March 6, 2014

United States Supreme Court Rules No Warrant Needed To Enter Home

The Supreme Court recently ruled that police do not always need a warrant to search your property. As long as two occupants disagree about allowing officers to enter, and the resident who refuses access is then arrested, police may enter the residence.

This contradicts previous case law from 2006. Prior to this new decision, when there was a disagreement between two occupants about allowing officers to enter, the refusal by one party would have kept authorities from entering the home, without a search.

The majority of the Justices now say police need not take the time to get a magistrate’s approval before entering a home in such cases. The Majority opinion states, “We therefore hold that an occupant who is absent due to a lawful detention or arrest stands in the same shoes as an occupant who is absent for any other reason.” However, the dissenting Justices warned that the decision would erode protections against warrantless home searches. The court had previously held that such protections were at the “very core” of the 4th Amendment and its ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

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March 4, 2014

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Declines to Apply “Good Faith Exception”

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has issued an opinion declining to apply the “good faith exception” for an individual’s arrest. In March of 2010, a Pennsylvania State Trooper received radio communication that a vehicle was involved in a drug transaction, and then observed that the vehicle had a broken tail light. The Trooper initiated a traffic stop for the vehicle. The Trooper requested identification from the defendant, driver of the vehicle. After processing the defendant’s name through his patrol car computer, the Trooper received a “hit” message advising there was an active warrant. The Trooper placed the defendant under arrest and discovered drugs. Some time later, the Trooper determined that the warrant notification he relied upon when he arrested the defendant was no longer valid and should have been recalled since the warrant was already served about a week earlier. The defendant was still charged with possessing the drugs.

The Supreme Court ultimately held that as a fact, the Trooper had acted in good faith in arresting the defendant on the basis of what the Trooper believed was an active warrant, but the Court reasoned that there is no good faith exception to the exclusionary rule under the Pennsylvania Constitution. The court concluded that the physical evidence, as well as statements obtained later at the police barracks, were fruits of an illegal arrest based on an invalid warrant, and therefore must be suppressed.

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February 11, 2014

US Supreme Court Struggles with Child Pornography Restitution

Justices at the US Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the difficult question of whether a person convicted of downloading and possessing two computer images of child pornography can be forced to pay $3.4 million in restitution to the child-victim depicted in the two illicit images.

The justices are examining how judges are to award restitution payments to victims identified in confiscated images of child pornography. The restitution statute passed by Congress requires judges to order defendants to pay the full amount of the victim’s losses without regard to the proportion of harm they caused.

The case involves a Texas man, Doyle Randall Paroline, who pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography and was later presented with a restitution demand from a single child-victim for $3.4 million. Mr. Paroline was sentenced to two years in prison and 10 years of supervised release. Investigators examined Mr. Paroline’s computer and found 300 images of children engaged in various sexual acts. Two of the 300 photos involved a young girl referred to in court documents by the pseudonym “Amy.” Based on the two photos, Amy’s lawyer submitted a demand for full restitution of $3.4 million.

At issue is whether a person who is convicted of possessing child pornography (rather than producing it or distributing it) can be held responsible for the total amount of restitution sought by the child-victim identified in the illicit images even though the person did not cause all, or even most, of the victim’s injuries. That interpretation of the statute would ensure that child-victims receive restitution payments quickly and efficiently. But forcing someone to pay the full amount for a crime primarily committed by someone else raises basic issues of due process and fairness. The Justices are grappling with the notion that statute is designed for restitution and not fines. A final decision by the Court is expected by June.

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January 9, 2014

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rejects Search of Automobile

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently reviewed a case involving “live-stop” procedures. A police Corporal in Harrisburg, PA initiated a vehicle stop after the defendant was observed entering the flow of traffic without using a turn signal. The vehicle, driven by the defendant, pulled over and came to rest with the passenger side tires close to the curb so that the vehicle was not blocking traffic or causing a safety hazard. The defendant was found to be driving under a suspended license and without the required emissions sticker.

