Utah Man Commits Armed Robbery Four Times in One Week

Utah Criminal Defense Blog, on the topic of  Crimes, Punishment, Utah Crime News, Utah Legal Definition
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utah man commits armed robbery

Photo: Tudokin

Utah police are looking for a man who allegedly committed armed robbery in four different locations in Utah County between Sept. 21 and Sept. 28. The man–believed to be Josef Hardesty–has a previous criminal record.

Not Just There for the Food

According to a report from KSL News, Hardesty’s first armed robbery was at Hungry Howie’s Pizza on Sunday, Sept. 21, where he produced a small folding knife and demanded money. During the week, he also allegedly hit businesses in American Fork and Springville using the same weapon. The most recent armed robbery was north Orem Subway restaurant early afternoon on Sunday, Sept. 28.

Orem Police Lt. Craig Martinez reported that Hardesty has a criminal record and that it seems like armed robbery is his crime of choice. Police are asking that anyone with information contact the Orem Police Department.

Armed Robbery: Definitions and Punishment

According to Utah Code 76-6-412, armed robbery would fall under the category of Theft, Offenses Against Property. Theft can range from a class B misdemeanor up to a second degree felony depending on a variety of circumstances such as the value of the property stolen and whether it is a first offense.

In the case of Hardesty, his actions would be considered a second degree felony and are classified as armed robbery. In order to be a second degree felony, one of three criteria must be met. The property stolen has to exceed $5,000, the property must be a firearm or operable vehicle, or the person committing the crime must be armed with a dangerous weapon. As defined by Utah Code 76-1-601, a dangerous weapon is defined as “any item capable of causing death or serious bodily injury; or a facsimile or representation of the item.” A second degree felony is punishable by one-to-fifteen years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. While the amounts stolen from the various locations hasn’t been reported, the fact that he used the folding knife in the acts qualify as a “dangerous weapon.”

If you or someone you know has been charged with armed robbery, make sure to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who knows the law and will look out for your best interests.

Questionable Focus on Highway Interdiction Nets Billions to Cops

Utah Criminal Defense Blog, on the topic of  Constitutional Rights, Dealing with Police
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Questionable Highway Interdiction methods

Photo: 401(k) 2012

In a practice originally intended to hit organized crime where it hurts–in the wallet–a recent investigation by the Washington Post showed that highway interdiction, the practice of seizing contraband from motorists, seems to have converted into a slush fund for law enforcement agencies under the combined guise of civil forfeiture, the federal Equitable Sharing Program, and Homeland Security. It would seem that in many cases, this practice of highway interdiction, especially when it comes to the confiscation of cash, amounts to a Fourth Amendment violation and the methods being used to target certain vehicles a basic violation of privacy.

How Highway Interdiction Became an Apparent Cash-Grab

Civil asset forfeiture is nothing new. Advocates state that the nature of organized crime effectively keeps the proceeds from criminal activity safe from legal confiscation. So instead of going after the criminal first, in essence, the law sues “the object,” and the owner is a third-party claimant to the property [as opposed to criminal forfeiture where the person is convicted and the forfeiture is a form of penalty].

In civil forfeitures–which constitute approximately half of all forfeiture cases–the owner of the property at the time of confiscation doesn’t need to be judged guilty of a crime; the government need merely to prove that someone else other than the owner used the property as part of a crime.

In addition, the Equitable Sharing Program has also been around for some time. This is a program by the Justice Department which allows the proceeds from asset forfeiture to be deposited into Justice Department Asset Forfeiture Fund. After the feds take their portion, local police are able to take up to 80 percent of what the property is worth.

Here is where things get tricky. After 9/11, seemingly everything got thrown into one big pot in the interest in Homeland Security.  As security tightened down in the airports, criminals (and yes, terrorists) shied away from air travel and moved to the interstate highway system. Everyone from local officers to state troopers started acting more aggressively in their searches of motorists for suspicious people, drugs, and other contraband which they could confiscate without proof of a crime.

Cash has been the biggest issue at hand when it comes to unchecked highway interdiction. It was reported that since 2001, $2.5 billion has been seized without accusation of a crime or issuance of a warrant. While many of these cases have been disputed, most go unchallenged.

Where Supply Meets Demand Meets Potential Civil Violations

After the urging of the government to crack down more heavily on highway “crime,” many law enforcement officers sought additional training on exactly what they should be looking for. The Justice Department and Homeland Security stepped up, spending millions on police training, but this isn’t where most critics are concerned.

In addition to those departmental trainings, many private firms stepped up to take their part of the pie. One method of supposedly assisting with highway interdiction that is especially under the microscope is a private intelligence network known as Black Asphalt Electronic Networking & Notification System. It’s like social networking for law enforcement… with one exception. Apparently detailed reports are being shared across the nation about American motorists, whether criminals or just “suspect.” Some of this information includes Social Security numbers, identifying features and addresses.

An article from Slate.com has equated this new form of “law enforcement” more akin to bounty hunting and a serious invasion of privacy. In one incident, a Hispanic man was pulled over, but when the officer was unable to find anything incriminating, he still put out a message over one of these networking systems with all the information about the man and final message which stated, “Happy hunting.” Some of the officers on these networks have almost made it a game to see who can seize the most contraband, posting “trophy shots” on the network. According to the Washington Post report, some police departments even advocate highway interdiction as an effective method for raising revenue.

