Utah Residents Unintentionally Consent to a Home Search

Too many residents in Utah will give unneeded consent to a home search by police while others may unintentionally consent to a home search just by answering the front door.

Consent to a home search

Photo by: Kelly Parker McPhearson

There are some Utah residents who are not afraid to say “no” when a request is made to search a home without a warrant or probable cause. Knowing and exercising the right to refuse a search is a big step, yet there is more that can be done to protect a home against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Front door search

Those who aren’t easily intimidated when approached by law enforcement should remember that not all searches require physical access to the inside of a residence. Officers can use a few tricks to obtain a glance inside a resident’s home without ever taking one step past the threshold. Two strategies commonly used together are the “knock and talk” combined with “Plain View Doctrine”.

  • The “knock and talk” routine is just as it sounds – officers knock on the door and talk. Anybody may go to a resident’s door and knock. That is a perfectly community based notion that is not against the law for regular citizens and therefore, not against the law for police either. When police knock however, they are generally not just casually shooting the breeze while on the clock. Their visits are typically done to obtain information or clarify facts that may or may not incriminate someone. During these “knock and talks”, officer can chat, ask questions, or use the “Plain View Doctrine” to locate illegal contraband.

    Photo by: Mike Lewinski

  • The “Plain View Doctrine” does not give police permission to enter a person’s home and begin opening drawers and closets. It merely allows them to be in a spot where they are either invited to be or which would be common for a visitor. When in publicly acceptable area such as a front step or living room (if invited in), there they will use sight and other senses to lawfully observe around them for anything illegal such as drugs or evidence of a crime.

Exercising complete rights against unreasonable searches

Although it may come off as rude, it is perfectly acceptable to not open the door when someone comes a knocking, even if it is law enforcement. Residents have several options when police officers knock at the door: invite officers inside, speak from the open door, meet officers outside to talk, or even have a conversation through a closed door. While the latter option may sound discourteous, it can be done politely and with the utmost respect towards the attending officers. Anyone facing problems after trying to exercise their complete rights against unreasonable searches is encouraged to seek a reputable attorney for legal counsel.

Utah License Plate Violations

According to the Utah Department of Motor Vehicles, “All registered vehicles in Utah must display license plates.” What are other laws regarding license plates in Utah and what issues can arise from license plate violations?

Use of License Plates

Photo by: Jerry “Woody”

Officers on Utah roads can tell a lot about a vehicle by the license plate alone. By either scanning or entering in the information found on the plate, law enforcement can:

• Ensure the vehicle is registered and to whom;
• Check to see if the vehicle has been reported stolen;
• Locate a vehicle that may be suspected as being used in a crime;
• Find out if the person to whom the vehicle is registered has warrants out for their arrest; or
• Make sure the license plates displayed are on the correct vehicle.
License plates are regularly scanned and searched throughout the day and because of this, they must be able to be seen by nearby officers.

Visibility

Having a license plate on a vehicle is futile if a plate is obstructed or placed in a low-visibility area. Many officers search license plates from inside their vehicles and need the plates to be visible from there. Utah Code 41-1a-404 regarding license plates and registration indicia state that “a license plate shall at all times be:

(a) Securely fastened:
i. In a horizontal position to the vehicle . . . to prevent the plate from swinging;
ii. At a height of not less than 12 inches from the ground . . .
iii. In a place and position to be clearly visible; and
(b) Maintained:
i. Free from foreign materials; and
ii. In a condition to be clearly legible.”

That section goes on to explain that as long as the license plate is installed correctly, the driver will not be issued an infraction for low visibility of the license plate if the plate is “. . . obscured exclusively by . . .

(a) a trailer hitch;
(b) A wheelchair lift or wheelchair carrier;
(c) A trailer being towed by the vehicle;
(d) A bicycle rack, ski rack, or luggage rack; or
(e) A similar cargo carrying device.”

Illumination

The need for license plates to be visible is not saved for daylight hours only. Officers must also be able to read the plates when it’s dark. Besides the necessary head lamps and break lamps, all motor vehicles in Utah are required to have proper illumination of their rear license plates at night. Utah Code 41-6a-1604 reads: “Either a tail lamp or a separate lamp shall be so constructed and placed as to illuminate with a white light the rear registration plate.” When the bulb illuminating the rear license plate goes out, many drivers remain unaware as they seldom see the rear of their vehicle when the lights are on. For this reason, failure to illuminate a rear license plate is a common reason for traffic stops in Utah including those that lead to an arrest for other charges.

Rear AND front license plates

Photo by: Michael Durausch

Contrary to what is seen on several vehicles on the road, license plates are indeed required on the front of vehicles – not just the rear. If this is the case, why are there so many thousands of vehicles on Utah roads that are lacking the front license plate? Utah Code 41-1a-404 states “License plates issued for a vehicle other than a motorcycle, trailer, or semitrailer shall be attached to the vehicle, one in the front and the other in the rear.” That section goes on the note “Enforcement by a state or local law enforcement officer of the requirement . . . to attach a license plate to the front of a vehicle shall be only as a secondary action when the vehicle has been detained for a suspected violation by any person in the vehicle . . . other than that requirement . . . to attach a license plate to the front of the vehicle”. So although failure to display a front license plate can result in a traffic violation, it cannot be the reason a vehicle is pulled over in the first place.

