Articles Posted in Search and Seizure

In a recent case coming out of a Virginia court, the Commonwealth attempted to argue that the defendant’s motion to suppress incriminating evidence should have been denied. Originally, two officers pulled the defendant over in his vehicle and searched the car after getting a glimpse of an open container as well as a bit of marijuana inside. The defendant argued the officers’ search was unconstitutional, and the lower court agreed with him. When the Commonwealth appealed, the higher court affirmed the lower court’s decision and concluded that the officers infringed on the defendant’s right to privacy.

Facts of the Case

According to the opinion, two officers stopped the defendant one evening after they noticed his car traveling across lanes without any turn signal. During the traffic stop, the officers noticed an open container of liquor in the passenger seat. The container appeared as if was partially empty, even though the bottle cap was still screwed on.

The officers asked the defendant’s passenger to produce her identification. When she reached for her purse and wallet, the officers noticed a green, leafy substance inside of her wallet that they suspected was marijuana. The passenger confirmed that she had purchased the substance and that it was indeed marijuana; however, the marijuana was legal and the officers had no reason to suspect there were other drugs inside the vehicle.

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Tobacco laws and taxes vary by state, and as a result, most states require cigarettes and other tobacco products to bear a state tax stamp that proves the appropriate taxes have been paid on the product before it can be sold legally in the state. Because prices and taxes can vary so much by state, smugglers can buy cigarettes where they are cheaper and traffic them to sell in a state where they are more expensive for a large profit; however, such activity is a felony under Virginia law. The Virginia Court of Appeals recently affirmed the conviction of a man on charges that he smuggled 4670 packs of unstamped cigarettes discovered during a routine traffic stop.

In the recently decided case, the defendant was pulled over by a Virginia State Police officer on suspicion of having illegally tinted windows. After the stop, police determined that neither the driver nor passenger of the vehicle defendant was traveling in had a valid driver’s license. According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the arresting officer noticed what appeared to be drug residue in the defendant’s vehicle and called a canine unit to assist with a search. The canine unit flagged the vehicle for possible drug material, which led the officer to perform a search. Although the search of the vehicle did not uncover any illegal drug material, nearly 10,000 illegal cigarettes were found, resulting in the arrest of the defendant on smuggling charges.

Before trial, the defendant attempted to have the evidence against him suppressed, claiming that the traffic stop was completed by the time the canine unit arrived. He also claimed that because no illegal drugs were found by the canine search, the signal and search were not appropriate. The trial court rejected the defendant’s arguments, finding that the arrival of the canine unit was part of the traffic stop and a reasonable result of the officer noticing what appeared to be drug material in the vehicle. Furthermore, the prosecution noted that because there were no licensed drivers to remove the defendant’s vehicle from the side of the road, the cigarettes would have been found even without the canine unit, as the officers would inventory the vehicle after issuing the defendant citations for driving without a license and illegal window tint.

A defendant recently appealed his Virginia conviction for possession of marijuana and various firearm offenses. The accused filed multiple motions to suppress, arguing that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the residence. On appeal, the court reviewed the evidence the defendant presented at his suppression hearing.

According to the record, police officers discovered the defendant’s location and attempted to serve outstanding arrest warrants. The home belonged to the mother of the defendant’s minor daughter; the defendant did not own or rent the home. When the defendant did not open the door for law enforcement, the officers entered the residence. The officers did not find the accused, but after detecting the smell of marijuana, they searched the residence and found him hiding near a shed.

The defendant argued that because he did not live at the home, the officers could not “enter and search the home of a third party” under a warrant for the defendant. The Commonwealth argued that they believed the accused lived at the home with the mother of his child. In the alternative, the Commonwealth argued that the defendant could not assert the “vicarious Fourth Amendment” rights of a third party.

Recently, the state supreme court issued an opinion in a case involving a man who allegedly fired a gun while celebrating the 4th of July. The case required the court to determine if the defendant’s statements to a detective were taken in violation of his constitutional rights. Ultimately, the court dodged the question at issue, finding that even if the lower court’s ruling was incorrect, any error stemming from the decision was harmless.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, police received a call reporting gunshots on the 4th of July. Upon responding to the scene, officers spoke with two witnesses. One of the witnesses provided the officers with time-stamped video surveillance footage showing a man carrying a small black object in his hand.

Based on the footage, officers arrested the defendant and took him down to the station for questioning. While there, the defendant asked a detective, “Hey, can you call my wife to tell her to call my lawyer for me?” The detective indicated he would call the defendant’s wife. However, before he did, another detective came into the room and read the defendant his Miranda warnings.

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The United States Supreme Court recently decided a case that may have a profound impact on many Virginia criminal cases. Although the case is civil in nature, it impacts state and federal search and seizure law.

The case arose following a 2015 altercation between a woman and her husband. The wife was concerned for her husband’s safety after he made disturbing remarks during an argument. In response, she called the police, and they offered to escort him to a local hospital for evaluation. The husband agreed on the condition that the police would not confiscate his handguns. The police agreed but then confiscated the handguns. The man filed a civil lawsuit against the police department after they failed to return the handguns.

A federal appeals court upheld the handgun seizure under the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment. The appeals court reasoned that law enforcement officers are “masters of all emergencies” and, as such, they need some “elbow room” to engage determine the appropriate action in these situations. Following that decision, the man petitioned the Supreme Court to review the matter. The Supreme Court was tasked with answering whether the “community caretaking” exception extends to police officer’s entry into a private citizen’s home.