The defendant was placed under arrest and the Corporal initiated the inventory policy of the vehicle because the vehicle was to be towed under a “towing policy” of the police department. The defendant indicated that his friend drove a tow truck and could take possession of the vehicle. The Corporal eventually searched the trunk of the vehicle discovering two guns.

After review, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that the Corporal had no basis to tow the defendant’s vehicle since it was not blocking traffic or creating a safety hazard. Therefore a search of the vehicle for inventory purposes was improper and the evidence of the weapons was to be suppressed.

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December 24, 2013

Pennsylvania seeks to Increase Penalties for Child Pornography Crimes

The Pennsylvania State Senate recently approved a bill to increase the degree of child pornography crimes. The bill was approved in response to the Jerry Sandusky and Catholic clergy molestation scandals that have occurred in Pennsylvania.

Under the new bill; producing, disseminating or viewing child pornography would be considered more serious crimes if the material depicts indecent contact with a child. This would make the production of child pornography as high as a first-degree felony on a second and any subsequent offense. Other related bills pending in the Legislature would increase the punishment for people found guilty of covering up child abuse and expand the list of people required to report a suspicion of child abuse.

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December 10, 2013

Social Media Ban for Paroled Sex-Offenders

A New Jersey court has recently ruled that paroled sex offenders can be barred from social media websites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and other online social networks. Two paroled sex-offenders challenged the restriction saying that the social networks were important ways to get news and find business opportunities.

The three-judge panel ruled that the offenders can be kept off the social networks as a condition of parole. The judges note, that social networks are an important facet of modern life but, there are good reasons to keep the parole restrictions in place, “The provisions are legitimately aimed at restricting such offenders from participating in unwholesome interactive discussion on the Internet with children or strangers who might fall prey to their potential recidivist behavior.”

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October 25, 2013

United States Supreme Court Says GPS Tracking Requires a Warrant

Antoine Jones was being investigated by the FBI and a local police department for narcotics violations. During the course of the investigation, the FBI placed a global positioning device on Jones’s vehicle without a warrant. This device tracked his movements 24 hours a day for about four weeks. The government used the tracking information in the criminal trial against Jones to show his whereabouts and to show how Jones visited the “narcotics stash house” on multiple occasions.

After numerous arguments and appeals, the Supreme Court ultimately held that "the Government's installation of a GPS device on a target's vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle's movements, constitutes a 'search'" under the Fourth Amendment. This police action violated Jones’s reasonable expectation of privacy. This violation precluded the government from introducing the tracking information at trial against Jones.

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October 11, 2013

Pennsylvania Court Rules No Notice Needed For Use of Blood Sample for Criminal Proceedings

During the evening of October 22, 2008, Daniel Roger Smith, consumed approximately eight beers while watching the Philadelphia Phillies defeat the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of the World Series. He finished drinking at 11:00 or 11:30 that night and went to bed. He awoke the next morning and, apparently feeling no ill effects from his drinking the night before, drove himself to work. Around 11:00 a.m., during the course of his work errands, Daniel was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident.

Police arrived on the scene of the accident within a short period of time and requested a blood sample from Daniel to eliminate any possibility that alcohol or controlled substance was involved. The blood sample revealed that Daniel’s blood alcohol contact was above the legal limit and he was charged with criminal offenses relating to DUI. After a long court process, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that the testing for an individuals blood for the presence of drugs or alcohol following a traffic accident is valid even if the police did not inform an individual that the results of the test may be used for criminal or prosecutorial purposes.

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September 25, 2013

No Warrant Needed for Inventory Search of Unresponsive Crash Victim’s Vehicle

Danielle Gatlos was involved in a motor vehicle accident in Pennsylvania. When the police arrived on the scene, she was unconscious and unresponsive. The officers went into Danielle Gatlos’ vehicle and handbag to obtain her identity and to inventory her belongings. During this investigation, the police discovered marijuana. Danielle was eventually charged with possession of marijuana and DUI. Before trial, a motion to suppress the physical evidence was presented to the court where the defense attorney argued that the evidence was obtained illegally and violated the constitutional protections afforded to individuals against illegal search and seizures.

