Eighth Circuit Upholds Minnesota Law Prohibiting Robocalls

It is hard to find anything more annoying or despised than robocalls.phone

Recently the Eighth Circuit in Gresham v. Swanson, upheld a Minnesota law prohibiting robocalls against a free speech challenge.  The Petitioner in the Minnesota case sought a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the Minnesota statute, which was denied by the district court. The Eighth Circuit upheld the district court’s decision on the grounds that it was unlikely that the Petitioner would succeed on its First Amendment claim.

The Minnesota statute is simple and well written. It provides that:

“…a caller may not make a robocall what unless “(1) the subscriber has knowingly or voluntarily requested, consented to, permitted, or authorized receipt of the message; or (2) the message is immediately preceded by a live operator who obtains the subscriber’s consent before the message is delivered.” Subsection (b) then provides that subsection (a) does not apply to: “(1) messages from school districts to students, parents, or employees, (2) messages to subscribers with whom the caller has a current business or personal relationship, or (3) messages advising employees of work schedules.” § 325E.27(b). Subsection (b) also exempts from the requirements of subsection (a) “messages from a nonprofit tax-exempt charitable organization sent solely for the purpose of soliciting voluntary donations of clothing to benefit disabled United States military veterans and containing no request for monetary donations or other solicitations of any kind.”

The Eighth Circuit concluded that the first three exceptions in the statute were not content-based restrictions and were based upon valid time, place, and manner restrictions. Subsection (b) of the Act exempting messages from not-for-profit tax-exempt charitable organizations sent solely for the purpose of soliciting voluntary donations of clothing to benefit disabled military veterans was found to be content based and unconstitutional, which the Court severed from the rest of the statute. Other states have made the same mistake by carving out exceptions for not for profits and other similar organizations only to find out that courts invalidated their statute. The Minnesota statute and the opinion by the Eighth Circuit upholding the statute indicates that the statute should survive any challenge making it a good model  by Missouri.

bill of rights

Bill of Rights

Federal and State Statutes

Federal – The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (Act) limits the use of certain automated calls or texts and prerecorded voice calls (all of which are sometimes called “robocalls”), primarily made to cell phones.  The Act and the  implementing rules apply to political campaign-related calls or texts; however, the Act allows robocalls made to telephone landlines, even without express consent.

State – Missouri also has a no  call list but the exceptions to the law swallow the prohibitions. Organizations that are exempt include nonprofit organizations and charities, companies that you’re already doing business with (like your bank or cable TV provider), political groups, and research groups, making it particularly ineffective with respect to citizens who have land lines who do not want these calls.

What can you do  to block robocalls

First, get on the federal and Missouri no call list. There are many online articles, including an article by Huffington Post, that provides information about how to block robo calls.

Initiative Petition –  It would seem that  there is no possibility that the Missouri legislature would ever adopt a law prohibiting  robocalls like Minnesota. After all, many legislators use robocalls and there are well organized and financed groups that have a business interest in continuing the use of robocalls. Citizens who are annoyed by these calls may want to consider other action like an initiative so the voters can decide. 

 

 

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Westboro Baptist Church Redux    

Westboro Baptist Church is like a bad penny. You know the punch line. It keeps showing up.

So here’s another Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decision,  in a long line of  Eighth Circuit, Westboro Baptist Church cases, upholding an Iowa state law that prohibited protests within 500 feet of a cemetery, mortuary, church, or other place of worship during a funeral within one hour before and two hours after the funeral.

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First, a review of this case before discussing its implications.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in August of 2017, upheld a Nebraska law prohibiting protest activities within 500 feet from a cemetery, mortuary, church, or other place of worship during a funeral from one hour prior to and two hours following a funeral.   This case increased the  buffer zone distance from 300 feet to 500 feet, recognized in an earlier decision of the Eighth Circuit in 2012,  upholding an ordinance of the City of Manchester, Missouri, which restricted such protest activities within 300 feet and one hour prior and one hour after the funeral service.  The Eighth Circuit concluded that the state statute was a reasonable time, place, and/or manner restriction that did not violate the rights of the protesters.  Seemingly going from 300 to 500 feet  was no big deal, although a buffer zone distance of  500 feet, makes it one of the longest free speech buffer zone cases to be upheld.

