Monday, November 26, 2012

District court case provides road-map for what not to do under the Fourth Amendment

In Hatfield v. McDaniel, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS (M.D. Ala. October 19, 2012), the court allowed the plaintiff's case alleging violations of section 1983 resulting from two illegal searches to proceed. The defendants were law enforcement officers and state/local entities that were party to the alleged Fourth Amendment violations.

This is the closest case I've ever seen of what not to do under the Fourth Amendment:
1.  Facially invalid searchwarrant - check
2.  Search of computer (pursuant to facially invalid search warrant), which was allowed within 10 days, executed 1 year later - check
3.  Failure to stop a search upon the owner's revocation of consent - check

Hatfield owned a car stereo store which occasionally accepted trade-in merchandise. He was careful, however, not to accept stolen goods. When a car stereo was brought in that he believed was stolen, he refused to accept it, and an officer showed up shortly after to take custody of the stereo and arrest the individual trying to trade it in. At that time, Hatfield asked the officer to take a look at a rifle he had received as a trade-in, because he was unsure if that was stolen, too. It turns out that it was.

The officers decided, based on the stolen merchandise they had found so far, that it would be prudent to go through all of Hatfield's inventory to check for other stolen merchandise. Hatfield agreed. The officers began the search, and a little while later, a drug dog showed up (his name was Hobbs - he was not a party to the action). At that point Hatfield removed consent for the search. The officers told him he could do it the hard way, or the easy way. Hatfield chose the hard way, which involved his arrest for the stolen rifle, and the police obtaining a warrant from a judge to continue to search. However, instead of waiting until the warrant arrived, there was evidence that the search continued at Hatfield's store. Error #1.

At some point during the search, Hatfield's girlfriend told officers there was child pornography on his computer. They drafted a facially invalid warrant, based on only her statement and no other evidence - they did not even include in the warrant a statement regarding her veracity or the basis for her claim. Error #2.

They then executed the facially invalid search warrant for Hatfield's computer, and seized it. The warrant gave the police 10 days to do so. Then, 1 year later, they actually searched the computer and found child pornography. (In my opinion, Error #3 - the court held otherwise).

Prior to trial, Hatfield moved to suppress all of the evidence obtained after he revoked consent, and the court granted the motion. This included the seizure of the computer. So, all charges were dropped. Hatfield then sued the police, the city, and individual officers for Section 1983 violations related to the search. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing qualified immunity applied. However, the court disagreed.

As to the search after consent was revoked, the court cited Arizona v. Hicks as controlling, and stated the following:

The controlling precedent, then, shows that an officer moving a box in Powerhouse Audio, even if only a few inches, and then inspecting it constituted a search (even if that search revealed nothing of great value). Accordingly, on summary judgment, Lieutenant McDaniel and Officer Furlong, who allegedly participated in that warrantless search, are not entitled to invoke the defense of qualified immunity as a shield to Mr. Hatfield's Fourth Amendment claim against them. (emphasis added)
The court then went on to analyze the search/seizure of the computer. Hatfield argued that the search warrant had not been executed within the defined term of 10 days, because the computer wasn't actually searched within that period. The court disagreed (which I think, personally, was erroneous). The court held that execution of the warrant occurred within 10 days because the seizure occured within 10 days. The court reached that conclusion as follows:
While it is undisputed that Sergeant Graves did not search the computer until nearly a year after the warrant was issued, it does not necessarily follow that the warrant was not executed within the ten-day limit. Although the term "execute" is undefined in § 15-5-12, usage of the term suggests a search warrant is executed when the described property is physically seized and taken into police custody. In the context of electronically stored information, that would mean the warrant is executed when the computer is seized, not when the files are accessed. 
With respect to the warrant to search the computer, the court held that it lacked even "a hint" of probable cause and was therefore facially invalid. The court explained:
. . . in light of controlling precedent, the affidavit fails to establish even probable cause to believe there would be pictures of children, pornographic or otherwise, on Mr. Hatfield's computer. The only fact supporting such a conclusion is the statement of an unidentified woman at the scene, because the affidavit did not reveal Ms. Neal's identity but only referred to her as "a person that was at the store." . . . It is well settled law that a statement from an anonymous source may establish probable cause for a search warrant, but only so long as "given all the circumstances set forth in the affidavit . . . , including the 'veracity' and 'basis of knowledge' of persons supplying hearsay information, there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place." Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 238, 103 S. Ct. 2317, 76 L. Ed. 2d 527 (1983). But here the only fact tending to establish probable cause is the anonymous statement, and there is absolutely nothing in the affidavit supporting the veracity or basis of knowledge of the woman who made it. . . .The statement here lacks even a conclusory assurance of reliability and credibility, so it could not have provided probable cause for a search warrant.

Moreover, the warrant was "so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence unreasonable." The court rejected a last ditch argument that the officer's conduct was based on the collective knowledge of law enforcement:
Even assuming Sergeant Graves had access to the collective knowledge of law enforcement, Mr. Hatfield's evidence shows his computer was searched pursuant to a facially void warrant. That conduct, if established at trial, constitutes a violation of clearly established law, and Sergeant Graves is therefore not entitled to invoke the defense of qualified immunity.
Total fail - check.


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