An online search for “ highway interdiction ” also proves this point. The second listing is for an officer who is promoting his book on the secrets of successful highway interdiction. The site includes quotes along the lines of “After I made my first bust, I never wanted to write a ticket again,” and the book offers chapters and tips on the difference between “probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion” [the cornerstones of carrying out a search without violating the Fourth Amendment] and the “top mistakes made my rookie officers,” one of which is probably informing a motorist of their actual rights in regards to searching their vehicle. Possibly recognizing the questionable nature of the content, the owner of the site had a huge disclaimer stating that his book was for “pro-law enforcement sources only,” stating that identification would be required upon purchase.

The Pattern of Highway Interdiction

It would appear that most highway interdictions follow a similar pattern. Motorists are pulled over for a minor violation and a warning or ticket is issued while the officer is actually looking for suspicious signs which will justify a warrantless search. Some of these signs or “indicators” of criminal activity include:

  • physical clues such as twitches, pulsing carotid arteries, perspiration, and clenched jaws, or if the driver attempts to get out of the vehicle upon being stopped
  • law enforcement or religious stickers or slogans on the vehicle or religious paraphernalia inside the vehicle
  • more than one cell phone or tools visible inside the vehicle
  • excessive air fresheners, tobacco use, cologne or perfume used to mask odor
  • rental car agreements
  • passengers who seem unfamiliar with each other or who have conflicting stories

Given these signs, an officer often has all he/she needs to move forward with attempting a search, and from there, the stories abound of law abiding citizens who had large amounts of cash on hand for perfectly good reasons and lost it as a result of this highway interdiction.

Of the multiple cash seizures made since 2001, only a sixth of them were legally challenged. While advocates might say this is a sign of guilt, given the cost of taking legal action against the government–a process which took more than a year in 40 percent of the cases–some may just chalk it off as an angry loss (even though of the cases challenged, almost half of the people had their money returned).

Know Your Rights

While the Fourth Amendment does protect you against “unreasonable search and seizure,” police officers also have the power to investigate based on suspicions. The key is to know some basic rights you have when you are pulled over to avoid possible unlawful highway interdiction.

  • You may only be detained as long as it takes to deal with the initial reason for your stop. After that, even though an officer may request further conversation, a motorist can decline and leave.
  • You can be briefly detained and questioned if there is “reasonable suspicion” that you were involved in a criminal activity. Less than “probable cause,” reasonable suspicion may include matching the description of a person of interest, dropping or attempting to hide something upon being pulled over, or acting nervous while being questioned. Simply asking if you are free to go does not constitute reasonable suspicion.
  • Reasonable suspicion isn’t enough to perform a search. Officers must ask for permission, and motorists may decline. Officers do not have to inform drivers of their right to refuse.
  • Probable cause can result in a search without motorist permission. Probable cause includes the sight and or smell of contraband. If an officer has probable cause to believe cash in the vehicle is related to criminal activity, they may seize it.

People are naturally uncomfortable around law enforcement officers, often just because they are afraid they will do something wrong, even if they hadn’t done anything wrong up to that point. Just remain calm, answer their questions, and know your rights, and everything should work out fine.

West Valley City DUI Results in Various Property Damage

Utah Criminal Defense Blog, on the topic of  Alcohol in Utah, Crimes, DUI in Utah, Punishment, Utah Law
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Driving Under the Influence causes property damage

Photo: U.S. Navy

Fortunately only property was damaged in West Valley City over the weekend as a man suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol-more commonly known as a DUI –crashed into several things, ultimately ending the ride lodged in the wall of a local butcher shop. In addition to the DUI, the suspect was also driving on a suspended license.

Maybe He Just had the Munchies

According to a report from KSL News, on Sunday, Sept. 21, just before 8 a.m., Pimoteyo Walden was traveling at “an extremely high rate of speed” on 3500 South near 5300 West. He allegedly drifted off the road, making matters even worse at that rate of speed.

The first object of his assault was a power pole which was damaged, resulting in the loss of power to a nearby neighborhood. Next he hit a tree, which was as thick as a power pole, according to West Valley Police Lt. Dalan Taylor. Finally, he crashed through the exterior brick wall of Hunsaker Meats.

Walden was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol ( DUI ) and driving on a suspended license. According to Lt. Taylor, Walden only suffered a bloody nose, and fortunately for him, no other people were injured as a result of his actions.

Driving Under the Influence ( DUI ): More Than Just Legal Consequences

According to Utah Code 41-6A-503, a person convicted of a DUI for the first or second time is guilty of a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. However, it is a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $2,500, if the following occurs:

  • bodily injury of another as a proximate result, or
  • the driver had a passenger under 16 years of age in the vehicle at the time of offense, or
  • the driver was 21 years old and had a passenger under 18 in the vehicle at the time.

