FindLaw Blotter - The FindLaw Crime and Criminals Blog

September 2017 Archives

Rape kits may be invasive for victims and expensive for law enforcement, but are absolutely essential to solving sexual assault cases. DNA is one of the few pieces of forensic evidence that still stand up to scientific scrutiny, and having centralized DNA databases can stop serial sex offenders before they strike again.

Take the case of DeJenay Beckwith, who was raped in 2011 and whose rapist wasn't discovered until Harris County Texas prosecutors finally got her rape kit analyzed five years later in 2016. It turns out the man's DNA had been on file with the FBI since 1991, and he also pleaded guilty to another 2002 sexual assault, this one involving a minor. Beckwith is now suing the county, claiming the county's "persistent and intentional failure to test thousands" of rape kits was also a failure "to prevent the sexual assault of hundreds of women and juveniles, by identifiable assailants, including serial rapists."

Back in the day, water bottles were a good way for college kids to hide vodka. Michael Vick once tried to sneak marijuana past airport security using a modified water bottle. And now that everyone's favorite water bottle is double-walled stainless steel, there's no telling what's inside.

But does that give cops the right to search your water bottle? The answer, as always: it depends.

There's little doubt that police will use the latest and greatest technology to track down suspected criminals. One such technology is a cell-site simulator -- often referred to as a Stingray, based on a leading brand.

There's also little doubt that law enforcement tends to use these technologies first, and then worry about whether it was legal later. And Stingray use has become quite controversial, due to its widespread use and later questions regarding its legality. Here's a look at Stingray technology and some recent court rulings on the matter.

Probation can be a pain. Between the restrictive conditions and the aggressive probation officers, it seems like you're set up to fail. And if you're accused of violating your probation, things can get even worse.

While probation officers have the discretion to simply issue a warning for an alleged probation violation, they are generally more likely to request a court hearing to determine if there was a violation and, if so, what the punishment will be. So what exactly happens at the hearing and how can you prepare?

Ever since the 'Welfare Queen' craze in the early '80s, the specter of fraud has hung over any public assistance program, from Medicaid to food stamps. And, to be sure, that fraud exists, from a recently dubbed "Food Stamp Millionaire" to single cases of misreporting income and insurance payouts to sweeping dragnets uncovering over 70 food stamp fraudsters. In fact, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, assistance program fraud cost federal and state governments around $136.7 billion in 2015 alone.

So it's only natural that states and the feds want to crack down on welfare fraud. But those crackdown efforts and the criminal investigations that result can vary. Here's a look.

Can Sexting Be a Felony?

With increased access to smartphones with cameras, and limited access to good decision-making skills, teens have turned sexting into a serious issue that parents, educators, and sometimes the police need to deal with. And state laws, prosecutors, and courts have turned sexting into a serious criminal offense that teens may be left dealing with for the rest of their lives.

The Washington State Supreme Court last week upheld a conviction for distribution of child pornography, even though the defendant was 17 at the time, has Asperger's syndrome, and the photo he sent was of himself. The crime is a felony, requiring the teen to register as a sex offender.

With every new advance in technology comes greater privacy concerns, especially when it comes to police searches. Email is just what it says, right, electronic mail? But while police may need a warrant to read handwritten letters, they may not need one to get access to your email. And as we live more and more of our lives on our smartphones, and those smartphones get more and more technologically advanced, we're left to wonder whether that means law enforcement can have more access to them.

Apple's iPhones, with their Touch ID feature allowing users to unlock their phones with their fingerprint, have been central to search and seizure questions, among consumers, privacy experts, and the courts. And with two new iPhones coming out with some new security features, those questions will continue to mount.

Former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley was acquitted today on first-degree murder charges stemming from the fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith. Stockley shot Smith five times in his car following a three-minute chase during which Stockley allegedly said "We're killing this motherf*," ordered his partner to crash their patrol car into Smith's vehicle, and planted a gun in Smith's car after the fact.

Beyond the questions about yet another unpunished police shooting, there come questions about what police can legally do during a high speed pursuit: Are there any legal limits to police force once a chase has started?

