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Drone Laws TX Drone Registration

Rules for Drones | Drone Registration and Penalties for Failure

By | Criminal Defense

Drone Laws TX Drone RegistrationDrones or Quadcopters were a popular Christmas gift this year. While many new drone owners are probably preoccupied with learning to fly without getting the propellers stuck in trees or crashing them over their neighbor’s fence, they need to take a moment to learn about the federal registration rules for unmanned aircraft.

*Federal drone registration had been struck down by an appeals court in May of 2017, but the National Defense Authorization Act that was passed in December 2017 reinstated drone registration.

Do I Have to Register My Drone?

Maybe. Any unmanned aircraft system (“drone”) that weighs more than .55 pounds must be registered with the FAA. Depending on the size of the drone, it can be registered under:

  • Part 107, Small UAS Rule,
  • Section 336, the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, or
  • 14 CFR Part 47, the Traditional Aircraft Registration

Registration Under The Special Rule for Model Aircraft

Most people register their drone under this provision. The Special Rule for Model Aircraft allows for registration of a drone between 0.55 lbs and 55 lbs for recreational use only. Under this registration:

  • A person is allowed to fly their drone within their line of sight,
  • A person is required to follow the community-based and nationwide guidelines,
  • A person is not allowed to fly their drone over an airport or to interfere with emergency response units, and
  • A person must notify an airport when they are flying within five miles of an airport.

In order to register under the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, you must:

  • Register as a “modeler” with the FAA,
  • Be at least 13 years’ old,
  • Be a legal United States citizen or legal permanent resident, and
  • Label your drone with the registration number in case it is lost or stolen.

This registration, which can be completed online costs $5 and lasts for 3 years.

Registration of Drones Between 0.55 lbs and 55 lbs Under the Smalls UAs Rule

The Small UAS Rule allows for registration of a drone between 0.55lbs and 55lbs for recreational and commercial use. Registration is REQUIRED by the FAA. Under the Small UAs Rule a person may:

  • Fly their drone at or below 400 feet (Class “G” airspace)
  • Fly during daylight or civil twilight
  • Fly at or below 100 miles per hour.

With a drone registered under Part 107, the pilot:

  • Must yield to manned aircraft
  • Cannot fly directly over people,
  • Cannot fly from a moving vehicle unless you are in a sparsely populated area.

In order to obtain your registration under the Small UAs Rule, you must:

  • Be at least 16 years old,
  • Have a valid credit card, email address, and physical/mailing address,
  • Pass an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center,
  • Undergo a Transportation Safety Administration security screening, and
  • Denote the make and model of your aircraft when applying for registration.

The Small UAS Rule registration, which can be completed online costs $5 and lasts for 3 years.

Traditional Aircraft Registration for Drones Greater Than 55 Lbs

Traditional Aircraft Registration must be completed for any unmanned aircraft weighing over 55 pounds. The paperwork for drones greater than 55 pounds can be found on the FAA website and must be turned in via regular mail. Drones over 55 lbs will require an N-number that you have to submit to the FAA. The FAA website lays out the necessary information for an application.

This registration costs $5 and lasts for 3 years.

What is the Penalty for Flying a Drone Without Registering it?

Failure to register an unmanned aircraft can result in regulatory penalties up to $27,500 and criminal penalties up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to 3 years. Penalties are determined on a case by case basis and will vary based on the judge.

The FAA provides on its website:

“There is no one-size-fits-all enforcement action for violations. All aspects of a violation will be considered, along with mitigating and aggravating circumstances surrounding the violation. In general, the FAA will attempt to educate operators who fail to comply with registration requirements. However, fines will remain an option when egregious circumstances are present.”

Do you have to register your drone if you only fly over your own property?

Even if flying over your own property, the FAA still requires registration of your drone. The penalties for failure to register an unmanned aircraft will apply even if the drone does not leave your property.

What Other Drone Rules Should I Be Aware of?

Every registration allows for different flight regulations, so pay close attention to what you register for and what that particular registration allows you to do. The FAA has developed an app called “B4UFLY” which gives you important information about your location and the flight restrictions in that area. This app is recommended by the FAA to help avoid violations of the registration limitations. For any additional questions/concerns, visit the FAA website.

Compelled Testimony Conti Allen

Use of Compelled Testimony from Foreign Trial Violates Fifth Amendment

By | 5th Amendment

Is Use of Compelled Testimony of a Defendant in Trial a Violation of the Fifth Amendment Right Against Self Incrimination?

Compelled Testimony Conti AllenThe Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently handed down an opinion concerning the use of compelled testimony in an American trial. In Allen and Conti, the Court was asked to determine whether previous compelled testimony by a foreign government, which was later used against the defendant in a criminal prosecution in the United States, violated the Fifth Amendment.

United States v. Allen, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 12942 (2d Cir. July 19, 2017)

The Facts—District Court Found that a Witness’s Review of the Defendant’s Compelled Testimony Did Not Taint the Evidence

In 2013, both U.K. and U.S. law enforcement agencies began investigating wire fraud and bank fraud at the London office of Coöperative Centrale Raiffeisen-Boerenleenbank B.A. (“Rabobank”). Anthony Conti and Anthony Allen, previous employees of Rabobank in London as well as U.K. citizens and residents, were compelled to provide testimony during interviews with the U.K. agency, the Financial Conduct Authority (“FCA”). Although Conti and Allen were provided limited immunity from criminal prosecution, pursuant to U.K. law, refusing to testify would have resulted in imprisonment.

