Court Tells Cops They Can't Seize Luggage And Send It Hundreds Of Miles Away In Hopes Of Generating Probable Cause
from the Fourth-Amendment-also-deals-with-seizure dept
There's no universal law enforcement "best practices" for searches and seizures, but simply respecting the Fourth Amendment would seem to be a good base guideline. However, that baseline is rarely used. Far too often, searches and seizures seem to be officers seeing what they can get away with -- and expecting the legal system to assist in applying "good faith" to unconstitutional searches after the fact.
Ethan Moore landed at the Dillingham, Alaska airport, where he was met by two police officers. According to the officers, informants claimed Moore was transporting marijuana. They seized his luggage and took it to the local police station while they sought a search warrant. (via FourthAmendment.com)
This effort failed.
After hearing the warrant application, the magistrate concluded that there was no probable cause for the search, so he refused to issue the search warrant. More specifically, the magistrate concluded that the officers had failed to provide sufficient proof of their informants’ credibility to satisfy the Aguilar-Spinelli test.
When the magistrate issued this ruling, he invited the officers to present more information to corroborate their informants.
The Aguilar-Spinelli test basically states informants -- if used to support probable cause claims -- must be shown to be reliable and credible. The three informants relied on here weren't. Rather than follow up with the informants or simply return Moore's luggage, the officers went with option C.
Instead, the officers kept Moore’s luggage overnight and then, the next morning, they shipped it to the Alaska State Troopers in Anchorage. After the luggage arrived in Anchorage, it was subjected to sniffing by a drug-detection dog. The dog alerted to the luggage, and the troopers then applied for a search warrant, this time in front of an Anchorage judge. The warrant was granted.
Armed with this warrant, issued by another judge in another city after being "pre-searched" by a drug dog, the officers opened the suitcase and found seven ounces of marijuana. Moore challenged the search and the court finds the officers' decision to do something no one recommended violated Moore's Fourth Amendment rights.
We therefore hold that the police violated Moore’s rights under the Fourth Amendment when they continued to hold his luggage after the magistrate denied their application for a search warrant. All evidence derived from the later search of that luggage must be suppressed.
The state did try to save the search with some pretty bad arguments. For one, it argued that because officers told Moore they were going to perform some questionable actions in search of a warrant, the warrant and search should be valid. The court disagrees.
[E]ven though the police may have accurately informed Moore that they were going to ship his luggage to Anchorage, and that he would be deprived of his luggage at least until the next day, the fact that the police communicated this information to Moore could not turn an unconstitutional seizure into a lawful one. In other words, the police could not obtain a license to violate Moore’s Fourth Amendment rights merely by informing Moore that they intended to do so.
In addition, the court informs the state that it cannot do whatever it wants with seized items just because it feels it may eventually reach a point where it will have enough probable cause to obtain a search warrant.
The State is effectively arguing that if the police have probable cause to believe that an article of luggage contains evidence of a crime, the police may seize the luggage, hold it for as long as is reasonably necessary to complete any desired additional investigation or testing, and even ship the luggage hundreds of miles to accomplish this additional investigation or testing — all without seeking a judicial warrant until the additional investigation is done.
We are aware of no legal authority to support this argument.
The seizure of Moore's luggage should have ended when the magistrate denied the warrant. The US Supreme Court has held that people and their belongings cannot be unreasonably detained just so officers can attempt to sniff up some probable cause (in the context of traffic stops and drug dogs). The magistrate -- while noting the severe deficiencies in the hearsay presented as "probable cause" -- gave the officers a few options. Because they chose "none of the above," their drug bust has vanished.