Suppose an officer is investigating a report of drug sales at a home. The officer sends an informant in to make a controlled buy from the suspected dealer. The informant comes out of the house with drugs and a report that the dealer has a large additional quantity of illicit substances remaining in the house. The officer decides that it would be a good time to bust the dealer, so the officer approaches the home, knocks on the door, and the dealer answers. The officer explains the situation and says, “I’m asking for consent to search your house. If you don’t consent, I’ll go apply for a search warrant because I think I have probable cause. So, can I search?” The dealer says yes, but later argues that his consent was not voluntary and that he merely acquiesced given the threat of the warrant. What’s the law?
I was at the magistrates’ fall conference last week when a magistrate asked me whether an occupant of a dwelling could properly be charged with resisting, delaying, or obstructing a public officer (“RDO”) for declining to unlock and open the door for an officer executing a search warrant. At first I thought so, but later became less sure. So I decided to look into it and write about it here.
The court of appeals decided State v. Shelton, ___ N.C. App. ___ (2019) yesterday, determining that the evidence of the defendant’s impairment was sufficient when he took impairing drugs hours before crashing his vehicle into a pedestrian after his brakes failed. Two aspects of the case are of particular interest: (1) the court’s evaluation of the sufficiency of the evidence in a case where no one opined that the defendant was impaired; and (2) how the State obtained evidence that drugs remained in the defendant’s system in the first place.
When law enforcement officers execute a search warrant authorizing the search of a private residence, they may detain, while the search is carried out, any occupant they discover on the premises. Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692 (1981). Officers do not need individualized suspicion that such a person is engaged in criminal activity justify his or her detention. The person’s mere presence on the premises subject to the search is sufficient to justify the seizure under this categorical rule. Muehler v. Mena, 544 U.S. 93 (2005).
If a person leaves the immediate vicinity of the premises just before officers execute the warrant, the person may not be detained based on the search warrant alone. Instead, any such detention must be supported by reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. Bailey v. United States, 568 U.S. 186 (2013).
But what about a person who approaches a house while a warrant is being executed? Is that person an occupant who may be detained without particularized suspicion? The North Carolina Supreme Court recently considered that question in State v. Wilson, ___ N.C. ___, 821 S.E.2d 811 (2018).
Most search warrants are for homes or offices. Some are for vehicles. Less often, a search warrant is for a person. See generally G.S. 15A-241 (defining a search warrant as an order authorizing the search of “designated premises, vehicles, or persons”). When a search warrant authorizes the search of a person, how intensive may the search be? Specifically, may the executing officer conduct a strip search?
In Carpenter v. United States, __ U.S. __, __ S.Ct. __, 2018 WL 3073916 (June 22, 2018), the Supreme Court ruled that when the government obtains long-term, historical cell site location information (CSLI) about a person, it conducts a Fourth Amendment search and so “the Government must generally obtain a warrant supported by probable cause before acquiring such records.” I previously blogged about Carpenter here.
That post referenced the possibility of using a court order supported by probable cause in lieu of a search warrant. The idea behind that suggestion was that some of the statutory execution procedures associated with search warrants are an awkward fit for this type of order. For example, G.S. 15A-252 requires that an officer executing a warrant must “read the warrant and give a copy of the warrant application . . . to the person to be searched, or the person in apparent control of the premises . . . to be searched.” In a case involving CSLI, is the officer supposed to read the warrant to Verizon? Or to the suspect, even though he or she will not be present at the search? But since I wrote my prior post, I’ve been asked several times whether using a court order based on probable cause in place of a search warrant would really be permissible. This post attempts to answer that question.
Suppose that law enforcement becomes aware of criminal activity taking place through a website, like the distribution of child pornography or the sale of illegal drugs. Can officers use computer hacking techniques and malware to identify users who accessed the website? Would the officers need a search warrant to do that? What kind of a search warrant? This post tackles those questions.
Last week, the Court of Appeals of North Carolina decided State v. Frederick, a case about whether a controlled purchase of drugs provided probable cause to issue a search warrant. Before you say “the answer is yes, that fact pattern happens all the time,” be aware that Frederick presents a wrinkle. The wrinkle is that the controlled buy was conducted not by a confidential informant, but by an unknown “middleman” who the informant drove to the suspect’s home. Does the injection of an intermediary undermine probable cause? Read on to find out!
Last week, the FBI executed a search warrant at the office of Michael Cohen, a lawyer who has worked for President Trump. The Washington Post reports that Cohen is being “investigated for possible bank and wire fraud,” perhaps in connection with “buy[ing] the silence of people who . . . could have damaged Trump’s candidacy in 2016.” The New York Times story on the matter is here. President Trump and others have suggested that the execution of the warrant was inappropriate because it infringes on the attorney-client privilege. Without getting into the politics, what do we know about the law?
If a law enforcement officer obtains a search warrant for a suspect’s cell phone, may the officer use the phone to access cloud storage to which it is linked? For example, may the officer click on the Dropbox icon on the phone’s home screen and see what’s there?