The FCA pursued Conti and Allen’s coworker, Robson; however, without reason, the FCA dropped its case against Robson. Soon thereafter, the Fraud Section of the United States Department of Justice pursued criminal prosecution of Robson. Soon after Robson pled guilty, he became an integral cooperator of the investigation and a grand jury indicted Allen and Conti.

During the 2015 trial, the government used the prior compelled testimony that Conti and Allen had given in the U.K. against them in the American trial. This resulted in convictions for both Conti and Allen with a year-and-a-day’s imprisonment and two years’ imprisonment respectively.

Pursuant to Kastigar v. United States, 406 U.S. 441 (1972), the United States Government may compel testimony from an unwilling witness, who invokes the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, by providing the witness immunity from use of the compelled testimony in subsequent criminal proceedings, as well as immunity from use of evidence derived from the testimony.

During the FCA’s investigation of Robson, the FCA permitted Robson to review and take notes of Allen and Conti’s compelled testimony. Robson’s review of such testimony impacted his personal testimony, which was the sole source of Agent Weeks’ testimony. The District Court concluded looking to Second Circuit precedent, that Robson’s review of the defendants’ compelled testimony did not taint the evidence he later provided.

The Court of Appeals Reversed the District Court’s Decision—Holding the Prosecution Violated the Fifth Amendment Right When it Used a Tainted Witness Against the Defendants

On appeal, the defendant’s argued that the Government violated their Fifth Amendment rights when it used their own compelled testimony against them in the form of tainted evidence by Robson. The defendants specifically alleged that the Government applied the wrong legal standard in analyzing whether the evidence was tainted by Robson’s review of their compelled testimony.

Every individual accused in an American criminal prosecution has a personal trial right to be free from self-incrimination as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. Use of compelled testimony against the accused during trial is a violation of this right, including when a foreign government, pursuant to its own law, compels such testimony. The Court exemplified that precedent shows that inculpatory statements obtained overseas must be made voluntarily. The Court explains that even if the testimony was lawfully compelled pursuant to the laws of a foreign power, the Fifth Amendment flatly prohibits the use of compelled testimony to secure a conviction, as it would be a violation of the right against self-incrimination.

Further, when the government uses a witness who has been exposed to the compelled testimony of a defendant, it is required under Kastigar to prove, at a minimum, that this review did not alter or affect the evidence used by the government. Here, the prosecution used evidence of the defendant’s compelled testimony through a tainted witness who acted as an integral part of the prosecution’s investigation.

Here, the court found that law enforcement officers in the U.K. undoubtedly compelled the defendant’s testimony. As a result, the court held that the Fifth Amendment prohibited the government from using the defendants’ compelled testimony—in any way—against them at trial in the United States.

Stale Traffic Violation Zuniga Drug Case

Does a 15-Minute Delay Render a Traffic Violation Stale? | U.S. v. Zuniga

By | Drug Crimes

How Long Can an Officer Wait to Pull a Vehicle Over After Observing a Traffic Violation?

Stale Traffic Violation Zuniga Drug CaseUnited States v. Zuniga (US Court of Appeals, 5th Cir. 2017)

In this case, a San Antonio police detective, who was working with an informant, suspected that Appellant Zuniga was transporting methamphetamine in his vehicle and followed it. The detective witnessed the driver of the vehicle fail to engage the turn-signal as required. He did not pull the vehicle over at that time, but radioed the traffic violation to other officers. Approximately fifteen minutes later, an officer who had received the radio dispatch but had not witnessed the turn-signal violation, stopped the vehicle. During the stop, the officer encountered Appellant, who was riding in the passenger seat, and his girlfriend, who was driving the vehicle. The officer arrested Appellant on outstanding warrants and his girlfriend for driving without a valid driver’s license.

The arresting officer conducted a search of Appellant incident to arrest and found methamphetamine on his person. The officer also searched Zuniga’s car and found a backpack containing methamphetamine, a handgun, and other evidence related to drug trafficking.

As a result, the federal government charged Appellant with several drug-related offenses.

Motion to Suppress for Unreasonable Traffic Delay

Appellant filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized during the stop, arguing that the fifteen-minute delay in conducting the stop for the turn-signal violation rendered the information provided by the detective who observed the violation stale.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress, holding that the delay in conducting the stop was not enough to render the information stale or the stop unlawful. The court did not state a specific time limitation to which officers must adhere when conducting a traffic stop. Instead, the court stressed that stops following traffic violations must be reasonable in light of the circumstances. In this case, the court found that the fifteen-minute delay was reasonable. As soon as the officer observed the turn-signal violation, he immediately relayed this information to other officers, although none of those officers were in position to stop the vehicle at that time.

Collective Knowledge Doctrine Allows an Officer to Make a Stop for a Violation He Did Not Observe

The trial court further held that the collective knowledge doctrine allowed the arresting officer to lawfully stop the vehicle even though he did not personally observe the traffic violation. The collective knowledge doctrine allows an officer, who does not observe a criminal (or traffic) violation, to conduct a stop when that officer is acting at the request of another officer who actually did observe the violation. Here, the detective who observed the turn-signal violation communicated this information to the traffic officer who ultimately stopped the vehicle; therefore, the detective’s knowledge transferred to the officer who conducted the stop and made the arrest.