Under the Fourth Amendment, individuals have the right “to be secure in their houses…against unreasonable searches and seizures.” As the doctrine currently stands, inquiries involving whether a search is constitutional requires the court to look at the “totality of the circumstances.” This vague language significantly impacts those charged with Virginia criminal offenses. Most jurisprudence scholars agree that this inquiry leaves courts with vast and unpredictable discretion in determining the rights of one accused of a crime. This inquiry is most relevant when one accused of a Virginia crime argues that police engaged in an unlawful search of their car or home.

The Supreme Court ruling in Cady v. Dombrowski held that law enforcement may search a vehicle without obtaining a warrant in some situations. This exception applies under the “community caretaking” function, and the ruling was explicit that the exception only extends to motor vehicles and not people’s homes. However, officers in some jurisdictions improperly invoke the community caretaking exception to justify warrantless entries into homes. As a result of the overreaching, the Supreme Court is now tasked with clarifying the original meaning of the right to “be secure” and address the reach of the community caretaking exception.

In Caniglia v. Strom, a couple was arguing in their home when the husband picked up his unloaded handgun and stated to his wife, “why don’t you just shoot me and put me out of my misery.” The following day, after spending the night at a motel, the woman contacted the police and asked them to escort her home. The husband agreed to a psychiatric evaluation after the police assured him they would not confiscate his handguns. After the man was admitted to a psychiatric facility, the police entered his home and seized his handguns. The officers returned the gun after the man sued; however, they argued that the community caretaking exception permitted their seizure.

The Supreme Court of the United States recently issued an opinion in Torres v. Madrid, finding that the “application of physical force to the body of a person with the intent to restrain is a seizure even if the person does not submit and is not subdued.” The ruling will likely have a significant impact on Virginia criminal appeals involving Fourth Amendment violations. The case arose when state police officers approached a vehicle that was in a parking spot with its engine on. When the officers attempted to speak to the driver, the driver sped away-believing the officers to be carjackers. In response, the officers fired their weapons, striking the victim twice. The woman switched vehicles and drove to a hospital. The woman was arrested the following day, and she pleaded no contest to three criminal offenses.

The woman filed a civil rights lawsuit against the officers, arguing that the shooting was an unlawful seizure and a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. The lower court concluded that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. The court reasoned that the officers did not “seize” Torres when the shooting occurred, and without the requisite “seizure,” a Fourth Amendment violation could not exist.

Under the Fourth Amendment, the constitution grants individuals the right to “be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Supreme Court explained that historically seizure inquiries involve the common law rules regarding arrest-which is the seizure of a person. Further, the court opined that physical force to the body of a person with the intent to restrain is an attempted arrest, even if the person does not yield.

Last month, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a Virginia drug case involving a defendant’s motion to suppress drugs that were recovered by police under the driver’s seat of a car he occupied. The defendant claimed that the officers’ search of the car violated his constitutional rights. However, the court disagreed, affirming his conviction.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, officers received a call for a “disorderly situation” involving two males and one female. The caller told the 911 operator that one of the people had a gun.

When officers arrived on the scene, they saw two vehicles, parked facing one another. Officers parked on the street, and walked towards the vehicle. As they approached the white car, they saw the defendant in the driver’s seat. When he looked up, he immediately lunged towards the floorboard for a few seconds before getting out of the vehicle.

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Recently a state appellate court issued a decision in a defendant’s appeal regarding statements he made to police prior to his arrest in a Virginia assault case. The case arose when police questioned the defendant about his involvement in a shooting while he was receiving treatment for a gunshot wound at a hospital. Hospital staff contacted police after admitting the man for a gunshot wound. Initially, detectives were unsure whether the defendant was a victim or a perpetrator. There were four detectives and a security guard present while two detectives questioned the defendant about his involvement. During questioning, the defendant’s family member arrived and remained in the room.

Additionally, hospital staff continued to provide medical treatment and collect identification and insurance information from the defendant. Following the questioning, the detective went to another hospital to interview two shooting victims who were believed to be involved in the incident. At that point, they discovered that the defendant was the perpetrator. After the defendant was discharged from the hospital, detectives escorted him to the police department, advised him of his Miranda rights, and arrested him. On appeal, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the statements he made to the detectives at the hospital. He argued that his statements were made in the absence of a Miranda warning.

Under Virginia law, police must advise anyone accused in a criminal case of their Miranda rights before conducting a police interrogation. However, Miranda warnings are unnecessary when the interviewee’s freedom has not been restricted in a way that amounts to being “in custody.” There are various factors that courts use to determine whether a suspect was in custody. These factors include, how the person was summoned to the police, the neutrality of the surroundings, the number of officers present, the degree of physical restraint, the duration and character of the interrogation, and the extent to which the interviewee believed the police found them culpable.

Recently, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Virginia drug crime case discussing whether the arresting officer legally stopped the defendant’s vehicle. Ultimately, the court concluded that the stop was illegal, and ordered the suppression of all evidence recovered as a result. The case illustrates when an officer’s mistake can result in the suppression of evidence.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was driving in the right-hand lane on Route 360. As he approached an intersection, the defendant changed lanes into the center lane. In doing so, he crossed a single, solid-white line indicating the beginning of the intersection. There were two other cars on the road at the time, but neither was directly behind the defendant.

A police officer was traveling about 100 feet behind the defendant, when he observed the defendant’s lane change. Believing that the Virginia law prohibits a driver from crossing a solid-white line when changing lanes, the officer pulled the defendant over. The officer recovered drugs as a result of the traffic stop.

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