Idaho Criminal Defense Blog

Idaho Criminal Defense Blog

Information and Insight on Criminal Law and Civil Rights

Exigent circumstances justify warrantless search of apartment

Just how far does the fourth amendment to the United States Constitution go to protect against a warrantless search of an apartment? That question was again considered this week by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in US v. Yoga Almonte-Baeza case in which the petitioner was convicted of drug trafficking crimes and sentenced to 156 months in prison. On appeal, Almonte-Baez claimed that the warrantless search of an apartment violated his right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

Almonte-Baez was inside an apartment that was rented by another man – Jose Medina – who was the subject of an ongoing investigation by DEA. That investigation revealed a plot by two persons thought to be part of a drug-trafficking ring to rob Medina, whose apartment turned out to be a stash house for drugs and money. Investigators decided to act when they found out details of the attempted robbery plan, and located Medina’s car at the apartment complex. Medina was observed caring a trash bag so heavy that it required both hands to lift. He hoisted the trash bag into his car and they followed. The usual “traffic infraction stop” ensued, and an obviously nervous Medina ultimately consented to a search of his car after giving false information to officers. As he exited the car officers observed a large wad of cash sticking out of his pants pocket. In the trash bag they found $370,000 in cash, and there was more cash within the car in a box and other bags. The went back to the apartment building he had just come from, where the landlord identified the second story apartment he rented.

Inside the apartment, Almonte-Baez started running when agents identified themselves through the closed front door. They believed that he was trying to escape out the back door, and broke in through a side door to prevent his escape and / or destruction of drugs. They had no warrant. Inside that apartment they found the appellant trying to take down a barricade to make a hasty exit out the back door, and immediately took him into custody. They also found heroin and drug paraphernalia in plain view, records and notes of heroin sales, scales and packing materials. All of this, of course, without a warrant.

Investigators might have simply waited for a warrant before entering, but they did not. Instead, their actions were argued by the Government as a basis for an exception to the warrant requirement – exigent circumstances.

So – good search or bad search? The Court said that the search was reasonable in view of the circumstances. Investigators had seen Medina leave that building and drive away after hoisting a trash bag of money into his car. They found 20 kilograms of heroin and assorted drug processing tools within the apartment after first knocking on the door and hearing someone running toward a likely escape. Those circumstances amounted to exigent circumstances, justifying an immediate apprehension of the defendant and search of the residence. The test for the “exigent circumstances” exception is whether the Government can identify an objectively reasonable basis for concluding that absent some immediate action, the loss or destruction of evidence is likely. Here, the circumstances included the fact that Medina lied to investigators when he was stopped, and the fact that investigators knew from wiretaps that drug shipments were received weekly by Medina. Those facts led to the conclusion that there were likely drugs in the apartment and the person inside was running away or destroying the evidence. They also noticed the door was sealed shut – perhaps to further hide the presence of illegal drugs.

Here’s the takeaway for criminal practice: probable cause does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It requires proof adequate to ground an objectively reasonable belief that evidence of a crime is likely to be found on the premises to be entered. If the proof rises to that level, and there are exigent circumstances, the exception applies and the search is good.

The Court also noted that the “protective sweep” of the apartment after capturing Almonte-Baez was justified to make sure the location was safe in view of the petitioner’s actions. And it decided the case assuming that the petitioner had standing – that is – a protected interest in the place to be searched. The lower court had not addressed that issue, but it did not need to in view of the facts presented. There are cases that hold a person present at a stash house would not have standing to contest the search, although an overnight guest would. That wrinkle was not addressed.

Search and seizure cases are always challenging for attorneys representing persons accused of crimes. This case, decided May 12, 2017 by the First Circuit is a good example of the levels of complexity to be considered by the courts. A similar decision would almost certainly occur in the Ninth Circuit.

One additional consideration here – the case reminds me of the need to develop the facts underlying any such claim at the district court. The appellate courts generally will not substitute their view of the facts if the lower court’s version is supported by facts contained within the pleadings or presented at the hearing.

Quick Friday Post – United States Attorney General wants tougher sentencing.

Just on my way out the door and saw this one: Attorney General Sessions thinks we need tougher sentencing and has instructed DOJ attorneys to ask for more time for crime. Like we don’t have enough people in federal prison? And tougher sentences mean that folks with federal restitution and fines to pay won’t pay. Here’s my simple reasoning – folks in prison don’t work. If they don’t work, they don’t have money to pay restitution and fines. Too simple? Not if you look at the impact of federal sentences. The Government gets big restitution judgments that make it seem like we are getting tough on crime and making the victim whole, but the reality is different. Prison time is just down time, and it does not make people more willing to follow the law or pay their fines and restitution. Probation and requiring persons convicted of criminal conduct to work and pay their victims back may well be the best solution.