The 5th Circuit upheld the search and the conviction, holding that reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle continued to exist despite the 15-minute lapse between the original observation of the traffic offense and the stop. The court explained:

“We make no attempt to articulate a specific time limitation to which officers must adhere in effecting a stop following a traffic violation. Rather, we stress that, consistent with our holdings in similar contexts, stops following transportation violations must be reasonable in light of the circumstances. See, e.g., United States v. Robinson, 741 F.3d 588, 598 (5th Cir. 2014) (emphasizing that “[s]tale information cannot be used to establish probable cause”). To reiterate, we hold only that the elapsed time between an observed violation and any subsequent stop must be reasonable upon consideration of the totality of the circumstances.”

License Plate Scanner BROCA MARTINEZ

Whether “Unconfirmed” Insurance Creates Reasonable Suspicion to Stop

By | Reasonable Suspicion

Is “Unconfirmed” Insurance Enough to Justify a Traffic Stop?

License Plate Scanner BROCA MARTINEZWhile conducting surveillance on an illegal immigration investigation, Homeland Security agents saw a vehicle leave a residence suspected of harboring undocumented immigrants. The agents notified local police officers to be-on-the-lookout for the vehicle. While on patrol, an officer began to follow the defendant’s vehicle because it matched the description of the vehicle from Homeland Security. While following the vehicle, the local officer entered its license plate number into a computer database designed to return vehicle information such as insurance status. The computer indicated the insurance status was “unconfirmed.” Based on his experience using this system, the officer reasoned that the vehicle was most likely uninsured, which is, of course, a violation of Texas law. The officer then conducted a traffic stop of the vehicle and learned that the defendant was in the United States illegally. The officer issued the defendant citations for violating the insurance requirement and driving without a license while he waited for the Homeland Security agents to arrive.

Defendant Challenges the Stop, Arguing that the Officer Lacked Reasonable Suspicion.

The United States government charged the defendant with conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens. The defendant argued that the “unconfirmed” insurance status obtained from the state computer database did not provide the officer reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant. The trial court was unconvinced by this argument.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that it had not yet addressed whether a state computer database indication of insurance status establishes reasonable suspicion as a matter of law. However, the court commented that the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits have found that such information may give rise to reasonable suspicion as long as there is either some evidence suggesting the database is reliable or at least an absence of evidence that it is unreliable. In this case, the court followed the other circuits that have decided this issue and held that a state computer database indication of insurance status may establish reasonable suspicion when the officer is familiar with the database and the system itself is reliable.

5th Circuit Upholds the Stop, Finding that “Unconfirmed” Insurance Creates Reasonable Suspicion.

Here, the court found that the officer’s testimony established the reliability of the database. First, the officer explained the process for inputting license plate information. Second, the officer described how records in the database are kept and stated that he was familiar with these records. Finally, the officer testified that based on his knowledge and experience as a police officer, he knows a suspect vehicle is uninsured when an “unconfirmed” status appears because the computer system will either return an “insurance confirmed,” or “unconfirmed” response. As a result, the court held that the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant.

Read the court’s full opinion in UNITED STATES V. BROCA-MARTINEZ, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 7612 (5th Cir. Tex. Apr. 28, 2017)

“Smith Triple Murder” Crime Spree Defendants Appeal Convictions on Evidentiary Grounds

By | Drug Crimes

Case law Update: United States v. Barnes, et al (5th Circuit Court of Appeals – 2016)

Defendants Martel Barnes, Randale Jones, and Kentorre Hall were each charged with (1) conspiracy to possess illegal drugs, (2) maintaining a drug-involved premises, (3) conspiracy to possess firearms in furtherance of drug crimes, and (4) possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime for their involvement. In 2012, law enforcement grew suspicious of the group when investigating a triple murder where circumstantial evidence linked the Defendants to a network of drug trafficking in Mississippi, based out of a home rented by Hall. After interviewing witnesses and corroborating stories of informants, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics executed a search warrant on the home which netted firearms, digital scales, and plastic baggies. Law enforcement linked the drug trafficking to the triple murder by analyzing shell casings from the murder scene and comparing them with casings found during the search. In addition to the murders and the drug distribution ring, the men were eventually linked to a string of armed robberies.

At trial, the Government called thirty-four witnesses in total. After hearing testimony for over a week, the jury found the Defendants guilty on all counts, and they were each sentenced to life in prison, followed by five years of supervised release. The Defendants appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing insufficient evidence for each charge in the indictment. The Fifth Circuit had to determine whether a reasonable jury would have found that the evidence established the guilt of the Defendant(s) beyond a reasonable doubt. Below, we examine each charge and discuss the Court’s analysis of conclusions reached on appeal.

Charge #1: Conspiracy to Possess Illegal Drugs

Each Defendant was charged with conspiracy to possess illegal drugs, a violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846. Under the law, it is unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, a controlled substance; any person who attempts or conspires to commit any offense [herein] shall be subject to the same penalties as those prescribed for the offense, the commission of which was the object of the attempt or conspiracy.