Searches stemming from license plate violations

As stated above, many traffic stops begin with a license plate violation such as failure to illuminate plate or for having a plate obstructed from view. Once a vehicle is pulled over, more issues may arise depending on what the attending officer observes during the traffic stop. Often a stop for a license plate violation is made when an officer has a suspicion about one or more persons in the vehicle. The attending officer may request to search the vehicle or find probably cause to perform a search without consent. It is important for all drivers to know their rights regarding legitimate reasons for traffic stops involving license plates and any accompanying vehicle searches. For those who may be facing charges or who have concerns about whether or not their rights have been violated, contact a criminal defense attorney.

Is Possession of a Photo of Mexican Folk Saint Jesus Malverde Reasonable Suspicion of Drug Activity in Utah?

Jesus Malverde, a Mexican folk saint known as the “Narco-saint” is celebrated by many individuals including those involved in drug trafficking; for this reason, any memorial item of him may be add to an officer’s reasonable suspicion of drug activity.

Jesus Malverde, the good bandit

Photo by: beautiful hustler -[inworld] –>hotwetkitty

Jesus Malverde is a folk saint believed by some to have lived in Mexico in the late 19th century. Although he is known by most Roman Catholics throughout Mexico, he is not officially recognized as a saint by the church. Malverde was said to have been a “good bandit”, who through his short life was responsible for regularly stealing from the rich to give back to his deprived fellow countrymen. Following his death, many who memorialize Malverde as a saint credit their ability to heal from injuries and sickness or find lost items to his spiritual influence.

Twisted folklore

Just as any folklore, the story of Jesus Malverde has slowly become distorted, with some using his image and name for immoral purposes. Over the years, drug traffickers began to claim Malverde had regularly protected drug lords such as El Chapo as well as the Mexican drug cartel from being arrested or killed. A shrine to honor Jesus Malverde was erected in his birthplace of Sinaloa, Mexico and was funded almost entirely by the drug cartel. Memorabilia including photos, statues, jewelry, candles, and even soap has been created with Malverde’s name or photo for worshipers to purchase. Unfortunately, because the drug cartel has usurped Malverde’s name, being in possession of any of those collectibles could give authorities reasonable suspicion that someone is involved in drug activity.

Targeted for religious icon

Photo by: Drew Stephens

Since Jesus Malverde’s name was tainted by drug cartel, anyone sporting souvenirs with Malverde’s image or name could be watched more closely by law enforcement. There have been several drug cases in which Jesus Malverde memorabilia helped convince law enforcement of possible drug activity. Two that took place in Utah included:

• U.S. V. Lopez-Gutierrez. Lopez was pulled over in Cedar City, Utah for a traffic violation when police “observed one picture of Jesus Malverde affixed to the dashboard and another hanging from Lopez’s necklace. The officer recognized the images of Jesus Malverde, who is considered a patron saint by some drug traffickers.” The officer observed other suspicious items such as an air freshener, rose, and three cell phones; thus proceeding to further question Lopez. After a K9 alerted on the car, a search of the vehicle turned up distribution amounts of methamphetamine.

• State of Utah V. Alverez. Alverez was seen stopping at an apartment complex, only to return moments later. Police became suspicious and waited for Alverez to return the next day. After he returned and reentered the complex, an officer “observed a facsimile of Jesus Malverde” and that “ through interviews he had conducted, Jesus Malverde was the patron saint of drug dealing.” When Alverez returned to the vehicle, officer discussed his lack of vehicle insurance, questioned him about drug use, and then forcefully made Alverez open his mouth where he was hiding 15 rubber balloons filled with illegal drugs.

Reasonable suspicion

Photo by: niceness

Utah Code 77-7-15 states, “a peace officer may stop any person in a public place when he has a reasonable suspicion to believe he has committed or is in the act of committing or is attempting to commit a public offense and may demand his name, address and an explanation of his actions.” Reasonable suspicion differs from probable cause in that with reasonable suspicion, there doesn’t need to be evidence of a crime, only a hunch by a trained law enforcement officer. If an officer sees drugs in a car through a window or a door, that officer would have probable cause to search the vehicle. If the same officer instead saw an item such as a picture of Jesus Malverde in the vehicle who is known to be worshipped by many, including drug traffickers, the officer could question the suspect under the claim that the photo added to his reasonable suspicion of possible drug activity.

Religious persecution

The First Amendment to the Constitution reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ( . . . )”. Unless a religion give a valid cause for alarm such as a direct threat to the safety of the public, the separation of church and state should prohibit the government from determining what religion (or saint) citizens are allowed to worship without being accused of wrong-doing. By claiming souvenirs of Saint Jesus Malverde point to an increased chance of drug trafficking, the question of religious prosecution arises. Just because some who worship a religion or saint have criminal histories, not all who practice that religion or worship should be implicated as well. Just as not all Muslims are potential terrorists and not all white Christians are supremacists, it is unfair and unconstitutional to determine a person’s character or likelihood to commit a crime based on their choice of a religious icon.