A third offense, or the infliction of “serious” bodily injury, will result in a third degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

However, another consideration to keep in mind is the “collateral sanctions” imposed by a DUI conviction. According to Utah Code 41-6a-502, as of July 1, 2012, “a court shall, monthly, send to the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing . . . a report containing the name, case number, and, if known, the date of birth of each person convicted during the previous month of a violation of [driving under the influence]” This is considered a “collateral sanction” and is grounds for revocation of professional licenses.

[For more on our discussion of “collateral sanctions,” click on our post, The "Collateral Damage" of a Conviction]

Driving under the influence can have serious repercussions on your personal and professional life, beyond those imposed by the law. If you or someone you know has been charged with a DUI, don’t leave your fate in the hands of a public defender. Make sure to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Man Arrested Videoing Police; Files First Amendment Violation Suit

Utah Criminal Defense Blog, on the topic of  Constitutional Rights, Dealing with Police, Legal Process
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Arrested Man Claims First Amendment Violation

Photo: Ed Uthman

It is being speculated that the activities of law enforcement across the nation haven’t been this much in the public eye since the 1960s and 70s. While much of this is being connected to the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, it seems that the true cause is the proliferation of phones with the capability of taking video. While not everyone is carrying a video camera with them, most people have their phones, and people are using them.

In a recent case in Austin, Texas, a man claimed a U.S. Constitution First Amendment violation after he was arrested multiple times for videoing the activities of Austin PD law enforcement officers. He also claimed violations to the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as well as violations of the Bill of Rights to the Texas Constitution and state law. The multiple defendants, ranging from specific officers all the way to the city of Austin itself, asked the District Court to dismiss the case.

Putting Himself in the Wrong Place at the Right Time

The case at hand revolves around three arrests of Antonio Francis Buehler. The first took place in January of 2012 when the plaintiff witnessed two of the defendants engaged in a traffic stop. Seeing what he believed to be unreasonable actions by the police officers, Buehler took out his camera and began filming. He addressed the officer’s directly, however, he didn’t move “more than a couple steps away from his truck.” After the initial suspect was detained, the officers moved toward Buehler, forced him to the ground and arrested him for Resisting Arrest, Search, or Transportation.

According to court records, Buehler filed a complaint with the Austin Police Department Internal Affairs, but no action was taken. In addition, Buehler asserts that he was contacted by another of the defendants, Chief of Police Art Acevedo, and was assured than an investigation would take place, but “[d]espite this personal knowledge and personal assurances, the civil rights violations continued.”

The next two arrests occurred under similar circumstances when Buehler was with members of a group he formed as a result, the Peaceful Streets Project. Both times Buehler was arrested and charged with Interference with Public Duties, his camera was taken, and his reports to Internal Affairs were filed without action being taken.

As a result, Buehler filed the suit claiming a First Amendment violation as well as Fourteenth Amendment, as he stated he had a right to film and publish the conduct of law enforcement officers. He went on to claim further violations to the Fourteenth Amendment as well as Fourth Amendment, “specifically false arrest, excessive force, unlawful search and seizure, and malicious prosecution.” In addition, he claimed the City of Austin and Police Chief Acevedo were liable because the failed to have a policy regarding “how Austin police officers should proceed when a private citizen records their conduct” and because they had knowledge of alleged civil rights violations but didn’t take action to remedy or prevent further violations.

So Was it a First Amendment Violation?

Without a doubt, the biggest question regarding this case is whether the actions of the defendants constituted a First Amendment violation or whether to dismiss the case.

To decide whether or not to dismiss this case, per the wishes of the defendants, the District Court had to examine several factors. First, they evaluated whether or not the defendants’ actions fell under “qualified immunity,” which protects state officials from civil damages when acting in official capacities. This is a two-step process. The first is establishing if a constitutional right has been violated, and the second step is determining whether or not the defendants’ alleged conduct was reasonable.

In regards to the claim of a First Amendment violation, the defense claimed that the right to photograph or videotape a police officer is not a constitutional right. However, citing several cases, the District Court decided this did indeed fall under that right. Among aspects of the First Amendment they discussed were included:

  • Right to assemble in a public forum, citing a case that referred to it as “the most precious of the liberties safeguarded by the Bill of Rights.”
  • Right of individuals to speak on matters of public concern, citing precedent by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals establishing “speech concerning police misconduct” as a matter of public concern.
  • Right of private individuals to receive and gather information. Again citing multiple cases and referring to the changing face of the media and news reporting, the District Court found that private individuals have the same rights to receive and gather information of public concern as that of the press.

Given these considerations, it seemed obvious that a First Amendment violation had taken place. The District Court went on to say that these rights are not without limit and that a police officer must be free to perform his official duties without undue interference. However, they quoted another case stating, “The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.”

Finding that a First Amendment violation had occurred and that it was an individuals right to photograph or videotape a police officer, the Court went on to also establish that, contrary to defense arguments, this right was clearly established at the time of Buehler’s arrest and that retaliating against a citizen for photographing or videotaping them constituted a depravation of that right.

Regarding whether the officers’ actions were reasonable, the Court referred to Buehler’s allegations that he informed the officers of his intent to record and attempted to comply with their directions so as to not interfere with the performance of their duties. The Court stated that if they accepted these allegations, the officers’ actions could not be considered reasonable. Therefore, the defendants were not considered entitled to qualified immunity.

