Warrantless Search

Warrantless GPS search attorneys Fort Worth

The Evils of Technology | GPS Search

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Warrantless GPS search attorneys Fort WorthI love technology – from tablet computers to smartphones to flat-screen televisions.  If it’s shiny and new and guaranteed to make me the envy of my friends and family, I’ll buy it (to the dismay of my wife).  One of the recent (in the last 5 years) technological advancements that has made its way into just about every home in America is GPS.  Whether it be a Garmin running watch, a TomTom navigational device, or a GPS location broadcaster on your cell phone, most people use some sort of GPS device every day.  Aside from the fact that we’ve lost the capability to drive somewhere without turn-by-turn directions, GPS is great.

Jose Juan Hernandez, however, might not agree that GPS is so great.  In a recent 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Case (United States v. Hernandez), Hernandez challenged the GPS search that the DEA had surreptitiously (and without a warrant) performed on his brother’s truck to track its movements.  Hernandez was arrested while driving his brother’s truck to California on a drug run.  The police seized 20 pounds of meth from the truck.  At trial, Hernandez moved to suppress the drugs, arguing that the discovery was the result of an unlawful search (as a result of the GPS tracking).  The trial court denied the request.

The 5th Circuit held that Hernandez had standing to challenge the use of the GPS search device placed on his brother’s vehicle by FBI agents because he drove the vehicle with consent, but he lacked standing to challenge its placement because the vehicle was not registered to him.  The Court also held that the DEA agents’ use of the surreptitious GPS search device to track Hernandez was not a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, explaining that it was more akin to the old beepers that police used to place on vehicles in the 80’s and 90’s.  Accordingly, the Court upheld the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress. The Court did not decide whether a GPS search device that continuously and precisely monitors location would constitute a search.

Come and Knock on Our Door | Child Search Authority

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Child Search Authority | Consent to Search Without a Warrant

Child Apparent Authority to ConsentInvestigating a reported shooting, the police knock on the door to a home that is answered by an adolescent (a minor). Can the minor give the police permission to enter the home? Must the police ask whether the minor lives in the home? Should the police ask to speak to an adult? These issues were considered by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Limon v. State, a case that was released a couple of weeks ago and designated for publication.

In an 8-1 decision, with Judge Womack writing for the majority, the CCA held that, while there is no per se rule that a child may or may not give consent to entry, a minor may possess apparent child search authority. The CCA cited the reasoning of the Supreme Court in the case of Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103 (2006) and also noted five key facts that contributed to its ultimate conclusion that the minor in this case had the apparent authority to consent to entry:

1) [The minor] opened the door by himself in response to [the officer’s] knock;

2) The trial court could have inferred from [the officer’s] testimony that [the minor] appeared to be a teenager of significant maturity, if not a young adult;

3) [The minor] consented to mere entry through the front door, as opposed to entry or search of less public areas of the house. (The reasoning being that the trial court could have believed that it was reasonable to rely on a teenager’s authority to consent to such a limited scope of entry, while it would not have been reasonable to rely on his authority to consent to a more intrusive search.);

4) The officer’s announced purpose was to conduct an emergency public-safety function; and

5) The time of entry (2 AM) could have led the trial court to believe that an individual opening the door at that hour was a resident rather than a guest.

Judge Meyers dissented, stating:

Nobody gives a teenager permission to allow strangers into their home. Yet, the majority focuses on what apparent authority the child in this case may have had to let the cops into the house a 2 o’clock in the morning. The police should presume that minors have no authority to consent to entry and should ask to speak to an adult. If no adults are available then the officers need to get a warrant (and possibly call CPS).

Warrantless Search of Cell Phone

Warrantless Search of Cell Phone Text Messages

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Warrantless Search of Cell Phone | Fort Worth Criminal Defense Attorneys

Warrantless Search of Cell PhoneCan an arresting officer search a person’s text messages as a “search incident to arrest?” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit said YES in U.S. v. Curtis, but caveats that the search in the case occurred prior to the Supreme Court holding in Arizona v. Gant, 129 S.Ct. 1710 (2009).

United States v. Curtis – In July 2007, officers obtained an arrest warrant for Appellant after he made a false statement on a credit application he submitted to a car dealership. (Seriously?) When the officers arrested Appellant he was driving his vehicle and talking on his cell phone. After he pulled over, Appellant placed the cell phone on the car’s center console. An officer took the phone out of the car and began looking at the text messages on it. Later, while Appellant was being processed at the jail the officer resumed looking at the text messages on the cell phone.

