Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Laptop, Involuntary Statements and Inevitable Discovery

After he was convicted of “Soliciting a Child by a Computer and Attempted Indecent Liberties with a Child,"
-->both in violation of North Carolina law, Richard Brandon Wells appealed.  State v. Wells, __ S.E.2d __, 2013 WL 427105 (North Carolina Court of Appeals 2013).

According to this opinion, the case began when warrants were issued for

[Wells’] arrest . . . on 11 March 2010 for communications and acts with an online profile believed by [him] to be associated with a child of less than 16 years of age. [Wells’] correspondence with the online profile occurred between the dates of 4 May 2009 and 5 March 2010. In addition to the arrest warrants, a search warrant was issued authorizing the seizure of computers from [his] house at 554 Howard Tant Road.

The same day the warrants were issued, Guilford County detectives traveled to Raleigh to arrest [Wells] and execute the search warrant. Detectives arrived at [his] house to find that [he] was not present. Furthermore, execution of the search warrant yielded no evidence.

Thereafter, the police contacted [Wells’] place of employment, the Raleigh Fire Department, Spring Forest Road Station, in order to locate [him]. [Wells], who was at the station, was notified that police were going to arrest him. Opting to avoid arrest at the fire station, a senior fire official drove [Wells] to the Raleigh police substation on Litchford Road, at which point [he] was taken into custody.

After being taken into custody, [Wells] was read his Miranda rights. [He] initially indicated that he was unsure whether he wanted an attorney. But when the detective responded that he could not tell him anything further than what was on the arrest warrant and would have to take him back to Guilford County, [Wells] proceeded to waive his rights.

State v. Wells, supra.

The opinion also explains that while they were questioning Wells, the detectives

elicited statements from [Wells] by telling him that the more he helped them, the more they could help him; and that if he was cooperative, they would inform the court and the district attorney that he had been cooperative. 

In response, [Wells] answered questions, including informing detectives that he owned a Dell laptop computer that was located on his bed at the fire station. As a result of the information obtained, the police seized [his] laptop from the fire station.

State v. Wells, supra.

Wells was indicted on the charges noted above on July 6, 2010, after which he filed a motion to “suppress statements and a motion tosuppress evidence.”  State v. Wells, supra. On May 6, 2011, the trial judge who had the case entered an order in which he ruled on Wells’ motions to suppress.  State v. Wells, supra.

[Wells’] motion regarding his statements was granted on the grounds that the statements were involuntary and resulted from a promise, hope or reward. [His] motion regarding the evidence retrieved from his laptop computer was denied based on a finding `[t]hat the location of the computer would have been discovered inevitably by law enforcement officials [ ]’ and, therefore, the conclusions that `[t]he search and seizure of the defendant's computer was lawful[ ]’ and `[t]hat the [laptop] computer was lawfully seized[.]’

State v. Wells, supra.

As this article explains, a confession is inadmissible under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause if it was obtained by measures, including promises of leniency, that presumptively render it involuntary.  This test derives from the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v.Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278 (1936), which is discussed in the article.

So the judge suppressed Wells’ statements, including his statements about the laptop, but declined to suppress the laptop, finding that its discovery was not the product of the violation of Well’s 14th Amendment right to due process.  Wells then went to trial, and the jury found him guilty. State v. Wells, supra. He was sentenced to “consecutive terms of 14–17 months and 6–9 months, the latter term suspended on the condition that [he] serve 24 months of supervised probation.”  State v. Wells, supra.

So the only issue Wells raised on appeal was the denial of his motion to suppress “the evidence seized from his laptop computer.”  State v. Wells, supra.  The Court of Appeals began its analysis of his argument that the trial judge erred in denying the motion by explaining that when it reviews a trial judge’s denying a motion to suppress,

we are `strictly limited to determining whether the trial judge's underlying findings of fact are supported by competent evidence, in which event they are conclusively binding on appeal, and whether those factual findings in turn support the judge's ultimate conclusions of law.’ State v. Cooke, 306 N.C. 132, 291 S.E.2d 618 (North Carolina Supreme Court 1982). `The trial court's conclusions of law, however, are fully reviewable on appeal.’  State v. Hughes, 353 N.C. 200, 539 S.E.2d 625 (North Carolina Supreme Court 2000).

Here, defendant specifically contends that there is no competent evidence to support the trial court's finding that his laptop computer would have inevitably been discovered. 

State v. Wells, supra.

The Court of Appeals also explained that the exclusionary rule dictates that evidence

`derived from an unconstitutional search or seizure is generally inadmissible in a criminal prosecution of the individual subjected to the constitutional violation.’ State v. McKinney, 361 N.C. 53, 637 S.E.2d 868 (North Carolina Supreme Court 2006). 