Here’s my take-away: if you are facing federal criminal charges you need to be better prepared to defend your case.

 

Beware the prescription drug DUI – get a lawyer to win your case

 

UnknownToday’s question: “What happens if you are arrested and charged with driving under the influence of drugs? Let’s say prescription drugs. What does the prosecutor have to prove to obtain a conviction?” This question comes to me more frequently today than ever before, probably because more and more people who are taking medications prescribed by their doctor seemingly intersect with police officers who insist that they are operating a motor vehicle while impaired. So here goes – let’s start with the basics.

First, the law is clear, it is illegal to drive or be in physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. A person is “under the influence” pursuant to Idaho Code § 18-8004 if the person’s ability to drive is impaired in some identifiable way by alcohol, drugs or intoxicating substances.

Second, the state can prove a person is “under the influence” by the “totality of the evidence.” The judge will permit admission of all kinds of evidence the state argues proves impairment. This evidence may include failed field sobriety tests, statements made by the driver, officer observations (“his eyes were bloodshot and he looked impaired”), lab results, prior drug use, and actual driving pattern. For example, striking a road sign while driving home from the bar at 0230 is going to be “some evidence” that your driving is impaired – but was it impaired as a result of alcohol, drugs or intoxicating substances? That is the state’s burden, to prove that the drugs caused impairment. And that is a tough burden in many cases.

Third, none of this means that the state must rely on direct evidence (example – lab results showing the presence of 10 times the usual measurement for that prescription drug) to win.  The state can win its case based on circumstantial evidence of the type I described above. But from my experience, the audio and video recordings of the driving pattern and officer interview will provide a good measuring stick for likely conviction or not. In other words – if you look and sound like you are under the influence, a jury is likely to believe you are guilty.

Still, there is hope in your case if your are charged with driving while impaired by a prescription medication. The meds may not be the reason you were driving poorly. Some folks are simply poor drivers, medicated or not. And it is not always easy to convince a jury that a medication they may also take could be the basis for a DUI conviction. So if that is the basis for the impairment, you should consider taking the case to trial.

In the past few months we have seen some of these cases simply dismissed as we got closer to trial and others reduced to reckless driving. If you have been charged with DUI – call a lawyer. Get some help. These cases really do matter as that DUI conviction can result in the loss of your driving privileges, substantial fines and court costs, and time in jail. And the state will always have a lawyer in the courtroom to prosecute the case. You may be wise and knowledgable in many areas of life, but there is no substitute for experience in that battleground.

State Security Manager NOT GUILTY of Theft of $31,000 from Ada County Treasurer’s Office

The two best words for any criminal defense lawyer and any defendant – NOT GUILTY. Heard them again to day in the case of State vs. April Rice. Ms. Rice was charged with grand theft after she received a check from the County that belonged to the estate of another person. Eight months after it was deposited into an estate account she was handling, the County Treasurer concluded the money did not belong to her. They were right about that, but wrong about it being a crime. With no inventory of what the treasurer’s office had given her, there was no way to know how the check ended up in her possession. A jury heard the State’s case and concluded no crime had occurred – after only one hour of deliberation.

That may all sound easy enough, but it was actually pretty complex. There were over 60,000 documents produced in discovery, and two judges heard the preliminary hearings. Instead of trying to put April in prison, prosecutors could have easily gotten the money back, and she would not have had to pay a lawyer to defend her. Still, I am happy that she is free today, as she should be. My take-away? The jury system still works much of the time. But if you are charged with a crime, get the best lawyer you can afford. The state had multiple lawyers, and investigators, and experts and probably spent many times over that $31,000! Now on to the next case.

AG Sessions directs get tough on crime campaign

OK – I get it. If you are the Prez’ and you ran on a scare platform that crime is rampant in the streets and makes it more likely you will be murdered in Chicago than you will find an empty Starbucks in Seattle, you’ve got to get tough on crime! So the Donald’s new AG is not fooling around. By Memo dated March 8, 2017 he directs the 94 United States Attorneys Offices to “partner with federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement to specifically identify the criminals responsible for significant violent crime in their districts” and then use “the substantial tools at their disposal to hold them accountable….” And those federal agencies like the FBI and other law enforcement types of both state and local varieties have lots of “tools” by which to ferret out crime. And AG Sessions reminds prosecutors to target certain federal crimes and be creative, while awaiting an “upcoming memorandum on charging for all criminal cases….”