The 5th Circuit held that the search of the cell phone was constitutional since it took place incident to a lawful arrest and it was within Appellant’s reaching distance when the officers arrested him. The court followed U.S. v. Finley, 477 F.3d 250 (5th Cir.), which held that the police could search the contents of an arrestee’s cell phone incident to a valid arrest when it is recovered from the area within an arrestee’s immediate control.

Appellant argued that the officer’s search of the cell phone was unlawful in light of the Supreme Court’s holding in Gant, decided in 2009, which held in part that the police may “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 arrest.”

The court refused to apply the rule announced by Gant to a search incident to arrest that occurred before Gant was decided. Additionally, the court stated that even if it had ruled the search of the cell phone was unlawful, it would have refused to suppress the text messages under the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. The court noted that the good-faith exception applies to searches that were legal at the time they were conducted, but later determined to be unconstitutional by a subsequent change in the law.

My question is: Why did the officer feel he needed to search Appellant’s text messages? I’m pretty sure the iPhone does not have an app that turns the phone into a dangerous weapon. There should be no reason that the officer needed to conduct such a warrantless search. Luckily, however, this holding is narrow in that it appears that it does not apply to searches conducted after the Supreme Court decision in Gant.

UPDATE: Warrantless searches of cell phones are now unreasonable. 

Consent to Search Car in Texas

Do You Consent? Do You Consent? Do You Consent?

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Consent to Search Car in TexasToday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals released Meekins v. State, a case out of Lubbock County wherein the issue for appellate review was whether that State proved by clear and convincing evidence that Appellant had consented to a search of his vehicle.

At a pre-trial hearing to determine whether the drugs found during the search should be suppressed, the trial court ruled that Appellant’s consent to search was given knowingly and voluntarily. The court, therefore, refused to suppress the evidence. Here’s the evidence on which the trial court based its ruling:

After officers pulled Appellant over for failing to signal a turn, the following exchange occurred between Appellant and the officer while the officer talked to Appellant through the driver’s side window:

Officer: You don’t have anything illegal in the vehicle, no weapons or anything like that?

Appellant: No

Officer: You don’t mind if we take a look?

Appellant: (Inaudible) Look in the car or what?

Officer: Yeah.

Appellant: I don’t have anything.

Officer: Okay. You don’t mind if I look? It’s yes or no, bud.

Appellant: What do you think?

Officer: What do I think?

Appellant: Yeah.

Officer: I’m asking you to look in the car.

Appellant: (Inaudible)

Officer: Don’t reach around, bud, just in case you got a gun.

Appellant: I ain’t got no gun or nothing.

Officer: You don’t mind if we look?

Appellant: I just…(inaudible) That it (inaudible).

Officer: Okay.

Appellant: (Inaudible)

Officer: I’m asking if I can look in the vehicle. It’s yes or no.

Appellant: (Inaudible)

Officer: Is there anything else you might have? You seem a little nervous, you know what I’m saying? You’re making me nervous.

Appellant: I ain’t nervous.

Officer: Okay. Do you have anything illegal in your vehicle?

Appellant: No.

Officer: Okay. Do you mind if I look?

Appellant: I guess.

After that, the officer, believing he has been given consent, ordered Appellant to exit the vehicle. Ultimately the officer found the contraband (marijuana) in Appellant’s pocket.

The 7th District Court of Appeals (Amarillo) reversed the trial court’s ruling, holding that “the State failed to clearly and convincingly prove that Appellant granted the officer positive, unequivocal, and voluntary consent to search his car.”

In an opinion written by Judge Cochran, the CCA now reverses. Upholding the trial court’s original ruling, the CCA relied on the “totality of the circumstances” and the deference given the trial court to make factual. The CCA noted, however, that this was a close case and that if the trial judge had found that the consent was not voluntary, they would have upheld that factual finding as well.

Dissenting, Judge Meyers joined by Judge Price, states:

I certainly do not know what is clear and convincing about appellant’s alleged consent. Although the majority gives lip service to the applicable rule, the majority misapplies it because these facts are anything but clear and convincing.

The dissent goes on the state that because Appellant’s words and actions demonstrate evasiveness and reluctance rather than positive, unequivocal consent, the evidence should have been suppressed.

This case shows how important it is to fight (and win) suppression motions at the trial level. An appellate lawyer can only do so much against the mountain of deference the appellate courts give the original fact finder’s decision. As the CCA noted in this case – if the trial court had gone the other way, they would have held that way too.