The First Amendment violation was really the biggest issue at hand, and the Court found that he had a right to seek relief. In regards to the other aspects of his suit, they found as follows:

  • False arrest claims: Granted on the basis that he was arrested without probable cause to believe he committed an offense (based on the charges of “Resisting Arrest, Search, or Transportation” and “Interference with Public Duties”)
  • Malicious prosecution: Dismissed.
  • Use of excessive force: Dismissed. Even though psychological harm can be part of this claim in addition to physical harm, Buehler did not allege any physical or psychological harm.
  • Unlawful search and seizure: Granted in regards to the cameras taken as a result of arrests.

The claims Buehler made against the City of Austin and the Austin PD were a little more complicated. Because Buehler claimed he had notified the police chief of the civil rights violations and no action actions were taken were reason enough for the District Court to grant his claim that the city had failed to establish a policy or adequately train or supervise the officers if such a policy existed.

While certainly not the first of its kind, this case definitely adds another element to this growing concern both with among law enforcement and citizens as to how they interact with one another. While the case clearly states that Buehler was in the right to do what he had done, caution is still strongly advised in these circumstances. Law enforcement officials must carry themselves in a manner befitting their position, but citizens need to remember and be mindful of the tense situations in which those officers find themselves on a daily basis. It’s your right to film, but you must not interfere.

Alleged Bomb Plot Results in Illegal Firearm Possession Charges

Utah Criminal Defense Blog, on the topic of  Crimes, Utah Crime News, Utah Law
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Utah man charged illegal firearm possession

Photo: John Crowley

What started as an arrest of a Utah man more than a year ago for an alleged terrorist plot has resulted in the final charge of illegal firearm possession. According to a report from KSL news, the FBI called the original arrest a “success story” for their Joint Terrorism Task Force in Utah.

How Bomb Making Ended up as Illegal Firearm Possession

In 2013, Keith Max Pierce, 35, of Provo, was arrested after allegedly attempting to sell an AR-15 assault rifle that had been modified to fire in full-automatic mode to an undercover agent. Agents for the FBI claimed that in addition, Pierce was gathering bomb-making materials and making plans to blow up various government offices as well as assassinate Congressional members who voted for the 2001 Patriot Act.

The defense for Pierce, Mark Gregersen, claimed that no solid evidence existed of these allegations, although he had apparently made some comments along those lines. However, Gregersen stated that Pierce “was only guilty of saying stupid things.”

In a plea deal, Pierce pleaded guilty to illegal firearm possession [possession of a machine gun] and will serve a two year prison sentence, as well as have a follow up of three years supervised release with mental health treatment. He will also have to pay $4000 in restitution.

Why was it Illegal Firearm Possession?

Here is where the law gets tricky, and at this point, not enough information is available to understand the charge against Pierce. Possession of a machine gun, even fully automatic, is NOT considered unlawful firearm possession in the state of Utah. In addition, private sales of weapons in Utah are also legal.

However, there are several cases where it would be considered unlawful for Pierce to have a firearm in his possession. There were two other charges against Pierce in this case which were dropped as part of the deal: failing to register as a gun dealer and erasing the gun’s serial number. This could give us a clue as to the final illegal firearm possession charge. Perhaps the gun did not originally belong to Pierce or was not registered properly, but there may have been other circumstances.

According to Utah Code 76-10-503, other examples of illegal firearm possession in Utah apply to individuals who have been convicted of a felony. In addition, one may not possess a firearm if they have been found not guilty of a felony by reason of insanity or were found mentally incompetent to stand trial or “mentally defective” per the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. Other examples include those dishonorably discharged from the military and those who have renounced their citizenship.

If you or someone you know has been charged with illegal firearm possession, make sure you contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who will look out for your best interests.

Cellphone Tracking: Not the Exact Science Federal Prosecutors Claim. Court Overturns Conviction based upon Questionable Cell Phone Tracking Data.

Utah Criminal Defense Blog, on the topic of  Criminal Defense Misc, Evidence, Legal Process
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Cellphone Tracking Accuracy Questioned

Photo: Marc Johnson

In late 2009, the FBI formed a special unit dedicated to assisting in their investigations of crime utilizing the tracking and analysis of cellphone use. This agency, the Cellular Analysis and Survey Team (C.A.S.T.) has had many successes with their methods. The agency has trained over 5,000 state and local police investigators, and now they want to expand from their current 32 full-time agents. Unfortunately, besides criticisms of invasion of privacy, their methodology, especially when it comes to the area of cellphone tracking and location, has been proven flawed in many cases. One of the biggest cases to shine a light on these flaws deals with Lisa Marie Roberts, of Portland, Oregon, who was recently released from prison after serving almost twelve years for a murder she didn’t commit.

A Case of Flawed Cellphone Tracking

In 2004, Lisa Marie Roberts was told by her court appointed attorney that she should plead guilty for the 2002 murder of her girlfriend, Jerri Williams. Her attorney told her that state cellphone tracking evidence placed her phone within 3.4 miles of the park where Williams’ body was found. Her attorney told her there was no chance of acquittal.