The Court denied the motion to suppress the physical evidence and held that the police may conduct a warrantless inventory search of a vehicle for the purpose of identifying an unresponsive and otherwise unidentifiable crash victim. The court explained that an inventory search must be conducted pursuant to reasonable police procedures, in good faith, and not as a substitute for a warrantless investigatory search. Here, the inventory search for the victim’s identity was conducted pursuant to standard police procedure, in a good faith attempt to identify the victim, who was unconscious and in immediate need of medical assistance. Thus the marijuana that was found in the car was admissible at the trial.

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September 13, 2013

Attorney General Proposes Drug Sentencing Reforms

Attorney General Eric Holder has approached the Justice Department with a new initiative called “Smart On Crime.” Mr. Holder is calling for major changes to the nation’s criminal justice system that would hopefully scale back the use of harsh mandatory sentences for certain drug-related crimes. Mandatory minimum prison sentences were initiated in the 1980's during the government’s war on drugs. The result of these mandatory sentences limited the discretion of judges to impose shorter prison sentences and has led to significant prison overcrowding.

Mr. Holder has claimed that the mandatory minimum prison sentences are “ultimately counterproductive” and is hoping that low-level, non-violent drug offenders will not be charged with offenses that require the mandatory minimum sentences. Moreover, he believes that people convicted of low-level offenses should be diverted to diversion programs that would include drug treatment and community service. When formulating these proposals to the Justice Department, Mr. Holder cited several states, including Pennsylvania, for its efforts in investing in being smart on crime and its diversion programs to help relieve the growing prison population.

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September 10, 2013

Court Restricts Police Searches of Phone Data

Recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered that law enforcement agencies will now have to obtain a search warrant before obtaining tracking information from cell phone providers. The ruling involved a case that began with a string of burglaries in homes in New Jersey. A court ordered the tracing of a cell phone that had been stolen from one of the homes and located a suspect. Further cell phone tracing and data obtained from a cellular phone provider by the police led to the location where the defendant was ultimately found with stolen goods from the burglaries.

This decision has implications for everyone that possesses a cell phone. A national survey focusing on law enforcement practice revealed that cell phone tracking was routine and typically done without any court oversight or public awareness. The Supreme Court of New Jersey reasoned that people who have entered cell phone contracts “can reasonably expect that their person information will remain private.” The Court’s decision is a strong reminder that Federal and State Constitutional standards entitle citizens be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures. As technology evolves, the courts and law enforcement must adapt.

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September 3, 2013

Third Circuit Grants a New Trial in Drug Distribution Case

In Unites States v. Terrell Davis, Police arrested Terrell Davis after finding him in a Jeep with nearly a kilo of cocaine in the backseat. The arrest led to a conviction for possession with intent to distribute. As evidence that Davis recognized the cocaine in the Jeep, the government proved at trial that he had two prior convictions for possessing cocaine. However, the government never proved that the cocaine from his past was similar in appearance, quantity, or form. The matter was appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The Appeals Court granted a new trial reasoning that the prior convictions were inadmissable to prove knowledge or intent for possession with intent to distribute.

The Federal Rules of Evidence and American courts have long excluded evidence of a person’s prior bad acts and prior crimes. A person charged with a crime, may only have their prior bad acts and prior crimes introduced at trial for very specific and limiting purposes. This tradition reflects a fear that the jury will place too much weight on past crimes and prior misdeeds.“[I]t is said to weigh too much with the jury and to so overpersuade them as to prejudice one with a bad general record and deny [the accused] a fair opportunity to defend against a particular charge.” Michelson v. United States, 335 U.S. 469, 476 (1948). The risk is that jurors will focus on evidence of prior acts, believing that someone with a criminal record cannot change and may discount any evidence to the contrary.

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