Furthermore, `[w]hen evidence is obtained as the result of illegal police conduct, not only should that evidence be suppressed, but all evidence that is the “fruit” of that unlawful conduct should be suppressed.’ State v. Pope, 333 N.C. 106, 423 S.E.2d 740 (North Carolina Supreme Court 1992).

State v. Wells, supra.

Here, the prosecution did not challenge the trial judge’s granting Wells’ motion to suppress his statements as obtained by “promise, hope or reward”, which made them involuntary under the 14th Amendment rule noted above.  State v. Wells, supra.  The only issue, then, was whether the laptop would inevitably have been discovered, i.e., whether the discovery of the laptop was not a product of the violation of Wells’ 14th Amendment rights. 

The Court of Appeals explained that North Carolina,

like the majority of jurisdictions, has adopted the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule, discussed by the United States Supreme Court in Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431 (1984). . . . `Under the inevitable discovery doctrine, evidence which is illegally obtained can still be admitted into evidence as an exception to the exclusionary rule when “the information . . . inevitably would have been discovered by lawful means.”’ State v. Woolridge, 147 N.C.App. 685, 557 S.E.2d 158 (North Carolina Court of Appeals 2001) (quoting Nix v Williams, supra.). . . .  

Inevitable discovery is to be determined on a case-by-case basis. . . . `[T]he prosecution has the burden of proving that the evidence, even though obtained through an illegal search, would have been discovered anyway by independent lawful means.’ State v. Woolridge, supra. The State must do so by a preponderance of the evidence. State v. Garner, 331 N.C. 491, 417 S.E.2d 502 (North Carolina Supreme Court 1992).

State v. Wells, supra.

The court then turned to the merits of this case, noting that

[a]lthough it seems entirely logical that the police would search the fire station for evidence regarding [Wells’] crimes and discover the location of the laptop computer, there is no evidence in the record to support this assumption. At the suppression hearing, the only argument supporting inevitable discovery was defense counsel's statement that:

`When they wouldn't have found the computer at his house, it's not even a remote stretch to go -- they knew exactly where he was prior to this and that's where they would have gone. It wouldn't take a whole lot of effort to be able to make that connection and go look for the computer where he was located.’

This type of conclusory statement by counsel is not the type of evidence from which `independent lawful means’ have been found to support a finding of inevitable discovery.

As previously stated, although we acknowledge that it seems logical that the laptop computer would have been discovered, the State failed to provide any evidence in this case, either through testimony concerning common practices of the fire department for inventorying employee's belongings or through testimony regarding continued search efforts in this case, indicating that investigating officers would have located the laptop.

State v. Wells, supra.

The court also noted that “[i]nstead, the State asserts various arguments on appeal in an attempt to bolster the validity of the search and seizure of [Wells’] laptop computer.”  State v. Wells, supra.  It went through the prosecution’s arguments, and then found that they “lack merit.”  State v. Wells, supra.

The prosecution’s first argument was that Wells

impliedly consented to the search of his laptop computer by telling the detectives where it was located. This argument must fail, as it entirely ignores the trial court's unchallenged conclusions that [Wells’] statements `were obtained as a result of promise, hope or reward” and were therefore “given involuntarily.’

State v. Wells, supra.

Its second argument, which also implicated its third argument, was that Wells had no

reasonable expectation of privacy in the laptop placed in a common living area in a fire station. While the State may be correct in asserting [he] had no reasonable expectation of privacy, we need not address this issue in the present case given that `those subjected to coercive police interrogations have an automatic protection from the use of their involuntary statements (or evidence derived from their statements) in any subsequent criminal trial.’ Chavez v. Martinez, 538 U.S. 760 (2003). . . .  

The critical analysis concerning inevitable discovery is not whether [Wells] had a reasonable expectation of privacy based on where the laptop computer was located, but instead whether the laptop computer would have been discovered by independent lawful means. 

For the same reason, the State's third argument, that a valid search warrant authorized the seizure of data off the laptop computer, fails because the fact that investigators applied for a search warrant to retrieve the laptop computer's contents does not eliminate the taint that led to the discovery and seizure of the laptop computer in the first instance.

State v. Wells, supra.

And, finally, the Court of Appeals was equally impressed with the prosecution’s fourth and final argument, which was that

discovery of the laptop computer was inevitable because the laptop computer was known to be in existence and was the focal point of the investigation. We do not doubt either of the State's assertions; however, having knowledge that the laptop computer exists is entirely different than knowing where the laptop computer may be found. At the hearing on [Wells’] motions to suppress, no evidence was presented to the trial court to show how or when the laptop computer would have been discovered by independent lawful means.

State v. Wells, supra.

The court therefore held that “the trial court erred in denying [Wells’]motion to suppress the evidence seized from his laptop computer” and ordered “a new trial.”  State v. Wells, supra.

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