According to a report from the Washington Post, Roberts was quoted as saying, “I just bawled. I didn’t do it.” However, she took the plea deal for a 15 year sentence. In April of this year, the guilty plea was thrown out by U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm F. Marshall. In addition to calling into question the validity of the cellphone tracking evidence [more information in the next section], witness testimony placed her more than 8 miles away from the scene of the crime, and new DNA evidence placed another suspect at the park. Roberts was released from prison at the end of May.

Cellphone Tracking: Misunderstood and Overused Science

Even though cellphone tracking has been used for years by prosecutors, experts are starting to come forward to say that the way the information is being used is flawed. While some are simply calling the technology interpretation “misunderstood,” some are even going so far as to call it “junk science.”

The idea behind cellphone tracking according to C.A.S.T. and prosecutors is that cellphone tower records can pinpoint a person’s precise location. The flawed logic is the assumption that when you make a call, it is automatically routed to the nearest cell tower. Ergo, if a crime has been committed, a search of those records can tell investigators if the suspect was in the vicinity of the crime. Here is a quick layman’s explanation of how cellphones actually work and how this information is being used in a flawed manner:

  • Step 1: Hit “send” on the phone. Depending on whether it is a rural or urban area, the phone sends out a radio-frequency signal to towers within a radius of up to twenty miles.
  • Step 2: A switching center evaluates the call, determines the destination and a software program “decides” which tower to connect your call based on a variety of factors.

 

It is this second step which causes discrepancies and invalidates the use of cellphone tracking as an investigative tool, according to experts. For example, the decision of which tower your call will use may not be the same even if you make repeated calls to the same destination in a short period of time. Sometimes a call will shift towers during the same call. This was another piece of exonerating evidence for Roberts. Apparently she had received another call moments before the one which placed her near the park. This first call came from a tower 1.3 miles away from the second call, but there was no way she could have traveled that distance in the 40 seconds that elapsed between calls.

In addition, sometimes the nearest tower may be overloaded (in the case of too many people using the tower, for example at a sporting event) or under routine maintenance, in which case your call is routed to a different tower. According to a report from The New Yorker, the only certainty is that your call will connect with a tower “somewhere within a range of roughly twenty miles.” Even if one figures half of that radius [10 miles] and the fact that most towers have three directional antennae, each covering a third of the circle, you still get an area of almost 105 square miles. Not very accurate science.

Cellphone Tracking Hits and Misses

While it’s true that this method isn’t to be trusted without question, there have been instances where investigators have been–and could potentially continue to be–successful. For example, most smartphones have G.P.S. which pinpoints your location to between 50 and 100 feet. Also, if you are under investigation, law enforcement agencies can “ping” your phone and give real-time locations.

A successful case in 2010 gave fuel to the fire driving the establishment C.A.S.T. In this case, Kelvin L. Jones, a rogue New York City police officer, staged a $1 million perfume heist. Jones was using a prepaid phone–a similar plan used by other criminals to try to mask their movements–but FBI agents were still able to create a map of locations following Jones’ movements as he pulled off the crime. This led to a successful conviction.

According to the chief of forensics for the Los Angeles County public defender’s office, Jennifer Friedman, “In every major case in Los Angeles, they use cell-tower information…It’s like fingerprints, it’s that common.” However, in a 2012 California murder case, a radio frequency engineer for AT&T testified that towers in the L.A. area have ranges of zero to 20 miles. Other experts have also added that towers can be affected by such things as topography and atmospheric conditions, and even though the FBI has claimed they run “drive tests” to confirm their data, these changing conditions make it nearly impossible to say with certainty that one day’s data matches a day being investigated in the past.

Courts are starting to agree. While there have been successes with cellphone tracking investigations, there have been numerous misses, besides the case of Lisa Marie Roberts. Enough so that many judges are no longer allowing the evidence or instructing jury members to weigh the evidence critically. Even where judges allowing the evidence, many juries, increasingly familiar with modern technology, are starting to figure it out on their own.

While the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that warrants must be obtained to search cellphones (which would apply to obtaining the G.P.S. chips from phones), there is currently no national protocol as to whether a warrant is required for getting call records and cellphone tower data.

[For more information on the Supreme Court decision regarding warrants to search cellphones, click on our post, Cellphone Privacy and Fourth Amendment Upheld by Supreme Court.]

In the case of Lisa Marie Roberts, to get back to the beginning, this case illustrates the importance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. Roberts’ court appointed attorney encouraged her to take the plea deal without even looking at the evidence or considering the implications or flaws. If you have been charged with a crime where the evidence deals with your cellphone, make sure you contact a criminal defense attorney who will do everything in their power to assure your rights.

Utah Man Arrested on Warrant for Animal Cruelty

Utah Criminal Defense Blog, on the topic of  Crimes, Utah Crime News, Utah Law, Utah Legal Definition
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Utah Man arrested for animal cruelty

Photo: Rikki’s Refuge

On Friday, September 5, a Salt Lake City man was arrested on a warrant for animal cruelty after allegedly slamming a dog repeatedly to the ground. The injuries to the animal were severe enough that its leg was almost amputated.