On appeal to the Fifth Circuit, the Defendants argued that the witnesses used by the Government at trial lacked credibility. The Defendants argued that the witnesses were criminals with their own convictions and that their testimonies should not have been used at trial. Here, the Fifth Circuit stated, “this argument holds no weight given the quantity and consistency of the evidence presented at trial.” Moreover, held the Court, “credibility issues are for the finder of fact and do not undermine the sufficiency of the evidence.” United States v. Morgan, 117 F.3d 849, 854 n.2 (5th Cir. 1997). The Court affirmed the district court’s holding regarding the conviction for this charge.

Charge #2: Maintaining a Drug-Involved Premises

Second, each Defendant was charged with maintaining a drug-involved premises pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 856(a) and 18 U.S.C. § 2. Under this section of the code, it is unlawful to knowingly open, lease, rent, use, or maintain any place, whether permanently or temporarily, for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using any controlled substance; whoever commits an offense…or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces, or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal. “In determining whether a person maintained a drug-involved premises under Section 856, the Court typically considers whether a Defendant (1) has an ownership or leasehold interest in the premises; (2) was in charge of the premises; or (3) exercised supervisory control over the premises.” United States v. Soto-Silva, 129 F.3d 340, 346 (5th Cir. 1997). Surprisingly, the Fifth Circuit declined to resolve this issue, as the Defendants were “subject to criminal liability for aiding and abetting” Hall, who rented the house where the criminal activity had taken place.

To prove up aiding and abetting, the Government had to have established that (1) the elements of the substantive offense occurred and (2) the Defendant(s) associated with the criminal activity, participated, and acted to help it succeed. United States v. Delagarza-Villarreal, 141 F.3d 133, 140 (5th Cir. 1997).

Here, said the Fifth Circuit, the Government sufficiently proved up that Hall rented the home where the criminal activities were taking place, and that the other Defendants helped him in furtherance of the crimes. The Defendants spent hours a day at the home where the drugs were measured and sorted, “we conclude that a reasonable jury could find that [the Defendants] were guilty of the charged offenses.”

The Defendants also appealed that the word “place” in the statute was ambiguous and therefore, should not have been applied to include their cars and the area surrounding their cars, where more incriminating evidence supporting this charge was eventually seized. The Fifth Circuit stated that according to the Oxford Dictionary, “the definition of ‘place’ is not limited to buildings or structures…[although] the term ‘premises’ is commonly defined as a house or building.” The Fifth Circuit held that the district court did not error when instructing the jury that “place” could mean “house” or the “yard area” [where cars are parked] around a house.

Charges #3 and #4: Conspiracy to Possess and Possession of Firearms in Furtherance of Drug Crimes

Third, each Defendant was charged with conspiracy to possess firearms in furtherance of drug crimes and possession of firearms in furtherance of drug crimes, violations of 18 U.S.C. § 924(o) and 2. At trial, the Government presented extensive circumstantial evidence linking all the Defendants with the triple murder. Some of the evidence included Facebook and text messages with incriminating statements. On appeal, the Defendants argued that the social media and text messaging evidence was irrelevant to prove their involvement with the alleged crimes, and that it was to have been considered improper character evidence. The Fifth Circuit held that “the evidence of the Smith Triple Murder was directly relevant to the conspiracy charges because it showed that the [Defendants] were willing to use firearms in furtherance of their drug trafficking activities.”

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the Defendant-Appellants’ convictions.

Probable Cause Affidavit Franks Hearing

Challenging the Probable Cause Affidavit | Franks Hearing Requirements

By | Fraud

Problems with Probable Cause: Law Enforcement Allegedly Used Conflicting Third Party Statements as the basis for a Search Warrant

Probable Cause Affidavit Franks HearingEvidence obtained by a valid search warrant can be used at trial. But what if the search warrant was based on information provided by a third party who later recants the information he provided? Further, what if law enforcement mischaracterized the evidence when presenting it to the magistrate in the application for the warrant? What legal remedy, if any, exists to support defendants who find themselves in this situation? The Fifth Circuit heard United States v. Minor in August, this article summarizes the Court’s surprising holding.

See the full text of the 5th Circuit’s decision in United States v. Minor (USCA 5th Cir. 2016)

US v. Minor – Rogue Bank Employee Hatches Identity Theft Scheme

Anthony Minor and his friend Katrina Thomas, a Fannie Mae employee, hatched a plan to steal the identities of numerous Fannie Mae clients with the intention of using the personal information to obtain entry into checking and savings accounts. Thomas created a list of client names and personal information while at work, and then provided Minor with the information. Minor was successful in using the data to steal money from those individuals’ bank accounts by contacting banks, pretending to be the individual, and transferring funds to Minor’s personal account.

During the time of these crimes, Minor was frequenting a hotel. Eventually, law enforcement began investigating Minor; the lead investigator assigned to the case was Albert Moore. In a warrant affidavit, Moore states that Will Crain, the director of security at the hotel, reported to law enforcement that he had seen Minor with expensive merchandise. That statement was used to establish probable cause for obtaining a search warrant. Law enforcement used the search warrant to search Minor’s dwellings, and the search rendered evidence of the crimes. Minor was arrested on numerous bank fraud charges.