What this means to criminal defense types is simple – expect more prosecutions and AUSAs asking for stiffer punishment. Expect to have to work harder to sort out the real criminals from the usual suspects – people who make generally bad decisions. And expect that our clients who are teetering on the verge of prosecution may sooner find themselves charged and facing federal trials.

And what if you are under federal investigation? First, I suggest you get the best lawyer you can afford. Somebody you can trust. Second, get started developing your trial or settlement strategy at once. Third, if you are going to tap out, settle soonest before this push for greater prosecutions gains traction, and limits your options.

Until next time…

Recent action – “CPT Pete” goes back to the courts-martial circuit – Wins!

Oh man, has it really been that long since I last posted on this blog? I feel like I need to go to confession – “Forgive me father for I have sinned, it has been eight months since my last blog post….” But enough about that, instead, let’s start with some success – in the Air Force. Last summer I had a client charged with rape in Twin Falls, but he wasn’t guilty and the prosecutor eventually DISMISSED the case and publicly proclaimed his innocence. Not a bad result considering how difficult it is to get anyone to believe a “victim” would never make up such a story. The truth is they sometimes do make it up. So off we go to an Air Force case in which three women claim to have been sexually assaulted by our client. As we prepared to go to trial last September, we discovered that there might have been video recorded evidence on a phone the Government lab had not been able to fully process. That caused a big time out, and reset the case for trial into February. Another forensic lab located the video and audio that PROVED our client was telling the truth – the sexual contact with V1 was in fact consensual. That charge was dismissed, but we still faced trial on two other “victims.” Over the course of a week long trial, V2 testified in a way that made admission of prior sexual acts with other unit members admissible. This contradicted her testimony and made her look dishonest. V3 had prior sexual encounters with our client, and her testimony that this time was not consented was countered by other witness testimony substantiating our client’s claims. Result? Not guilty on all counts.

But more important than results, here’s what I learned:

First – sometimes, you have to be willing to just keep digging into the discovery for some gold nugget that will save your client’s bacon. That video on the cell phone was just the thing to prove our client had told the truth about V1, and it made an impact on the prosecutor and the judge.

Second – I actually like to put my client on the stand in sex cases because no matter what the judge instructs, the failure to testify usually is seen as “proof” of guilt by jurors. They say “if I had been charged, I would have testified….” Of course, there are many reasons for a person to remain silent, but most of the time in cases like this, your client needs to tell the jurors his or her story.

Third – Fear not the courts-martial! Military justice works a bit differently but the people involved – trial counsel and judges – are well trained and experienced. Mostly. In truth, the local JAGs do not always have great experience in the Air Force system because they have so few cases. Instead, they rely on more experienced trial and defense counsel who fly in and try their cases. The judges are well educated, know and understand the law, and are equal in every way to their civilian counterparts.

More later. Phone is ringing and I need to prepare for the next trial – featuring the National Forest Service, an Assistant United States Attorney, and a professional snowmobile instructor who has run afoul of those governmental regulations that seemingly keep Americans off the very lands we all hold as owners.

“Officers threw him to the ground, got on top of him and shot him dead!”

I am packing for the weekend and watching a little TV news this morning, and from that box a witness to a fatal shooting in Louisiana offered this explanation for the dramatic killing of a black man by a police officer there: “Officers threw him to the ground, got on top of him and shot him dead.” So it would seem from the video now readily available online. Then this morning’s newest shooting – it happened again last night, in St. Paul, Minnesota. You can even get a link to the “live stream” and watch an officer kill another black man. This time the officer had stopped the car he was riding in for a broken tail light. His girlfriend says that Philando Castile told officers he had a concealed weapon and a permit to carry. Check out the NY Times article describing how an officer shot Castile while seated in the car, after asking him to retrieve his identification. This victim was not even driving the car!

This is every persons nightmare, but it is every black person’s reality.

It must stop. Prosecutors must get brave. They must prosecute officers who needlessly and unlawfully shoot and kill persons who have done nothing to justify the use of deadly force. Prosecutors must act – if only to show us that all lives matter. These killings may have been racism but it is not just racist cops who have kill civilians “just because.”

Law enforcement officers are entitled to use reasonable force, but not deadly force in every situation. Deadly force is the last choice. It seems to be the first response, too often. Citizens must be able to trust the police to enforce the law, not to take it into their own hands. And there is no excuse for shooting unarmed people who do not pose a risk of serious injury or death to the officer. All lives matter. That’s why officers are called on to protect, serve and lead.

And it is not just urban areas where officers shoot first and lie later.