Signs of a Troubled Individual

According to Salt Lake Justice Court records, on June 9, 2013, Ernaldo Javier Guzman-Lopez. 31, of Salt Lake City, was attempting to put a leash on his mother’s dog, “Tiny.” When the dog got excited and started running around to avoid the leash, Lopez allegedly grabbed Tiny and slammed him down. According to the charges filed against Lopez, his mother tried to stop him, but “Lopez just kept slamming Tiny to the ground.”

Court records state that the veterinarian found a shattered left hind tibia with “bone splinters throughout the tibial area.” The vet’s recommendation was for amputation of the leg, but the family chose reconstructive surgery.

After the incident, a $10,000 warrant was issued, and on Friday, Lopez was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail on charges of animal cruelty. This isn’t Lopez’s first run-in with the law concerning animals. According to court records, he was convicted of “dogs attacking persons and animals” in 2008.

Animal Cruelty: Definitions and Punishments

According to Utah Code 76-9-301, animal cruelty charges can range from the lower end class C misdemeanor up to a third degree felony depending on the animal and extent of the cruelty. In this particular case, Lopez is being charged with “torture of a companion animal,” where “torture” is defined as “intentionally or knowingly causing or inflicting extreme physical pain to an animal in an especially heinous, atrocious, cruel or exceptionally depraved manner,” and “companion animal” is defined as “any animal that is a domestic dog or a domestic cat.” Torture to a companion animal is a third degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

This felony designation of animal cruelty is relatively new to Utah law and there are several conditions and definitions that fall under Utah Code 76-9-301. If you or someone you know has been convicted of animal cruelty, make sure you hire an experienced criminal defense attorney who knows all the ins-and-outs of this charge and look out for your best interests.

The “Collateral Damage” of a Conviction; Expungement Steps in Utah

Utah Criminal Defense Blog, on the topic of  Criminal Defense Misc, Legal Process, Utah Law
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Utah Criminal Records Expungement

Photo: Cliff

When it comes to being convicted of a crime, most people are aware of the damages it can inflict in the immediate: the cost of fines, restitution or time in prison. What many don’t consider are the “collateral damage” or “collateral sanctions” of a conviction, the longer term punishments inflicted by society beyond those imposed upon you by the law. When considering these other sanctions, while expungement of criminal records is a time-consuming process, it is definitely worth it.

Collateral Sanctions: Is Your Name on the List?

According to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal, in the master criminal records file of the United States federal government, there are records on 77.7 million people, approximately one record for every three adults in the country. The fact that should concern many of these adults is that even if a charge is dropped or someone has been acquitted, that doesn’t mean their name is no longer on file. It is up to the local authorities to submit those dropped charges or acquittals to the FBI through the courts, however, it isn’t mandatory that they do so. The other alternative for someone with a charge or conviction is to apply for expungement of their record [sealing the records from public access].

If these records aren’t cleared, the resulting collateral sanctions can ruin a person’s life, even if the mistake they made was simply a misdemeanor, a one-time indiscretion from their younger college years. Many of these damages for such indiscretions are immediate. A survey by the Labor Department found that those convicted of a crime by the age of 23 suffered in several areas of their lives as opposed to those not convicted. By 25 years old, the survey found the following data:

  • Median income was $5 thousand less than those without convictions
  • The percentage of those with convictions living below the poverty level was twice that of those without convictions
  • Only 10 percent owned a home as opposed to 21 percent without convictions
  • Only 10 percent received their college degree as opposed to 37 percent for those without convictions

While many could look at these numbers and say that if they were convicted of a crime, they were already heading in a bad direction, the fact is that collateral sanctions could also be a cause. Background checks are regularly part of applications for college admissions and financial aid. Scholarships can be revoked. Many jobs will be denied to those with convictions.

Down the road, these sanctions continue to affect the lives of those with convictions, especially in Utah, one of the ten states with the most severe collateral sanctions. In Utah, a misdemeanor drug offense (such as possession of marijuana) can lead to the denial or revocation of certain professional licenses or certifications, even if the offense is completely unrelated to the profession. That same misdemeanor can also bar one from adoption or foster parenting for a certain length of time (this is a lifetime barring in 7 states). This type of conviction in Utah can also lead to a 6-month suspension of a driver’s license, even if there was no charge of driving under the influence, making it that much more difficult for one to succeed, especially if they are repentant for their mistakes.

In many cases, if expungement doesn’t take place, the criminal records carry sanctions more severe than those associated with such violent crimes as murder, rape or kidnapping. For example, the felony conviction of growing marijuana bans one from receiving food stamps or temporary assistance for life. While some would argue that this is fair, think about this: only felony drug offenses result in this ban. Not even convicted murderers, robbers, or kidnappers are banned from federal assistance for life. This also affects gun ownership. According to the Federal Gun Control Act, it is a federal crime to possess a firearm if one has been convicted of a felony or if one is an “unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance.”