Minor Goes to Trial on Federal Fraud Charges

At trial, a jury found Minor guilty of bank fraud, aiding and abetting bank fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, using or trafficking in an unauthorized access device, aggravated identity theft, and aiding and abetting aggravated identity theft. Minor was sentenced to 192 months’ imprisonment, a sentence that incorporated a six-level enhancement, but was set well below the federal Sentencing Guidelines recommendation at the trial judge’s discretion.

Minor appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the search warrant contained false information and that he is entitled to a Franks Hearing to establish the facts surrounding the statements used to support the finding of probable cause for the search warrant.

Minor Appeals to the Fifth Circuit Arguing Agents Lacked Probable Cause for Search Warrant

Minor appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing:

  1. that the trial court should have held a Franks Hearing to determine whether law enforcement improperly obtained a search warrant for his car,
  2. that even if Minor’s case does not meet the requirement for a Franks Hearing, that an exception be carved out specifically for his case, and
  3. that his sentence should not have included a six-level enhancement (more prison time).

Minor alleged that Crain, the hotel’s security guard, testified at trial that he did not see Minor carrying merchandise and therefore, law enforcement did not have probable cause to secure a search warrant.

Franks Hearing Requirements—A Supreme Court Precedent

In Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154 (1978), the Supreme Court held that

“where the defendant makes a substantial preliminary showing that a false statement knowingly and intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth, was included by the affiant in the warrant affidavit, and if the allegedly false statement is necessary to the finding of probable cause, the Fourth Amendment requires that a hearing be held at the defendant’s request.”… [Further, if the] “allegation of perjury or reckless disregard is established by…a preponderance of the evidence…the search warrant must be voided and the fruits of the search excluded to the same extent as if probable cause was lacking on the face of the affidavit.”

Id. at 155-56.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Bank Fraud Crimes

“U.S.S.G. § 2B1.1 (2014), provides that “if the defendant’s offense involved 250 or more victims, then § 2B1.1(b)(2)(C) requires the court to increase the defendant’s offense level by 6 levels. U.S.S.G. §2.B1.1(b)(2)(C).

The Fifth Circuit Weighs In; Holds that the Affiant’s statements were not “deliberately false or made with reckless disregard for the truth.”

The Fifth Circuit relied heavily on Supreme Court precedent with regard to the evidentiary appeal and deferred to the reasoning of the trial court with regard to sentencing.

As “Minor concedes that Agent Moore did not intentionally insert false information into the affidavit, or act with reckless disregard for the truth…and because Minor failed to make the requisite substantial preliminary showing, [Minor] is not entitled to a Franks hearing.” Secondly, “[Minor] asks us to hold that in a case where a law enforcement affiant is relying upon information….from other[s]…the challenger should not be required to meet the intentional or reckless requirement to proceed a Franks hearing.” Here, “Minor’s argument is meritless under any standard…[and he] has not cited any authority recognizing his proposed exception to Franks…we decline…to create a new exception to well-established Supreme Court precedent.

Further, the Fifth Circuit said, “we agree with the district court that Minor…actively employed the means of identification of over 250 victims in furtherance of their bank fraud scheme…with the object of unlawfully accessing those customers’ bank accounts without their consent.” Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirms the holding and sentence of the trial court.

Warrantless Search Mattress Protective Sweep Texas

Warrantless Search Under a Man’s Mattress Held Constitutional

By | Search & Seizure

United States v. Garcia-Lopez (5th Circuit, 2016)

Warrantless Search Mattress Protective Sweep TexasFACTS: On February 5, 2014, the Wharton County Deputy Sheriff’s Department served a felony arrest warrant on Yonari Garcia at his father’s trailer home. Yonari’s father told law enforcement that Yonari was not home, however, consented to a search of the trailer. Upon entry, Garcia-Lopez, Yonari’s brother, made a beeline for a bedroom, closing and locking the door. Law enforcement followed Garcia-Lopez and demanded that the door be unlocked. Garcia-Lopez opened the door and the police entered, continuing the search for Yonari. Garcia-Lopez asked if he could sit on his bed and eat his dinner while police searched the room. The police obliged the odd request. A minute later, law enforcement discovered two sets of bullet-proof vests in plain sight, prompting a background check. Garcia-Lopez was a convicted felon and having the body armor was a violation for being a felon in possession of body armor, U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). The police arrested Garcia-Lopez after being in the home a total of three minutes. After the arrest, police continued searching the Garcia-Lopez’s room. Concerned Yonari might be sheltered in a hollowed-out mattress, the police lifted the bed up, discovering ammunition and three handguns sandwiched between the mattress and box springs. After a total of seven minutes inside the trailer, the police left with Garcia-Lopez under arrest.

See the 5th Circuit’s full opinion in United States v Garcia Lopez.

Garcia-Lopez Indicted for Federal Firearms Charges

In March 2014, Garcia-Lopez was indicted on six counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of USC §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2). During an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied Garcia-Lopez’s motion to suppress the guns found under the mattress because law enforcement was originally in the trailer for a legitimate purpose and they had a right to search the home pursuant to the valid arrest warrant for Yonari. The court added that upon the valid search of the premises, law enforcement found contraband and arrested Garcia-Lopez. Further the court stated that upon his arrest, law enforcement had the right to make a protective sweep, so long as it did not last an unreasonable amount of time. Additionally, there was testimony that indicated that suspects have been known to hide in hollowed-out mattress to evade arrest. According to the district court, the search for Yonari and seizure of the guns was proper in every way. Garcia-Lopez was sentenced to forty-six years imprisonment and two years of supervised release. Garcia-Lopez appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that law enforcement’s belief that Yonari might have been hiding in the bed was unreasonable, and thus, unconstitutional.