By contrast  consider a  35 foot buffer zone in front of an entrance to an abortion clinic was unconstitutional because it was not the least restrictive means.  It is hard to square these   two opinions, except that innately we somehow know that a funeral is a very special  time when mourners, relatives, and friends are entitled to grieve and pay respect to the departed, in their own special way, without outside intrusion. It seems that the Supreme Court is willing to treat  protests at funerals  differently than protests at abortion clinics,  without recognizing the differences except by implication.

I always thought that the right of privacy  was a big factor, which seemed to me  where the Eighth Circuit was going  as I have argued for  in earlier Posts. In my mind, it is hard to make a  real substantive distinction between the two  outcomes.  It seems to me that this is just a matter of  subjective perspective.

List Of Westboro Church Posts By Howard Wright With Links

WESTBORO BAPTIST CHURCH CHALLENGE TO MISSOURI FUNERAL PICKETING LAW

Posted on  by .| have described Westboro Baptist Church as the Church that loves to be hated in an earlier Post. I might add, they also love to rile up citizens into egging on state and local government officials to enact laws that … Continue reading 

Westboro Baptist Church Loses Challenge to Ordinance Prohibiting Picketing of Funeral Service

Westboro Baptist Church is a church that loves to be hated. It is a small group (Shirley and Megan Phelps-Roper and others) that pickets funerals of dead veterans with signs that state that the veterans died because of God’s wrath … Continue reading 

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Westboro Baptist Church – Beginning of the End for Picketing of Funerals?

The ongoing saga of the Westboro Baptist Church and their despicable picketing of veterans’ funerals continues unabated despite the efforts of hundreds of local communities  and about 40 states that have passed laws prohibiting the picketing of funerals. The Eighth … Continue reading 

United States Supreme Court Closes Door on Damages in Westboro Baptist Church Case

In the face of hateful picketing by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, Albert Synder, the father of a soldier who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty filed a claim for damages against members of the Westboro Baptist … Continue reading 

Westboro Baptist Church Preaches Hell, Fire, and Damnation at Veterans Funerals.

Phelps-Roper (Roper) is a member of the Westboro Baptist Church that believes that God is punishing America by killing American soldiers for what her Church considers the sin of homosexuality. As part of her religious duties Roper believes funerals are … Continue reading 

Thirty-five Foot Buffer Zone For Abortion Clinics Unconstitutional.

In McCullen v. Coakley, the United States Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law that made it a crime to knowingly stand on a ”public way or sidewalk” within 35 feet of an entrance or driveway of a reproductive health … Continue reading 

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Harris–Stowe State University Gets Hit With Five Million Dollar Racial Discrimination Lawsuit

Harris–Stowe State University (Harris–Stowe), located in the City of St. Louis, recently lost an employment discrimination case based on reverse discrimination (black on white) where the jury awarded over $5 million dollars  in compensatory damages,   punitive damages and attorney fees.

bill of rights

Bill of Rights

Normally, I write about cases that announce important new principles of law. Harris-Stowe is not that kind of case. Nevertheless, this case is extremely useful because it provides a ready-made checklist showing important issues that need to be considered before  dismissing or taking other serious disciplinary action against an employee. The actions of Harris-Stove were so bad that the court made a special point of chastising the Board of the   University.

“In a time where claims of discrimination are most often proven through circumstantial evidence due to the covert and subtle nature of discriminatory conduct, this case stands apart. Rarely have we seen such manifest and open evidence of racial discrimination.”

Before launching into a serious disciplinary action you need to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of your case. Don’t launch unless you have a good case backed by the record; instead, consider a lesser form of discipline that fits the mold of progressive discipline, unless the actions are so egregious that immediate action is required and even in those situations consider suspending the employee until a full investigation is completed.

Hint, best way to avoid  the mistakes of Harris-Stowe is to use a checklist and make sure your attorney or HR director has reviewed the file showing that consideration was given to the items on the checklist. A checklist allows you to weigh the strength and the weakness of an employment action, particularly from the standpoint of how the evidence could adversely affect the ability of the local government agency to defend the disciplinary action.

The Harris-Stowe case provides a backdrop for a good checklist based on the examination of the facts, which shows why the jury awarded the employee over                               $5 million dollars. In other words, we are going to look at the worst of the worst to see what we can learn from  mistakes. I take no great enjoyment in making these comments in light of long and esteemed history of Harris-Stowe.Harris-Stowe 5751754be18a1-image

 

My purpose is to reflect on past mistakes so we can learn for the future. Following is a list of glaring mistakes that made the Harris-Stowe case a nightmare                       to defend.