Expungement of Criminal Records: Your Best Option

Again, expungement of a criminal record means to seal the record–including records of the arrest, investigation, detention and conviction–from public access. This order to seal the records only applies to government agencies. Other records, such as news reports, will not be sealed. In order to have a criminal record expunged, the defendant in the criminal case petitions the court to seal the records in a civil case.

Several crimes are ineligible for expungement, including:

  • a capital felony, first degree felony or violent felony
  • automobile homicide
  • felony driving under the influence
  • registerable sex offense

Remember, even if you have been arrested but not convicted, your name may be in the federal files. In order to petition for expungement without a conviction, you have to wait 30 days after the arrest and can’t have any other pending criminal cases. If charges were filed, the case must have been dismissed, you were acquitted, or the statute of limitations expired.

It gets a little more complicated if a conviction is involved. In order to petition for expungement of a conviction, first one must pay all fines, fees, restitution and interest. Also, a certain amount of time must have elapsed since conviction or release from incarceration, probation or parole (7 years for most felonies, 3-5 years for most misdemeanors. Exceptions are misdemeanor DUI and felony drug possession with intent to distribute).

The petitioner will receive a Certificate of Eligibility from the Bureau of Criminal Identification (BCI) which will be valid for 90 days. They attach the certificate to their Petition to Expunge Records, which is filed in the court where the original criminal case was filed or the district court in the county where the petitioner was arrested. If a victim was involved, the prosecutor notifies the victim that the petitioner is seeking expungement. If neither the prosecutor nor victim requests a hearing, the court will decide whether to grant the petition and enter an order for expungement.

However, you’re not done. The petitioner must deliver the expungement order to any agencies with relevant records. BCI will provide written directions as well as a list of agencies to the petitioner. BCI will also forward a copy of the order to the FBI.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean your record is destroyed. There are still several state and federal agencies which may receive information in sealed, expunged records. However, you are one huge step closer to erasing those youthful indiscretions or regrettable choices and living the new life you want to live.

Of course, hopefully you will never have to go through all of this hassle of expungement. The best way to avoid that is not to commit crimes in the first place. However, if you are already in trouble with the law, the next best step is to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney to help you avoid a conviction. Have a record expunged where there was no conviction is much quicker and easier than if you are convicted. Don’t leave your fate (and future) in the hands of a public attorney.

Man Attempts, Fails Robbery of Two Utah Businesses

Utah Criminal Defense Blog, on the topic of  Crimes, Humor, Utah Crime News, Utah Legal Definition
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Man Fails Attempted Robbery

Photo: Mike Mozart

A man is being sought as a suspect for the attempted robbery of two separate businesses on Saturday, August 30. Both times, the man was easily dissuaded from his course of action and left with no money.

Must Not Have Needed Money That Bad

On Saturday morning, the suspect, a male described as approximately 5 feet 7 inches wearing a red University of Utah hoodie, entered a Subway restaurant in West Valley City. He asked the cashier for money but was told there wasn’t any in the store. Deciding that made perfect sense, the first attempted robbery was thwarted, and the man moved on to the next location, a Family Dollar store. At this location, after asking for money, the man was told he would have to wait. Clearly the suspect had other more pressing engagements because he decided not to wait, instead leaving the store on foot and entering a white passenger vehicle.

Police are still looking for the suspect.

Robbery Charges Still Possible

Even though the suspect was unsuccessful in his half-hearted attempts, if he is caught, he could still be charged with robbery. According to Utah Code 76-6-301, a person may be convicted of robbery if they “unlawfully and intentionally take or attempts to take personal property in the possession of another”. This extends to the owner of the establishments, even if they weren’t personally there for the crime. The tricky part in this particular crime is that it requires the use of “force or fear.” In neither instance was it reported that the man threatened violence. He simply asked for money. As one commenter stated on the KSL news website, “What’s the difference between this guy… and a panhandler on the street holding a sign ‘asking for money’?”

If more details surface including a threat of force or violence, robbery constitutes a second degree felony, punishable by up to fifteen years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. If you or someone you know has been charged with robbery, seek the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney who knows your rights. After all, maybe you were really just asking for money.

Distributing Harmful Materials to Minor Focus of Utah Appeals Case

Utah Appeals Case Distributing Harmful Materials

Photo: Bernard Pollack

There is an old saying about obeying the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. In a nutshell, following the letter of the law means to obey the literal interpretation (the letter) of the law but not necessarily the intent (or spirit) of those who wrote the law. When it comes to a criminal appeal, it is usually up to the court to work according to the very specific letter of the law. This was the case recently with Eric Leon Butt, Jr., who was convicted for distributing harmful materials to a minor and took his appeal to the Utah Supreme Court.

Even if She Asked, Still a Bad Idea

The case that resulted in the Butt’s conviction of distributing harmful materials to a minor began when Butt was already incarcerated in the San Juan County Jail on charges of theft. From jail, Butt mailed two separate letters addressed to his wife with individual letters for her, his eight-year-old son, and five-year-old daughter. In both instances, the letter to his daughter contained a nude drawing of himself. In the second letter, the picture showed the Defendant holding the daughter’s buttocks up to his mouth with a balloon caption saying, “Hi beautiful girl. I miss you so much. I can’t wait to bite your butt cheek. This is what it will look like. I love you.”