Was Lifting the Mattress an Unconstitutional Search or a Lawful Protective Sweep?

The Court of Appeals must determine whether the act of “lifting up the mattress” and seizing the guns violated Garcia-Lopez’s constitutional rights. In other words, was lifting the mattress an unconstitutional search under the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures?

Under the Fourth Amendment, warrantless searches are pre se unreasonable. Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 474-75 (1971). A protective sweep may be conducted with [a lower threshold of] reasonable suspicion, probable cause is not necessary. Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325-27 (1990). “There must be articulable facts which, taken together with the rational references from those facts, would warrant a reasonably prudent officer in believing that the area to be swept harbors an individual posing danger to those on the arrest scene.” Id. A protective sweep [must be] quick and…limited to the safety of the police. Id. Evidence seen in plain view during a lawful sweep can be seized and admitted into evidence during trial. United States v. Jackson, 596 F. 3d 236, 242 (5th Cir. 2010).

5th Circuit Holds that the Warrantless Search of the Mattress was Reasonable

Here, the Court of Appeals held that the district court’s finding of reasonable suspicion was correct because of the amount of evidence supporting such a claim. First, law enforcement became suspicious because of the standoff over the locked door. Second, Garcia-Lopez’s odd request to sit back down on the bed while the police conducted the search is suspicious in light of the circumstances. Third, the belief that a suspect could be hiding in a hollowed-out mattress is reasonable given police training and data supporting such a claim. Fourth, the search lasted a total of seven minutes—a reasonable amount of time to conduct a protective sweep. In sum, the Court says it was logical under the specific facts of this case to suspect that Yonari might have been hiding in the mattress. The Court affirms the district court’s judgment—the warrantless search under Garcia-Lopez’s mattress was not unconstitutional under the circumstances.

Child Erotica Defense Attorney Fort Worth

Child Erotica is Not Probable Cause for Possession of Child Pornography

By | Computer Crimes

10th Circuit Holds that Possession of Child Erotica Does Not Give Rise to the Likelihood of Possession of Child Pornography

Child Erotica Defense Attorney Fort WorthPaul Edwards was charged with possession of child pornography (which is illegal) after officers executed a search warrant based on his possession of child erotica (which is not illegal). The search of Edwards’s home resulted in the discovery of thousands of images and videos of child pornography. Edwards filed a motion to suppress the images on the grounds that the affidavit failed to prove his possession of child erotica amounted to probable cause to believe that he also possessed child pornography. The court denied this motion and Edwards entered a conditional guilty plea, reserving his right to appeal the denial, and was sentenced to 63 months in jail followed by 7 years of supervised release.

Full Court Opinion: United States v. Edwards (USCA 10th Circuit, 2015)

The Probable Cause Affidavit that Led to the Search and Arrest

Edwards was identified by agents that were investigating a website for individuals suspected of child exploitation as an internet user that had shared 715 images of the same prepubescent girl, approximately 10 years old. In some of the photos the girl was clothed and in others she was “scantily clad.” The government acknowledged that the agents did not observe Edwards posting or viewing child pornography. Instead, the affidavit described the photos as child erotica and only provided evidence that Edwards possessed legal child erotica. The officer explained in the affidavit that those who collect child pornography are likely to collect child erotica but made no distinction that a possessor of child erotica is highly likely to also possess child porn. This opinion was used by the magistrate in issuing the warrant and again by the trial court in denying Edwards’s motion to suppress.

The Legal Significance: Child Erotica vs. Child Pornography

While it is legal to possess child erotica, it is illegal to possess child pornography. Here, child erotica is defined in the affidavit as “materials or items that are sexually arousing to persons having a sexual interest in minors but that are not, in and of themselves, obscene or that do not necessarily depict minors in sexually explicit poses or positions.” The affidavit further explains that child erotica “includes things such as fantasy writings, letters, diaries, books, sexual aids, souvenirs, toys, costumes, drawings, cartoons and non-sexually explicit visual images.

Child pornography is any visual depiction, whether authentic or computer generated, of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct. 18 U.S.C. §2256(8). To cross the line from legal child erotica to prohibited child pornography, there must be nudity that displays the genital area of the child and that display must also be lascivious. United States v. Horn, 187 F.3d 781. A photo is lascivious if it focuses on the genital area of a child and the apparent purpose of the photo is to arouse sexual desire. United States v. Kemmerling, 285 F3d 644.

Participation in Legal Conduct Does Not Prove Participation in Criminal Conduct

In many situations courts are hesitant to presume that defendants are more likely to engage in certain illegal activities based on their participation in a certain legal activity, as they should be. Similarly, here, the appellate court found that there is no sufficient connection between the posting of child erotica, a legal activity, and the possession of child porn that establishes probable cause to believe that child porn will be found in the home of the person who posted child erotica.