Past Performance Ratings – Of course, always check to see how the employee performance was rated in the past.  Obviously the performance of the employee at the time of the employment action is unsatisfactory. When past performance ratings are  excellent this is a red flag requiring an explanation from the supervisors.  Wilkins performance ratings were excellent from 2001 until almost to the day when the employment action was taken in 2010.

Bad Statements – Always look for bad statements in the work place by supervisors or fellow employees since these can have a tremendous impact on the outcome of the case. I do more than look; I literally comb the work environment because these statements can blow up in your face or your opponent destroying the ability to defend or the employment action. In the Harris-Stowe case Smith, the Dean of the Education Department, had repeatedly proclaimed her belief in “black power” prior to being appointed Dean.  Despite an order from the court directing that Harris–Stowe protect emails some emails were deleted.  These emails purportedly contained statements that the Board wanted to make the department “Blacker” at the expense of white employees leading to an instruction to the jury that the loss of these emails created a presumption that they contained information that was adverse to Harris–Stowe.

Follow Normal Procedures –  Wilkins, the employee, terminated in Harris-Stowe, notified the president, vice-president, Dr. Smith, and the human resources director by email that her termination did not comply with Harris-Stowe policies and that she was contemplating legal action. Harris-Stowe policies required that this notification officials should be considered a complaint of race discrimination, which required that there had to be an investigation. There was no investigation as required by the policies of Harris-Stowe.

Reason Given For Termination Was Pretextual – The termination of Wilkins did not comport with Harris-Stowe existing policy on reducing its work force. Under the reduction-in-force policy, Harris–Stowe was required to terminate non-adjunct faculty by seniority.  Contrary to its internal policies, Harris-Stowe officials terminated Wilkins over the less senior African-American instructors while adding teaching staff, which made the effort to reduce the budget deficit look nonsensical.

Failure to have a policy of progressive discipline; treating Wilkins with contempt while removing her from the Harris-Stowe campus (It looked like she was under arrest when she was removed by security from the campus); hiring new teachers despite the budget reductions when Harris-Stowe was engaged in a reduction of its workforce due to budget limitations; and failure to explain in any way why the Wilkins was terminated show why there was a large verdict.  This list could go on and on. 

The above analysis focuses on the major glaring errors and should not be considered a comprehensive list. You may want to use the following link in developing your own checklist. Consider also the following short  check list.

Howard Wright © 2017

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The United States Supreme Court Clarifies Law Of Regulatory Takings

If your community is involved in a regulatory taking claim it is imperative that you understand the opinion in Murr v. Wisconsin. This opinion  by the United States Supreme Court  is powerful, making it the definitive source for understanding regulatory takings law. 

Facts – The Murr family (Petitioners) owned two adjacent lots along the Lower St. Croix River.  Tourists and residents of the region have long extolled the picturesque grandeur of the river and surrounding area.

Under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the river was designated for federal protection.  The States of Wisconsin and Minnesota then developed “a management and development program” for the river area in accordance with the Act.

Petitioners’ parents purchased Lots E and F separately in the 1960’s, and maintained them under separate ownership until transferring Lot E and F to Petitioners.  Both lots, because of their topography, had less than one acre suitable for development.  Lot E has a cabin on it while Lot F was undeveloped.  The transfer of the lots to the children of the Murr’s brought the two lots under one ownership thereby merging them by law under a local zoning regulation preventing Lots E and F from being “sold or developed as separate lots” because neither lot contained a sufficiently large area of buildable land (one acre or more).

Petitioners became interested in selling Lot E and moving the cabin on Lot E to Lot F as part of an improvement plan for the lots.  They sought variances from the St. Croix County Board of Adjustment, which denied the request.  The State Court of Appeals affirmed the Board’s findings, noting that the Petitioner’s had other options to enjoy and use their property, including eliminating the cabin and building a new residence on one lot or across both. The United States Supreme Court granted Petitioner’s petition for writ of certiorari to determine if the County regulations constituted a regulatory taking.

Argument – Petitioners argued that the regulations deprived them of all, or practically all, of the use of Lot E based on “…Petitioners’ appraisal of a unrebutted, estimated value of $40,000 as a undevelopable lot, on the counterfactual assumption that it could be sold as a separate property.” The regulations look more like a taking if you define “the property” as the metes and bounds description for each lot based on the principle that state law defines the “property” interest without consideration to the merger provision in the law.