Both letters were intercepted by a prison guard and taken to Deputy Alan Freestone, the deputy sheriff for the San Juan County Jail. Freestone asked Deputy Martha Johnson to find out the ages of Butt’s children without explaining the motivation or asking for any other information. As a result of the information gathered, the State moved forward and convicted Butt of two counts of distributing harmful material to a minor according to Utah Code 76-10-1206.

In regard to the nudity in the drawing, Butt testified in the original hearing that he did intend for her to see the pictures and didn’t find them offensive because his daughter had specifically asked him to draw a picture of himself like the cave drawings she had seen in a documentary. Regarding the second picture, Butt claimed it depicted a game he played with his daughter that involved biting and tickling.

Butt appealed this conviction. In order to address the Defendant’s contention that his Fifth Amendment rights were violated and that the State’s case lacked sufficiency of evidence, the Supreme Court got down to the “letter” of the law, examining several individual definitions to determine if this was indeed a proper conviction.

A Question of “Custody” and “Interrogation”

The first argument Eric Butt proposed in regards to what he believed was an improper conviction of distributing harmful materials to a minor was that his Fifth Amendment rights were violated when Deputy Johnson asked him about his children’s age without issuing him his Miranda warning. The portion of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution applicable here is the following:

“No person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”

In order to preserve this right, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that a defendant being subjected to “custodial interrogation” is entitled to his/her Miranda warning [“You have the right to remain silent,” etc.] The Defendant claimed that even though the information about his children could have been attained elsewhere, since it was a necessary element of the crime of which he was being accused, he should have received a Miranda warning.

To evaluate this assertion, the Utah Supreme Court examined the words “custody” and “interrogation.” Their first step was determining whether or not a reasonable person would have felt that he or she was at liberty to terminate the interrogation and leave–regardless of whether said person was already incarcerated, as in the case of Butt. This included “the location of the questioning, its duration, statements made during the interview, the presence or absence or physical restraints during the questioning, and the release of the interviewee at the end of the questioning.”

When examining these circumstances, even though Deputy Johnson “was sent deliberately to ask Defendant a pointed question that elicited a response concerning an element of the crime being investigated” and that a defendant in a prison cell would never feel “free to leave,” ultimately the other factors weighed against Butt, and the Supreme Court decided Miranda warnings were not required.

Defining “Distributing Harmful Materials”

In the second challenge to his conviction of distributing harmful materials to a minor, Butt questioned the terms of the conviction itself. The Utah Supreme Court thus followed suit to see if, A) he did intentionally “distribute” the material, and B) whether the material would be considered “harmful to minors.”

According to Utah Code 76-10-1201(3), “distribute” is defined as “transfer[ring] possession of materials whether with or without consideration.” The State was tasked with proving that Butt did this with intent to commit the crime or that he acted with awareness that his conduct was going to cause a criminal result.

Butt argued that this didn’t apply because the letters and pictures in question were addressed to his wife, not his daughter. His wife would ultimately have the decision of deciding whether or not the material was appropriate. While this may have been a valid argument, in what was a mistake in his original trial, this information was never brought up, and according to State vs. Holgate, “[C]laims not raised before the trail court may not be raised on appeal” unless the defendant can demonstrate some form of exceptional circumstances or error, neither of which Butt was able to do.

The next question was over the definition of “harmful to minors.” According to Utah Code 76-10-1201(5)(a), for the State to prove this, the material in question must meet the following three criteria:

  • taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest in sex of minors,
  • is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable for minors, and
  • taken as a whole, does not have suitable value for minors.

Butt contended that the State hadn’t met its burden of proof on the first two criteria. He questioned the fact that the State only presented the letters and not any additional evidence or expert testimony to support the terms “harmful,” “prurient,” or “patently offensive.” However, according to decisions on several previous similar cases, the legislature relinquished its ability to define such terms, leaving that responsibility to the jury.

According to the Appeals Court documents: “As an appellate court, our role in reviewing a sufficiency of the evidence claim is simply to ‘consider the evidence and the inferences that may reasonably be drawn from that evidence to determine whether there is a basis upon which a jury could find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.’ In a ‘harmful to minors’ case, it is left to the jury to decide for itself what is harmful and what is not. We therefore conclude that the State’s presentation of only the drawings in question falls within the parameters of the ‘harmful to minors statute, and that the jury reasonably drew the inference that the material met the elements of ‘harmful.’”

The Best Offense is a Good Defense

This example serves yet again to illustrate the importance of a good criminal defense attorney. Perhaps raising the question of whether Butt actually “distributed” the material in his original trial might have been enough to acquit.

Remember, there is a reason for professional criminal defense attorneys. If you in trouble with the law, either for distributing harmful material to a minor or something else, make sure you seek their counsel. They have your best interests in mind.

[For another recent post discussing the issue of how mail being sent by a prisoner is handled, click “Sixth Amendment Violation the Basis for Court of Appeals Decision

For another appeals case that might have been handled better in trial court by the Defendant’s defense attorney, click “Fingerprint Evidence Questioned in Utah Appeals Case”]