While some courts have found that the possession of child erotica is one factor that can be used to support probable cause of the possession of child porn, no court has found that one factor to be probative in making a probable cause determination. Instead, the courts look to the totality of the circumstances surrounding defendant’s said possession of child erotica to prove that such circumstances amount to the high probability that defendant is also in possession of child pornography.

The appellate court found that the affidavit lacked information based on the officer’s experience about the type of materials possessors of child erotica are highly likely to maintain and lacks any evidence to show that Edwards was a collector of child pornography. Further, the court determined that the information in the affidavit failed to provide a “substantial basis” to find probable cause that child porn would be found in Edward’s home.

Ultimately, this case is the perfect example that mere possession of child erotica cannot be used to prove that a defendant has committed the offense of possession of child pornography.

Federal Prosecutor Tips

5 Things I Wish Defense Attorneys Knew in Federal Criminal Cases

By | Criminal Defense

Guest Blog Post: Former Federal Prosecutor Offers Tips for Defense Attorneys in Federal Criminal Cases

Former Assistant United States Attorney and long-time U.S. Marine prosecutor Glen Hines provides some tips regarding Federal criminal cases from his time as an AUSA in Arkansas.  The views contained in this post are his own and not those of the Department of Justice, the United States Marine Corps or any other government organization.

Below are the top five unsolicited practice points for defense attorneys practicing in the Federal justice system:

Number 1 Icon

Read up on the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual.

Although this is non-binding guidance to AUSAs, they rarely deviate from it. Be aware of the Principles of Federal Prosecution, at Section 9-27.000, because you can use these to get your client a better outcome in some cases. This will give you a good idea of DOJ policy on issues like charging decisions, non-criminal alternatives to prosecution, plea agreements and their provisions, and cooperation issues. These policies form the AUSA’s mindset to any federal case. If the AUSA on your case deviates from the USAM to the detriment of your client, ask him or her why they are doing it.

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Get out ahead of the government’s case.

This is easier said than done in practice; unfortunately, by the time most of your clients get around to retaining you, they have likely already been indicted. But in the rare event one hires you beforehand, it’s an opportunity for you to shape the case before it even gets started. Don’t be afraid to proffer your client. If you think he has something to offer the government that might help them get a bigger fish, most offices have a standard use immunity agreement to cover whatever your client tells them during the proffer. Moreover, as stated above, if you can get in touch with the AUSA on your case, you might be able to obtain a non-criminal alternative to prosecution; for instance in financial cases you could offer the government that your client agree to a civil, financial forfeiture and “pretrial diversion” (Section 9-22.000) in lieu of indictment.

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Know the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

They drive everything. For some reason, a lot of defense attorneys avoid federal cases because they are afraid of having to deal with the guidelines, but it really isn’t rocket science. This is very important because almost every case I did as an AUSA, I pulled up the guidelines first to see what the case was going to be worth, the idea being, why should the government spend the resources to indict a case if the punishment was going to be very minimal? Know generally how to calculate the range, know about enhancements and deductions, and especially know that your client gets 3 points off the applicable range for timely pleading and “acceptance of responsibility.” See section 3E1.1.  Your client is going to want to know how much time he is going to have to do if he pleads as opposed to going to trial and getting convicted, so you need to be able to calculate that number. A helpful calculator (not affiliated with any governmental entity) is on the internet HERE. Always check your numbers against what the AUSA comes up with.

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“The squeaky wheel gets the grease”/Return my phone calls.

This goes along with #2 above. The defense attorney who calls or emails me about his case will get their call or email returned. If I know you are paying attention to your client’s case and hearing from you, it’s more likely I will view you as a straight-shooter and try to work with you on a potential deal. If I never hear from you and you never return my calls or emails, I will assume you want to go to trial and I’ll start preparing to do so.

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The AUSA is not going to deal your case out at the last minute.

Do not turn down a plea offer because you think the AUSA is going to knuckle under at the last minute and give you a sweetheart deal as the jury is walking in for voir dire. I know this happens on the state level, but as said before, the AUSA does not have the discretion to fashion some kind of sentence deal; the guidelines drive sentencing. If you wait that long, expect to go to trial. AUSAs typically don’t have the huge caseload state deputy district attorneys do, so they try fewer cases and are only more than willing to roll the case out to the jury when the time comes.

Glen Hines Former Federal ProsecutorGlen. R. Hines (LinkedIn) is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and a reserve Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel and judge advocate. The majority of his 18-year, active-duty and reserve military career has been served as a prosecutor and Military Judge. He is a graduate of George Washington University (LLM-Highest Honors) and the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville (JD). He has written on national security, federal and military criminal law, and gun control issues.  See his past article at Task & Purpose.

Online Comment US v. Pratt

Prosecutor’s Online Comments Did Not Prejudice the Jury

By | Ethics

When should online comments made by prosecutors rise to the level of misconduct, so that a ‘presumption of prejudice’ would likely be granted on appeal?