Opinion: 

General Principles Of Regulatory Takings: The Court first established context by reviewing the history of Regulatory Takings Law.  This is very useful since it gets you out of the underbrush focusing on the big trees.  The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment provides that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation.  Guidelines established by the courts require that when a regulation is so onerous that it denies the owner of the property all economically reasonable beneficial productive use it constitutes a taking; except even when there is complete deprivation of use compensation is not required if the background principles of the State’s law of property and nuisance already place restrictions on the land.  In an earlier opinion the court recognized the relevance of state law and land use customs in determining if there was a taking.

Regulatory takings are characterized by “ad hoc, factual inquiries, designed to allow careful examination and weighing of all the relevant circumstances.”  “A central dynamic of the Court’s regulatory takings jurisprudence, then, is its flexibility,” allowing it to reconcile competing objectives (the individual’s right to retain the interests and exercise the freedoms at the core of private property ownership versus the government’s well- established power to “adjus[t] rights for the public good.”

 What Is the Proper Unit of Property To Measure Damages; In the Murr case, the critical question was a determination as to what was the proper unit of property against which to assess the effect of the challenge governmental action.  The majority opinion determined that the proper property unit was the value of the two lots as combined instead of each separate lot.  After all when the property was transferred to the current owners the county and state law provided that lots E and F were merged for development purposes.  The majority opinion concluded that the treatment of the land under state law would lead a landowner to anticipate that his holdings would be treated as one parcel, not, as separate tracts for development purposes. “The inquiry is objective, and the reasonable expectations at issue derive from background, customs and the whole of our legal tradition.”

Not only is the majority opinion well written and powerful the dissent authored by Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Alito and Thomas is also insightful because it offers an understanding of the majority opinion and no doubt in my mind will be the basis in future cases for challenging a regulation as a taking.  I would expect that we would see these competing views of how to analyze regulatory takings play out in future challenges, particularly if there are changes in the court’s liberal/conservative composition.

You may be interested in an earlier Post  dealing with the lack of authority under Missouri law to condemn property. This Post can be viewed by clicking here.

Howard Wright © 2017

 

 

 

 

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Internet Is Ultimate Free Speech Forum

The Internet is the “modern day town square” in which each of us can “become a town crier with a voice that resonates further than it could from any soapbox.”

“While in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places (in a spatial sense) for the exchange of views, today the answer is clear. The most important forum is cyberspace, the “vast democratic forums of the Internet” in general and social media.

With these words the United States Supreme Court declared the primacy of the Internet as the ultimate free speech forum in Packingham v. North Carolina, (U. S.  15– 1194, 6/19/17).

The issue in this case was framed by a North Carolina law that prohibited a registered sex offender from accessing “…a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages.”  This Statute had been applied to about 20,000 people in North Carolina and the state had prosecuted over 1000 sex offenders for violations.

Packingham (Petitioner), a 21-year-old college student, was convicted of having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 2002 requiring him to register as a sex offender under the statute.  In 2010 Petitioner was prosecuted for a minor traffic offense, which was dismissed, however Petitioner posted a statement of gratitude on the Internet, thanking the Lord for his good fortune in not having to pay a fine.  This post attracted the attention of law enforcement officials resulting in a check of the sex offender records leading to an indictment of Petitioner by a grand jury for violating the Statute.

Petitioner filed a motion to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that the Statute violated his First Amendment Right of free speech.  Petitioner was ultimately convicted.  Petitioner appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which held that the statute was constitutional.  The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari, unanimously holding that the Statute was unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment Free Speech Clause.

This is no small deal considering there is a very strong public policy to prevent sex offenders from accessing the Internet to find children who might be susceptible to improper advances from adults. Sex offenders are known  to continue their predatory practices of preying on minors.

The Court concluded that the statute burdened “…substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government’s legitimate interests.”  The statute was not “narrowly tailored because it burdened “substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government’s legitimate interests.”  For example, the Statute could bar access to commonplace “Websites as varied as Amazon.com, Washingtonpost.com, and Webmd.com.”

“By prohibiting sex offenders from using those websites, North Carolina with one broad stroke bars access to what for many are the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge. These websites can provide perhaps the most powerful mechanisms available to a private citizen to make his or her voice heard.”

