Articles Posted in Search and Seizure

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Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued an opinion that may have broad implications for Arizona criminal defendants. The case involved a defendant who was charged with engaging in sexual conduct with a minor after police saw inappropriate text messages on his cellular phone. The case required the court to decide whether police officers had the legal authority to search the defendant’s cell phone after he was arrested for violating his probation.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was placed on probation for a felony offense in 2014. In December of that year, a woman contacted the police explaining her concern that the defendant was engaging in an inappropriate relationship with her 13-year-old daughter. A few weeks later, police arrested the defendant for violating several terms of his probation.

After the defendant was arrested, a probation officer went through the defendant’s cell phone on the way to the police station. The officer saw several texts between the defendant and the 13-year-old girl. Police obtained a search warrant and discovered incriminating text messages and pictures on the defendant’s phone.

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Earlier this year, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in an Arizona gun possession case where the defendant was arrested for shoplifting and, upon a search of his backpack, police discovered a firearm. The case presents an interesting and informative discussion regarding when police have probable cause to determine that someone has committed the crime of shoplifting.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant entered a store wearing a backpack. He placed the backpack into a shopping cart and began walking around the store. The store’s video surveillance system shows the defendant selecting a variety of items and putting them into his cart. He also places a number of those items back onto the shelf. At some point, the defendant took a pair of sunglasses off the rack, removed the tag, and placed them atop his head.

The video also showed the defendant select an energy drink and a package of condoms and place them atop his backpack, which was still lying inside the cart. At some point, the defendant walks behind some displays out of frame of the surveillance camera. When he gets back in the frame, the energy drink and box of condoms are no longer visible. The store security guard, who believed that the defendant placed the items in his backpack, called the police. The defendant was stopped at the point-of-sale, before he had paid for the items or left the store. Police arrested the defendant for shoplifting and searched his backpack, where they found an energy drink, a box of condoms, narcotics, and a gun.

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As this blog has discussed on numerous occasions, police officers must generally have a warrant to conduct a search. However, there are some exceptions to the warrant requirement allowing police officers to conduct a search without a warrant. One exception to the warrant requirement deserves more attention than it gets is the inventory-search exception.

In certain situations, police officers are required to conduct an inventory search of a motorist’s vehicle. Most often this is when the vehicle is going to be towed; however, an inventory search is also required when a motorist asks officers to leave their vehicle locked and legally parked. The stated rationale behind requiring officers conduct an inventory search is to ensure that the motorist’s belongings are properly logged before separating the owner from their vehicle. This way, police protect themselves from accusations that property went missing after they seized a car.

Practically speaking, an inventory search may occur anytime someone is pulled over by police and then arrested. This may be due to an Arizona DUI charge, an outstanding warrant, or some other reason that may have nothing to do with the vehicle. However, when police arrest a driver for whatever reason, the police must determine what to do with the vehicle. If there is no other responsible adult in the car, the vehicle will often be towed. In some cases, police may allow a motorist to leave the vehicle in a legal parking spot.

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