Online Comment US v. PrattA district court convicted Renee Pratt, a prominent Louisiana politician, of conspiracy to violate the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”). 18 U.S.C. § 1962(d). Pratt’s conviction resulted from a thorough investigation of her long-time friend, Mose Jefferson, a well-known Louisiana community organizer and politician, as well as his family. United States v. Pratt, 728 F.3d 463 (5th Cir. 2013), cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 1328 (2014). The Jefferson family and Pratt were accused of obtaining community-service grants, and using the money for personal gain. Id. Pratt timely appealed, citing new evidence that several prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office (“USAO”), made negative and persuasive online comments in public forums, including a local newspaper’s website, regarding her case around the time of trial. Pratt claims that the jury rendered a guilty verdict because of the disparaging and prejudicial comments.

Read the 5th Circuit’s Full Opinion in United States v. Pratt.

Around the time of Pratt’s filing a motion for a new trial, the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) conducted an investigation to determine whether attorneys working for the DOJ/USAO were making inappropriate statements online about pending cases. Office of Prof. Resp., Dep’t of Justice, Investigation of Allegations of Professional Misconduct Against Former Assistant Attorneys Salvador Perricone and Jan Mann. OPR Report at 2, (2013). The results of the investigation showed that attorneys from the Louisiana division of the USAO and DOJ “anonymously authored dozens of…online comments…posted on nola.com, the website of the widely-read New Orleans Times- Picayune.” Id. Using several pseudonyms, a senior-level prosecutor, “posted his views…of Louisiana politics…refer[ring] to Pratt’s case.” Id. While Pratt’s trial was pending, the prosecutor commented, “If Pratt walks, it’s the judge’s victory…a sad day for justice.” Id. Post-conviction, a second prosecutor, “proclaimed Pratt’s guilt, defended Pratt’s sentence, and characterized Pratt as driven by greed” on nola.com. OPR Report at 42 (reproducing comments posted in Nov. 2011).

A few months later, the district court that convicted Pratt held a limited evidentiary hearing to “develop a clearer record of any [outside] influence the anonymous comments may have had on Pratt’s trial.” Unlike a standard hearing, this ‘limited hearing’ consisted of a questionnaire submitted to two jurors who had previously identified nola.com as their source of news during jury selection. Both jurors reported no influence by the comments on nola.com. Accordingly, the district court denied Pratt’s motion for a new trial, concluding, “[there is] a lack of evidence that…the jury…was tainted by…the [online] comments.” Pratt appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for relief.

The Court of Appeals must determine whether the online comments made by the high-level attorneys rise to the level of prosecutorial misconduct, so that in Pratt’s case, a presumption of prejudice may be granted, relieving Pratt from the district court’s guilty verdict in her RICO case. The Court considered a Rule 33 Motion for New trial, where a court may “vacate a judgment and grant a new trial if the interest of justice so requires” and in the interest of “fairness of the trial.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 33(a); United States v. Turner, 674 F.3d 420, 429 (5th Cir. 2012) (quoting United States v. Severns, 559 F.3d 274, 280 (5th Cir. 2009); United States v. Williams, 613 F.2d 573, 575 (5th Cir. 1980).

A presumption of prejudice may be made in certain extreme cases or pre-trial publicity. Skilling v. United States, 561 U.S. 358, 381 (2010). There is no ground, however, to presume prejudice based on prosecutorial misconduct alone. In affirming a grant of a new trial, reasons for granting a new trial are “novel and extraordinary.” United States v. Bowen, 799 F.3d 336, 339 (5th Cir. 2015). For a new trial to be warranted, the court must normally find that the misconduct in question actually prejudiced the defense.” Id. at 356; United States v. Bowler, 252 F.3d 741, 747 (5th Cir. 2001).

Here, the Court concludeed that the prosecutorial misconduct—the online comments—is “too far removed from the proceedings to support a presumption of prejudice,” as the attorney who made the comment, “did not prosecute or deal with the Pratt trial,” and because, “no one from the trial team posted the comments…while the trial was underway.” Second, the Court states that rulings on Rule 33 Motions are “necessarily deferential to the trial court” in that the facts must be construed in the light most favorable to the lower court’s verdict. United States v. Wall, 389 F.3d 457, 465 (5th Cir. 2004). Lastly, the Court opined that in “certain extreme cases, pretrial publicity…can manifestly taint a criminal prosecution, [giving] rise to a presumption of prejudice.” Skilling v. United States, 561 U.S. 358, 379 (2010). The Court says that the comments made regarding Pratt’s trial were not extreme, “this is not such an extraordinary case…this…concerns a handful of anonymous, speculative postings…that lacked the kind of blatantly prejudicial information…that might poison public opinion and entitle the defendant to a presumption of prejudice.” United States v. McRae, 795 F.3d 471, 481-82 (5th Cir. 2015). Even though prosecutorial misconduct did in fact occur, the Court affirms the district court’s verdict and denies Pratt’s motion for new trial. According to the 5th Circuit, the online comments were far too attenuated to apply to Pratt’s trial and did not affect the guilty verdict.

All attorneys are bound by specific ethical protocols and procedures, promulgated and enforced by each state’s bar association. In Texas, lawyers must abide by the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct and the Texas Rules of Disciplinary Procedure. Texas Prosecutors are held to an even higher standard under the “Special Responsibilities of a Prosecutor” not to make extrajudicial statements that “in the course of representing a client…a reasonable person would [not] expect to be disseminated by means of public communication if the [prosecutor] knows or reasonably should know that it will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicatory proceeding.” Tex. Rules of Disciplinary Procedure §3.09; 3.07(a).