Most of my cases involve some kind of search. My clients have had their homes raided by squads of police officers sporting surplus military weaponry. Their underwear drawers, pants pockets, and backpacks have been turned inside out. They have been ordered to sit on curbs in handcuffs beside their cars while their neighbors looked on. In the most extreme cases, the long arm of the law has pulled its nitrile gloves tight across the knuckles in its search for contraband.
Given the invasive nature of these searches, should a police officer be able to carry them out whenever he or she wants? Shouldn’t a neutral, detached member of the judiciary take a look at the officer’s’ reasons for wanting to do these things, consider whether those reasons amount to probable cause and sign a warrant stating that the officer’s behavior will pass Constitutional muster? I would only need two hands to count the number of times my clients have seen a warrant before a search, but I would still have fingers to spare.
And yet as a matter of law, any search without a warrant is presumed to be illegal. This rule, along with the rules requiring Miranda warnings and appointed counsel for the accused, came from a bygone era of Supreme Court jurisprudence. In later years, the Rehnquist Court found many of these rules too protective of the accused. Rather than overturning these rules, the High Court decided to puncture them with exceptions that police can rely on to justify their behavior. In most cases, the police succeed because the “exceptions” cover the vast majority of times my clients have been searched. Searches done with a warrant are now the exception, not the rule.
My client (let’s call him “Client”) lived in a duplex in one of those unincorporated areas between good-sized cities; an older residential neighborhood with too many cars parked in the driveway and no sidewalks. Client shared the duplex with his wife, his brother-in-law and his brother-in-law’s indoor marijuana grow, which he tended with help from a friend who lived elsewhere (let’s call him “Parolee”).
One day, Parolee addressed his finished product to the wrong ZIP code and accidentally mailed a big box of marijuana to the other side of the state. Detectives from far away soon began following my client and his family because they lived at the return address on the package. They engineered a “consensual encounter” with Client and Parolee on the sidewalk in front their home just as they were about to unlock the door and go inside. For 15-20 minutes they peppered Parolee with questions to find out whether he lived in the duplex (if he had lived there, the detectives could have searched without a warrant). Parolee, who had accepted a totally voluntary invitation to sit on the curb between two police cars, continued to insist that he did not live there.
So the cops went with their Plan B; they tracked down Client’s wife in the maternity ward of the nearby hospital, waited until after she had given birth, confronted her as she was learning to nurse her infant, and convinced her to sign their consent form. I will point out here that Client and his wife have very limited English skills; I had never spoken with Client without an interpreter. The officers claimed that all of their interactions with Client and his very new family were consensual, and that Client and his postpartum wife could have ended the encounter at any time.
Now if I pretended to be a member of my local bench, I would say that living at the return address on a big box of pot is probable cause to search Client’s home and sign that warrant. If I were the on-call judge, available 24/7 to sign emergency warrants, I might have even signed it outside of business hours.
So why harass a new mother and her newborn baby instead of simply asking a judge for a warrant? If you have given birth, or have been at a birth, you know what a special and vulnerable time it is for the mother. The miracle of life is exhausting, messy, painful, and overwhelming; between hospital gowns and nursing, it leaves little room for modesty. These detectives had chosen to drive hundreds of miles to interfere with something sacred rather than seek a warrant from a judge.
That’s the part that gets me; they didn’t have to, they chose to. Why?
And if cops can bust in on a woman learning to express colostrum, what can’t they do?