circuit SAO, who also declined to file charges. Sarasota PD took one more shot, submitting the case to FDLE, who also declined to pursue charges. The case was reviewed by three separate independent judges/agencies, who all agreed there was no merit to bringing charges.

This type of attack on an attorney is shocking and very problematic to the justice system. Ultimately, the fear would be that if cops can go charge an attorney for advocating for their clients, the chilling affect on the job of defense attorneys would harm our criminal justice system and is an affront to the Constitutional protection to the right to be represented by an attorney. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to assistance of counsel, and it applies at every level of a criminal investigation.

It’s rare that law enforcement would seek to charge an attorney for advocacy in the normal course of their work. Usually, it takes something really egregious, the Paul Bergrin case in New Jersey springs to mind, where he assisted gangsters placing hits against witnesses. Only something extreme that goes beyond advocacy should even be considered, and even then, it should be reviewed by attorneys before being submitted for a warrant.

Asking a Detective to leave your office because they recorded you without permission is not obstruction of justice. Declining to have your client turn over his phone password when his name is spelled wrong on the warrant is not obstruction of justice. That’s advocacy. Zealous advocates like Varinia Van Ness are the first check against government overreach and the primary protection of individual Constitutional rights. We are lucky to have defense attorneys like Varinia.

via Sarasota Herald-Tribune

FMPD Sued for Arresting and Tasing a Man for No Legal Reason

jones taser

Jones, about to be tased from behind

Two FMPD officers had no legal reason to arrest Holley Jones in April, 2018, but when he tried to walk away, they tasered him. The officers indicate they responded to a third-party complaint about a disorderly person, which apparently did not identify Jones. The whole incident is on body cam, and Mr. Jones is not causing a disturbance when officers come in and tell him they want to talk to him. When he declines to come outside, he tries to shake the officer’s hand, and the officer gets angry, and starts yelling at him not to touch him, pulls out his taser, and orders him outside. Jones says he did nothing wrong, and the officer says you’re real close to doing something wrong.

An officer is not allowed to detain someone, or order them around, unless he has evidence that they’ve done something wrong. Jones’ refusal to come outside isn’t improper because the officer doesn’t have evidence of a crime to have the authority to order him outside. People like to say you don’t have to consent to officers if you’ve done nothing wrong, but it results in poor Mr. Jones getting tased when he eventually runs away from the officers.

Something that’s nearly as bad as the unnecessary violence is that the officers mislead in their report to try to justify their actions. They indicate in their report that Jones did not seem to understand what they wanted him to do. The video is clear that he understood, but did not consent to following them outside or being searched. Then the officers say that when he ran back inside, he turned around in a “defensive posture with his arms raised,” and “a closed fist as if he was going to strike” the officer. The video clearly shows the officer is lying, as Jones is simply trying to evade the illegal arrest. The irony is that experienced criminal attorneys will recognize the “defensive posture” language as a phrasing that cops frequently use to justify use of force. In this case, thanks to the body-worn cameras, the truth is exposed. NBC-2 uploaded the video here, and it is somewhat graphic.

The case went to court, and on a motion to suppress, the state could not show a lawful detention, and the evidence was suppressed, leading to the case being dropped. Officers are allowed to talk to people in a consensual encounter, but they can’t just order people around who aren’t breaking the law. This should be a teaching tool, and body cams will help improve police and citizen interactions. In the meantime, this poor police work will probably lead to Mr. Jones getting paid. Not only that, they found substantial amounts of drugs on him, but he cannot be prosecuted due to the poor police work.

Supreme Court Rules that Warrants Needed for Driveway Searches

supreme court facadeI haven’t had much time to post lately, but a substantial Supreme Court ruling this week demands a post. The Court ruled, by an 8-1 margin, that police searches that take place in the driveway of a home also require a warrant. Essentially, the court ruled that the curtilage of a home, that is, the immediate area surrounding the home, has similar protection to the home itself. In this case out of Virginia, an officer suspected that a stolen motorcycle could have been been stolen, and took it upon himself to peek under the cover. The Court found that the search was illegal because the officer did not obtain a warrant first.

Ultimately, this may not prove to be the most influential ruling… how many searches take place in a home’s driveway? Will this extend to the parking spot of an apartment complex? (I think so.) This ruling is not a great surprise, as the Supreme Court in the last few years has been very clear on the Constitutional protections for privacy against searches, particularly in relation to the home. And this will not hamstring law enforcement too much: cases like this one would present plenty of evidence to obtain a warrant.

