Court Tells Family Services Worker 'I Don't Approve Of Your Lifestyle' Isn't A Valid Warrant Exception
from the seize,-search,-judge... dept
A very interesting (read: wtf) case from Texas [PDF] -- one that resulted in criminal charges of official oppression against a Dept. of Family and Protective Services employee -- posits that there may be yet another warrant exemption: the "I don't approve of your lifestyle and/or choices" exception.
This "exception" has often been used by actual parents when searching rooms/electronic devices of their children, but private searches usually don't violate the Fourth Amendment. Searches using the same moral prerogative, when performed by agents of the state, do.
The case involves a warrantless search of a 15-year-old's cellphone by Natalie Reynolds, a Department supervisor. The Sheriff's Department located the runaway teen (referred to only as "A.K." throughout the decision) and turned her over to Reynolds. Reynolds confiscated A.K.'s personal belongings, including her cellphone, which she then decided to search for a number of stated reasons -- none of which was allowable under state case law, much less the Supreme Court's Riley decision.
The Riley decision is only referenced in a footnote, as the illegal searches were performed in 2012, roughly two years before the Supreme Court arrived at its conclusion. But that didn't prevent the court from finding state precedent that upheld Reynold's conviction.
Reynolds' coworkers provided plenty of testimony against her, rebutting her assertion that her search and seizure of the teen's cellphone was somehow related to finding A.K. somewhere to live.
Kenny Stillwagoner, formerly with the Department, testified that he believed Reynolds, Ross, or both of them, took possession of A.K.’s cell phone without her consent. He also testified that Reynolds remained in possession of the cell phone because she believed it contained contact information for drug dealers. In addition, Edie Diane Fletcher, also formerly with the Department, testified that, when she contacted Reynolds about the situation regarding A.K.’s cell phone, Reynolds explained to her that she could not return the phone to A.K. because she believed A.K.’s cell phone contained contact information relating to drug dealers and that “they” needed to “finish their investigation.”
A.K. testified that she became very upset when Ross and Reynolds refused to return her cell phone and that both Ross and Reynolds looked through her cell phone. Further, A.K. testified that Ross and Reynolds retrieved information from her cell phone relating to Steve Lamb and Michael Watts, and there was no evidence presented that either of these men was considered as a potential placement option for A.K. In fact, A.K. had little, if any, information as to why she was questioned about her relationship to either man.
Reynolds tried to argue that her warrantless search of the cellphone was also somehow related to "exigent circumstances" -- that there was an "emergency regarding A.K.'s physical and emotional wellbeing." The state itself disagreed with Reynold's assertion.
The State maintains that Reynolds, as a representative of the Department, cannot claim that she acted in loco parentis or as A.K.’s de facto parent because she was “not acting as a ‘parent’ when she was searching [A.K.’s] phone. Instead, she was clearly acting as an investigator attempting to build a case for either herself or law enforcement.” The State points to Reynolds’ affidavit, arguing that it “reads like a veteran police detective interrogating a criminal suspect.”
Rather than show her purported concern for A.K.'s wellbeing, Reynolds spent most of her time with A.K. questioning her about drug use, drug paraphernalia, and drug sales. Also, contrary to her stated concerns about A.K. having no place to go, the state points out that a placement facility had already been found at the point Reynolds decided to take A.K.'s phone and search it for "drug evidence."
The court notes that there are a wealth of warrant exceptions available to state agents when performing searches. Reynold's opinion of A.K.'s lifestyle, however, isn't one that's been recognized by any court -- or anyone possessing a modicum of common sense, actually.
Based on precedent and this record, we conclude that A.K. had a reasonable expectation of privacy in her cell phone. Reynolds seems to claim, however, that, because A.K. had been known to use drugs and was allegedly having inappropriate relationships with adult men, that somehow changed A.K.’s expectation of privacy in her phone.
That's not how the Fourth Amendment works. And Reynolds' narrative about the phone's search somehow being related to caring for A.K.'s wellbeing doesn't hold up when compared to the facts.
Based on A.K.’s alleged behavior and lack of any known placement options at the time, Reynolds contends that she had an urgent responsibility to find A.K. a place to reside until the Department took custody of her and that she believed A.K.’s phone contained useful information that could assist her in that endeavor.
Had Reynolds wanted the cell phone for the purpose she claims, she would have had no reason to continue in possession of the phone once a placement facility for A.K. had been located. A.K.’s cell phone was not seized pursuant to an arrest, and there is no evidence of any warrant, court order, or consent to seize or search A.K.’s cell phone. Reynolds’ claim of exigent circumstances is not compelled by the evidence. For these reasons, we find that Reynolds’ actions were not authorized.
The conviction for official oppression is upheld. Oddly, as is pointed out at FourthAmendment.com, this sort of behavior by law enforcement officers usually only results in suppression of evidence, rather than official oppression charges. Lots of wrongful arrests and warrantless searches would seem to fit the language of the statute once the officer's immunity has been stripped.
A public servant acting under color of his office or employment commits an offense if he:
(1) intentionally subjects another to mistreatment or to arrest, detention, search, seizure, dispossession, assessment, or lien that he knows is unlawful…
And yet, this charge is almost never brought, much less successfully prosecuted -- yet another way law enforcement operates at a lower level of culpability than the rest of the government. And far, far lower than what is expected of the citizens they serve.