These statements establish Packingham  as the leading case on First Amendment Free Speech rights on the Internet.  It certainly leaves open more questions than it answers.  For example, local government has tried to rein in the freewheeling effect of employees commenting about on frivolous details of the  work environment (water cooler talk) by attempting to prohibit discussion of frivolous details about the work environment on social media.  HR director’s, employee’s and public official’s  involved in employment decisions need to look at any policy dealing with employee use of the Internet concerning employment activities (think social policy)  to be sure that they have not restricted Free Speech.

Free speech is a topic that has occupied this writer for years leading to a large number of Post on this topic starting in 2011 with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Entertainment Merchants Association, where the United States Supreme Court invalidated a law prohibiting violent video games for minors. The Free Speech cases have created a conundrum for local government attorneys and public officials. Our job is not gotten any easier because of the sweeping impact of these decisions, reaching the point where it takes special expertise to write ordinances, like a sign code, that might impact free speech.

To view other Posts on this blog pertaining to right of free speech click on links below.

https://momunicipallaw.com/2011/07/08/supreme-court-invalidates-law-prohibiting-violent-video-games-for-minors

https://momunicipallaw.com/2011/12/10/restricting-adult-entertainment/

https://momunicipallaw.com/2016/08/20/right-of-free-speech-and-association-trump-do-not-overule-fair-share-obligation-to-pay-union-dues/

https://momunicipallaw.com/2013/02/14/free-speech-and-prohibition-of-distribution-of-information/

https://momunicipallaw.com/2015/01/23/right-of-judges-to-personally-solicit-cam paign-contributions/

https://momunicipallaw.com/2014/08/08/truthful-testimony-under-oath-about-fraud-is-protected-by-free-speech-about/

https://momunicipallaw.com/2013/11/07/cannot-ban-distribution-of-bibles-at-twin-cities-pride-festival/

Howard  Wright © 2017

 

 

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Missouri Constitution Does Not Prohibit A Religious Institution From Participating In Program that Provided Playground Safety Materials From Recycled Tires

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

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These, simple, concise and powerful words – fifteen in number – cemented in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution the separation of church and state and the right to practice religious beliefs without interference from the government (Free Exercise Clause). These are two of the most important freedoms we enjoy, all in fifteen beautiful words, side-by-side.

Not often, but sometimes the Separation of Church and State Clause and the Free Exercise Clause clash requiring the United States Supreme Court to resolve the conflict. Trinity Lutheran Church decided by the United States Supreme Court in June 2017, was such a case.

us sup court

U. S. Supreme Court

In Trinity Lutheran, the United States Supreme Court held that Missouri could not deny an applicant the opportunity to compete for a grant that provided playground surfaces made from recycled tires because the applicant was a church.

Trinity Lutheran Church asserted a right to participate in a government benefit program (Missouri’s Scrap Tire Program) without having to disavow its religious character. On its surface if looked like small potatoes. It was not.playground.png

Missouri argued that the Missouri Constitution, adopted in 1875, prohibited furnishing taxpayer money directly or indirectly to churches based upon the separation of church and state clause in the Missouri Constitution that provides:

“That no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion, or in aid of any priest, preacher, minister or teacher thereof, as such; and that no preference shall be given to nor any discrimination made against any church, sect or creed of religion, or any form of religious faith or worship.”

The Supreme Court held that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposed a penalty, which violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.  “The express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant but rather the refusal to allow the Church, solely because it is a church, to compete with secular organizations for a grant.”

This case draws a  bright line with respect to how local and state government can use public funds when offering grants or other aid to churches or religious institutions.  Prior to this case, Missouri cases interpreted the Missouri Constitution to prohibit granting or giving public funds to a church or religious group.

Obviously local government will now have to adjust many of its programs involving the granting of financial aid for improvements to sewers, storm water or water lines, streets and other programs so that they do not exclude churches and religious institutions.  Although the opinion seems to establish a bright line where the free exercise clause trumps the establishment clause the line of demarcation is not as clear, as it would seem.  While the decision was by a 7 to 2 margin there was a significant controversy over Footnote #3, in the majority opinion, which states that:

“This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing.  We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.” (Emphasis added)

What does Footnote #3 mean? Truth is no one really knows except a significant number of the judges clearly wanted to leave open the door by avoiding an all-expansive interpretation.  Of particular interest was the dissent by Justice Sotomayor joined by Justice Ginsburg, which explored in detail reasons for Missouri’s 1875 constitutional provision that prohibited any financial aid to a religious institution.  Inexplicably, the majority opinion mostly ignored the long history in Missouri, going back to the 1875 Constitution, concerning restrictions on financial aid to churches and religious institutions.