The American Civil Liberties Union announced it is filing a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of 10 U.S. citizens who claim their electronic devices were either searched or seized at the border, all without a warrant. "The border should not serve as a dragnet for law enforcement to pry into our personal and professional lives," the ACLU said in a statement. "None of our clients have been accused of any wrongdoing, nor have they been given any valid explanation for why this happened to them."

We know that border security must be taken seriously, and President Donald Trump has been aggressive in his rhetoric about securing the nation's borders, but does that mean civil liberties or search and seizure protections cease when you're leaving or re-entering the country?

Here are five recent updates on criminal law and police procedure at the border.

Police say that after Gerald Melton, a homeless man trying to sleep on a Nashville sidewalk, asked Katie Quackenbush to move her Porsche SUV, the two engaged in heated argument, Melton walked back to where he was sleeping, and Quackenbush followed him with a gun, shooting him twice in the abdomen and leaving him for dead.

Quackenbush's dad claims Melton threatened his daughter's life, and she was merely firing two "warning shots," "closed her eyes when she shot," thought she pointed the gun away from him, and "didn't know that she hit him." But could that alleged lack of intent be a defense to an attempted murder charge?

It's a question that only raises more questions: Can a person who locks himself in another person's car without permission be convicted of vehicle theft? Who is this person? How'd they get into the car? Isn't the whole point of stealing a car, you know, to drive it away?

But the Minnesota Supreme Court has an answer: Yes.

A burglar in San Francisco has just been sentenced to 327 years to life for a string of home invasion robberies against local senior citizens. The convicted burglar, 60 year old German Woods, targeted vulnerable seniors, many of whom didn't speak English, or did so poorly.

Woods' modus operandi included lying in wait for seniors that lived alone to return home, then as they were entering their homes, he would attack, forcing them into and ransacking their homes. The charges against Woods go back to 2014. Between then and 2016, he committed numerous burglaries, and was ultimately convicted in July 2016 on 17 different counts, including some charges for elder abuse.

Over the past few years, more and more police departments have adopted the use of officer body cams. The devices attach to an officer's uniform and record what the officers do while on duty.

However, there is no uniform law of the land when it comes to the public's right to access the footage from the body cams. Depending on the local jurisdiction, or state, different standards are used for the release of the footage. Some will only allow the footage to be released publicly as part of a criminal or civil trial (as the law requires the disclosure then), while others allow the recordings to be released on YouTube (after private and identifying information is edited out).

In the wake of a natural disaster, or large protest or assembly gone wrong, looters and other opportunistic thieves can make matters much worse. Looting is stealing, which is never legal (though in matters of life or death, it might be excusable).

Generally, the penalties for looting in any given state will be the same or similar to the penalties for stealing. The various details of how the theft or looting occurs will matter. For instance, if a looter must break a window or door, they may also be facing charges for breaking and entering in addition to theft. However, if the door was open, or window already broken, the charges may simply be theft charges, but those too can vary based on what is taken.

National news outlets have been reporting the sensational story of a Salt Lake City, Utah nurse who was arrested after refusing the command of a police officer to draw the blood of a comatose patient for an investigation. Fortunately for Alex Wubbels, the nurse involved in the incident, police body cameras recorded the entire event.

The nurse cited the hospital policy of requiring a patient's consent, a warrant, or an intent to arrest, before drawing blood for police. When the officer insisted on getting the blood draw done despite not satisfying any of these conditions, Wubbels refused and was then arrested on the spot.

Cell phones have been the new frontier in search and seizure law, and for a while they've been giving fits to law enforcement and the courts. Can customs search your cloud data at the border? Can the feds force tech companies to provide access to phone data? Can a warrant give police access to everyone's phone at a given location? Can police 3-D print a finger to unlock a phone?

Wait, what?

It may seem weird, but courts actually treat passcodes and fingerprints differently when it comes to unlocking phones, and more and more people are becoming aware that their phones are actually less secure (from law enforcement anyway) with fingerprint access. So, naturally, Apple came up with a fix for that -- the "cop button."