Articles Posted in Search & Seizure

Today marks the 21st anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case of Ohio v. Robinette[1]. Ohio v. Robinette[2] stands for the simple proposition that the 4th amendment does not require police officers to inform drivers in a traffic stop that they are free to go before asking questions unrelated to the purpose of the traffic stop.

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The Case[3]

The case behind Ohio v. Robinette is relatively mundane. On a stretch of I70 near Dayton Ohio, Robert D. Robinette was pulled over for a traffic stop on August 3, 1993. Mr. Robinette was issued a warning for speeding. The officer then asked “One more question before you get gone: Are you carrying any illegal contraband in your car? Any Weapons of any kind, drugs, anything like that?”. Mr. Robertte responded “no”. The officer then asked if he could search the car, which Mr. Robinette consented to. The officer subsequently found a small amount of marijuana, and a single pill of ecstasy. Mr. Robinette was arrested and charged for possession of controlled substance.

The phrase “Stop and Frisk” has become a common feature of today’s political debate. The practice is often brought up in discussions of police tactics, court cases, and criminal justice. However, the average person has little awareness of the jurisprudence surrounding the practice. Unfortunately, people must be aware of what the practice actually is to properly safe guard their constitutional rights against abusive and unconstitutional police action.

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What is “Stop and Frisk”?

The phrase “Stop and Frisk” is a shortened way of describing two distinct government actions of a Terry stop, and a Terry frisk both of which arose out of the 1968 case of Terry v Ohio[1]. Terry v Ohio has proven to be one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in terms of the practical impact on the fourth amendment[2].  Terry outlined a new way of interpreting the meaning of the fourth amendment’s reasonableness and probable cause requirements in the context of a search and seizure.

iStock_000000350401XSmall.jpgThe government intercepts the phone calls of suspect criminals through the use of a wiretap. Wiretaps are search warrants that allow a law enforcement agency to eavesdrop on phone calls or internet communications (E.g. cell, land line, Skype calls). Law enforcement agencies can only eavesdrop after they obtain a court order from a judge authorizing them to listen in on certain conversations. In order to obtain a court order, the officer must file an application with the court requesting authorization from the court to conduct a wiretap. The application is an essential part of the process and is subject to strict compliance with 18 U.S.C.A. § 2518.

The first requirement is that the investigative or law enforcement officer making the application be identified along with the officer who authorized the application. This requirement is important for a couple of reasons. First, there are strict disclosure laws that prohibit liberal sharing of wiretaps. Officers cannot freely discuss wiretaps with whomever they want, even if they are talking to other officers. The disclosure must be permitted by statute. Second, it identifies the law enforcement agency that is conducting the wiretap. Particular agencies can conduct wiretaps for certain reasons. Certain agencies investigate certain crimes; not all crimes are subject to wiretap surveillance either. A law enforcement agency must be investigating a crime that is enumerated under 18 U.S.C.A. § 2703, and the crime must be one that the agency investigates.

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Fotolia_69031331_Subscription_Monthly_M.jpgEvery American citizen has a reasonable expectation of privacy. This Constitutional protection applies to many aspects of modern life. It extends over things such as a person’s house, car, and telephone. However, the government can get past this shield of privacy. Law enforcement and the judicial branch work hand in hand to acquire warrants to get past a person’s right of privacy. If the government believes a person is committing criminal behavior, then it will try to stop whatever that person is doing by piercing his privacy. In this regard, one of the government’s most powerful tools is wiretapping.

A wiretap is a government interception of electronic communications. Typically speaking, a wiretap catches phone calls, but it can be extended now to get other modes of real-time communications made over the internet, such as Skype calls. Different law enforcement agencies conduct wiretaps for different reasons. For example, the DEA will conduct a wiretap for the purpose of preventing drug trafficking.

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CYMERA_20130829_142314.jpgAn investigation by Reuters revealed that a secretive unit of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is using information gathered by Intelligence Agencies to facilitate criminal investigations of US residents. The information gathered by intelligence agencies, including the NSA, CIA, and Department of Homeland Security, are supposed to be used for national security and counter-terrorism purposes. Instead, the DEA unit is using intelligence information to go after individuals who are not connected to terrorism. This DEA unit, named the Special Operations Division (SOD) was created in 1994 to target Latin American drug cartels, but since then has warped into a domestic spying operation utilizing unconstitutional powers and procedures.

Examples of the unconstitutional procedures used by SOD include “parallel construction.” The practice of “parallel construction” was exposed by documents reviewed by Reuters. “Parallel construction” is where law enforcement officers, once they begin an investigation based on information from SOD, reconstruct the investigative trail to cover up the information’s origins, and thus deceive the defendant or the defendant’s defense attorney, along with prosecutors and judges involved in the criminal case. The documents also reveal that federal agents and local police are specifically instructed to “omit the SOD’s involvement from investigative reports, affidavits, discussions with prosecutors and courtroom testimony.” Experts, including Harvard law professor and former federal judge Nancy Gertner, believe that this practice violates a defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial. If the defendant or the defendant’s defense attorney are not aware of how the investigation began, they cannot know how best to explore potential sources of exculpatory evidence – information that may reveal entrapment, mistakes or biased witnesses. Speaking to Reuters, former federal prosecutor Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. criticized SOD’s powers, saying “you can’t game the system, you can’t create this subterfuge. These are drug crimes, not national security cases.”

US law enforcement has imprisoned millions of people on drug-war convictions over the last 20 years. Due to their authorized yet unconstitutional deception caused by “parallel construction,” the number of those drug cases which resulted from evidence collected by spy agencies will never be known. The Reuters article, which broke this story, quotes DEA officials as saying that the DEA has utilized the “parallel construction” procedure “virtually every day since the 1990s.” The amount of phone data the DEA has collected now surpasses the amount of data collected by the National Security Agency (NSA).