The Court also made it clear that it was not overruling a case, which involved the direct funding of scholarship program to assist divinity students in Washington State, which involve a similar challenge. The Washington State case was a violation of the separation of church and state clause because the scholarship program used state funds to help students obtain a devotional degree in the ministry. This was vastly different from the facts in Trinity Lutheran, which involved a state grant to supply materials for safety at a church school.

In recent years, the United States Supreme Court has shown a great interest in cases involving religious freedom. I would expect that there will be a continuing debate between the Separation Clause and the Establishment Clause. The Trinity Lutheran opinion, including the dissent will inform much of this debate.

You may find that the following Posts dealing with tax credits for private schools and prayer at city Council meeting may be of interest.

Howard Wright© 2017Now will

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No Search Warrant Required To Search Cell Phone If There Are Exigent Circumstances

Law tracks technology. A recent case, involving the Vermont State Police allowed the police to track a person suspected of murdering someone, without obtaining a search warrant, based upon exigent circumstances by pinging the suspect’s cell phone.cell-phone

In the Vermont case, officers of the Vermont State Police responded to a report of a woman’s body near the town limits of Brattleboro, Vermont.  This area was “off the beaten path,” in a wooded area approximately 30 yards from the road.  When the officers arrived, they found a woman’s body.  She had a gunshot wound to the back of the head and she was on the ground in a kneeling position with her hands clasped in front of her.  Not suicide, it had the making of a gangland murder.

The officers identified the woman as Melissa Barratt who had recently come to the attention of Vermont State Police when she was arrested in Brattleboro for selling drugs.  At the time, Barratt told her arresting officers that she was “extremely nervous and afraid of Frank Caraballo,” with whom she worked dealing drugs.  In particular, she stated, “if he knew that she was talking to the officer, he would hurt her, kill her.” This, she indicated, was not an idle threat, as she knew Caraballo to have access to multiple firearms, and to have committed assault or even homicide on previous occasions.  Though the arresting officers sought to have Barratt cooperate with them in an investigation of Caraballo, she refused, largely out of fear that she would “basically be killed” if she cooperated.  The officers at the scene subsequently learned that Barratt had continued to work for Caraballo after her release.

Moreover, the investigating officers knew that, after Barratt’s arrest, Brattleboro police had conducted an investigation of Caraballo’s drug operation.  Through June and July, police completed “at least three recent controlled buys of narcotics” with Caraballo, and that these sales required the participation of multiple undercover agents and confidential informants.   Considering the need to protect the safety of undercover officers and informants the officers concluded that it was essential to locate Caraballo as soon as possible; therefore, the officers did not apply for a search warrant but instead contacted Sprint to request that Sprint locate Caraballo by using its GPS system to ping the GPS software in his phone to locate him remotely—a process called “pinging.”  After Caraballo was located, arrested (all within 90 minutes) and charged with a number of crimes Caraballo filed a motion to suppress all evidence  because there was no search warrant, which he alleged violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The federal district court overruled the motion to suppress and Caraballo appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the district court’s decision.

The Second Circuit in its opinion, noted that there is a well-established body of case law “that individuals have no reasonable expectation of privacy in the real-time GPS location of their cell phones.”  Despite the fact that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy the Second Circuit resolved the matter on the grounds that the request to Sprint fell within the exception to the Fourth Amendment based upon exigent circumstances.  The “core question” in applying the exigent-circumstances doctrine is “whether the facts, as they appeared at the moment of entry, would lead a reasonable, experienced officer to believe that there was an urgent need to render aid or take action.”

In this case the officers had specific reasons to think that Caraballo would commit acts of violence against undercover agents and confidential informants.  Barratt’s statement that Caraballo would “kill her” if she were speaking to police took on an immediate importance because it suggested that the investigation had been discovered.  The threat that Caraballo might take action against others involved in the investigation satisfied the requirements for exigent circumstances.  United States of America v. Caraballo, (Second Circuit, 12–3839 and 14–203, 08/01/16)

You may want to consider sharing this case with local law enforcement officials since it  illustrates a way to respond quickly to an emergency situation.

Howard Wright© 2017

 

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