Don’t Obscure your License Plates!

tagAn appellate court decision came down this week that ruled that none of the lettering on your car tag can be obscured, even the “myflorida.com”. This appears to be a more strict interpretation of the law than had previously been enforced, due to language changes in the statute, and probably means that most license plate frames will be in violation. It’s not a defense if the dealer put it on there! Nor is it a defense for your tint being too dark if the dealer does it… These little nuisance violations can give the cops probable cause to stop you, even if you’re driving fine, and can result in expensive tickets!

via NBC-2

If You Think You Have a Secret, You’re Probably Wrong

Thanks to the omnipresence of electronic devices in our lives today, somebody probably knows everything you do. You have a cell phone in your pocket, which is essentially a listening device, your computer might have a camera on it that is potentially watching your every move, HAL 9000 style, and you might even be wearing a smart watch that is literally following you every step. All of those are able to collect data, store it, and potentially share it with others… perhaps even authorities. It’s potentially an avenue for the government to get in your homes and bedrooms.

Much of this technology is new, and the courts are still trying to determine what the limitations are on privacy, and what the government can access and use. The latest test case is actually in Germany, where prosecutors are using data compiled by Apple iPhone’s Health App: an app that is standard and pre-installed on the last several versions of iPhone. The Defendant refused to give up his passcode, by a cyber-forensics firm was able to crack it and give the data to prosecutors.

There are a lot of issues related to this, particularly here in the United States where different Constitutional rights come in to play. Obviously, the rights to privacy, unreasonable search and seizure, and due process are involved, but a major case last year even involved First Amendment aspects. In Arkansas, James Bates was accused of killing his friend Victor Collins, who was found drowned in Bates’ hot tub. In order to strengthen their case, prosecutors sought info from his iPhone to track his phone calls, and even his smart utility meter to demonstrate his water use (they planned to argue that he had hosed down his deck).

The prosecution also went after Alexa- the digital assistant program that works with his Amazon Echo device. Alexa listens and potentially records everything within the range of its microphone, so there’s a major question whether people would have an expectation of privacy around one. The prosecutors sought to obtain the data, when Amazon itself entered the fray with another claim: that they should not have to turn over the data because it would violate the First Amendment… that it could have a chilling effect on protected expression.

Ultimately, the Bates case did not decide the matters. Kathleen Zellner, the attorney who is handling Making a Murderer’s Steven Avery’s post-conviction claims, took over the case and since her defense was not dependent on the Amazon data, waived any objection and it was turned over. Ultimately, it probably did not play a role, as additional medical and forensic reviews apparently convinced the prosecutors that there was not a murder, at least not one that could be proven, and the charges were dropped without the case having to go to trial.

In the meantime, be aware that there is the potential that the government can find out a lot about you, from your computer, your social media, your phone, your watch, your car, your video game, your pacemaker, and in this case, they didn’t just go after Alexa, they used Bates’ hot water heater to charge him with a murder.

Fort Myers Pays Nate Allen $440,000 for Wrongful Arrest

nate allen

Nate Allen

The city council yesterday finalized a settlement of nearly a half-a-million dollars for NFL player Nate Allen for his wrongful arrest. (While he was detained, and ultimately released without a formal arrest, it was easily a ‘de facto arrest’ due to time and totality of the circumstances.) It was enough to make the news, especially since he is a professional football player. Even though he was released that day, the suit was worth a lot more because of the demonstrable negative effects it had on his NFL contract situation. Worse, the FMPD chief at the time, Doug Baker, was caught lying in the investigation into the cover-up, leading ultimately to his termination. The entire incident was a black eye on the city. To the council’s credit, they recognized the wrongdoing, and have repeatedly apologized. Neither the chief, nor the detective on the case are still with the city. Sawyer Smith handled the case for Allen, and tells me he is as nice a guy you could ever meet.

Sadly, the lessons are still being learned. Just a few months ago I encountered a case where the FMPD utilized the same faulty show-up procedure to identify someone, in spite of the pending lawsuit. The state ended up dropping the case. Meanwhile, the 2-year anniversary of Zombie-con has passed with no arrests, charges, or even named suspects. And just last week, more details have come out about the officers suspended after the Freeh Report. FMPD has a long way to go…