In rural Idaho, Jack Yantis’s life mattered. It mattered enough that local law enforcement officers should have been better trained and better educated on the law. They should have been better supervised. They should not have killed a man called by the Sheriff to help them. They should never have shot Jack Yantis. They should have known that he was there, with his rifle, to do what he had been asked to do – take down his bull – the same bull that officers had shot and wounded after it had been hit by a car on the highway.

The folks who enforce the law; Idaho’s Attorney General, and the United States Attorney should act. Act. Now.

Eight months later neither office has been willing to let Idaho jurors decide whether officers in Council, Idaho acted within the narrow confines that are required to justify their having killed Jack Yantis. Deadly force must be the last choice, not the first.

And yes, I have skin in the game. I am one of the lawyers representing Jack’s survivors, including his wife Donna Yantis, and his nephew Rowdy Paradis.

Police officers need to get back to being our protectors, our friends, part of our lives. A traffic stop should not result in the death of a passenger asked to produce identification.

The preliminary hearing – to waive or not to waive, that is the question.

The decision whether to waive a preliminary hearing, and give up a review of the probable cause determination, can often be a tough one for clients to make. Every client hopes a win at preliminary hearing means the whole case goes away before it really ever started. Unfortunately, the truth is the State’s burden at a preliminary hearing is so low that this is very rarely ever the case. For this reason , a preliminary hearing is waived in many cases; the likelihood of winning is so low that it is not worth the time, effort, money, and sacrificed bargaining position to go through the process.

In a recent case we had, one of the primary witnesses against our client became unavailable for trial when she moved out of the country. He was charged with attempted strangulation, a very serious felony that could land the client in prison. Now, you may think: Isn’t the fact that a witness has moved a good thing for the defendant at trial? Wont this keep her testimony from being used against the client? Normally you would be right, a witnesses unavailability to appear at trial might prevent their testimony from being presented to a jury. However, at the beginning of this case we went through a preliminary hearing and the witness appeared and testified about the charges. Under the law, because this witness had already testified under oath and the defense had the opportunity to cross-examine the witness, a transcript of the testimony could be read to the jury at trial  if she was unavailable.

Knowing that the witness might be unavailable for trial, our one chance to cross-examine her was at the preliminary hearing. Had we not done so, we would likely have been deemed to waive cross-examination and the jury never would have heard her answer the tough questions. The end result was the reduction of the charge to a misdemeanor battery, because we held that preliminary hearing and cross-examined. On the other hand, if we had waived the preliminary hearing she might have gone away and never testified. This might have caused more problems for the prosecutor, but in our case, the defendant had made statements to the police that would be used against him. We opted to get her testimony in the hope she would not be available to explain further the inconsistencies we could develop at the prelim.

Choosing to have the preliminary hearing can have serious consequences for trial, as can waiving the right. Your decision likely depends on whether you think the case will go to trial, or you are looking for a reasonable settlement. Choose wisely.

Twin Prosecutor – “it is the State’s conclusion Mr. Holland … did not commit the crime of rape…”

After a fully contested prelim by which the State barely had enough evidence to establish probable cause, and after we found witnesses to contest the basic premise of the State’s case against Jack Holland, a weather man for a Twin Falls television station, the State today filed its motion to dismiss. Included within that motion is this proclamation:

“As part of its continuing duty to investigate this case, the State has interviewed additional witnesses who have come forward since the preliminary hearing, and thoroughly reviewed their statements and other evidence as it relates to the testimony presented at preliminary hearing. It is the State’s conclusion based upon a close analysis of all the facts now available about this incident that Mr. Holland did not commit the crime of Rape as defined in I.C. § 18-6101. Accordingly the State moves to dismiss the charge against the Defendant.”

Yahtzee!

And the truth is confirmed – Jack Holland is innocent. That “new evidence” included information from a third party concerning a similar encounter with the complaining person.

That is simply the strongest statement of innocence I have seen from a prosecutor’s office in 35 years of practice. But the cost to Jack remains enormous.

He lost his job and likely his career.

He was jailed and had to pay a bond to gain his release.

He had to hire counsel to defend the case.

And his life was derailed in the worst possible way.

And all that based on the word of a woman who knew exactly what her words might do.

Jack Holland did not commit the crime of Rape, and he should never have been charged.

Adnan Syed Gets A NEW TRIAL – News!

Remember the first year of Serial – the great podcast that highlighted the conviction of Adnan Syed? For murder? Millions listened weekly as the tale unfolded, leaving me wondering if Adnan was in fact guilty. More importantly – was he proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? You can read more about the case and the podcast here, here, and here. In fact, the whole series is likely still up on the internet.

But the news today is that Adnan gets a new trial. More later – but for now – check out the NY Times article.

A retrial. Imagine how that must feel if you are in prison. And innocent.

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