Communications Fraud and Theft from a Utah School District

A southern Utah man was placed being bars Friday for communications fraud as well as theft after he installed audio and video equipment for a school district that was inferior to what they had purchased.

Not what they ordered

Communications Fraud

Photo by: MiNe

An investigation into Dustin Taylor, a former manager of a St. George company that sells audio and video systems began last year after the Washington County School District as well as a local theater company discovered that although they had ordered high quality equipment for their facilities, what ended up being installed was far lower value. Police discovered Taylor had been running his own business on the side and had allegedly taken the better equipment before installing it for a job contract through his side business. Taylor was arrested for communications fraud as well as multiple charges of theft.

Communications fraud

Utah Code 76-10-1801 states “Any person who has devised any scheme or artifice to defraud another or to obtain from another money, property, or anything of value by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, promises, or material omissions, and who communicates directly or indirectly with any person by any means for the purpose of executing or concealing the scheme or artifice is guilty of:

a) A class B misdemeanor when the value of the property ( . . . ) is less than $500;

b) A class A misdemeanor when the value ( . . . ) is [between $500 and $1,500];

c) A third degree felony when the value ( . . . ) is [between $1,500 and $5,000];

d) A second degree felony when the value of the property ( . . . ) exceeds $5,000.

The monetary loss of the customers who were defrauded by Taylor was estimated to be around $34,000.

Theft by deception

Not only did Taylor deceive customers by installing inferior equipment, but he took the high quality equipment from the company he was working for to install elsewhere without their knowledge. As Utah Code 76-6-405 states, he “obtain[ed] or exercise[d] control over property of another person: by deception; and with a purpose to deprive the other person of property.” The charges for theft by deception depend on the value of the item stolen and are identical to the charges by value for communications fraud. In Taylor’s case, the value of the audio and video equipment that Taylor had appropriated and resold or had in his possession was estimated to be as high as $89,000. This resulted in multiple theft charges; each being another second degree felony. Each second degree felony charge for communications fraud and theft is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a fine of $10,000.

Reduced sentencing for first-time offender

Photo by: Mark Strozier

Photo by: Mark Strozier

It is unknown whether Taylor intentionally concocted a plan to deceive the school district and other companies or if an opportunity to make more money fell into his lap and he thought no one would be the wiser. Either way, what he did was against the law and he risked spending nearly a lifetime in jail, especially if his sentences were to be run consecutively. Fortunately, Taylor had a clean record and was an outstanding citizen prior to his theft and communications fraud charges. This was likely his saving grace.

What a deal

As part of a plea deal that reduced his charges to third degree felonies, Taylor was sentenced for up to five years in prison and a fine of $5,000 for communications fraud and five years each for multiple theft charges as well. The judge also ordered these to be run consecutively. Following this sentencing, the judge changed the sentencing to a single term of a five months and then even further reduced the prison term to 60 days for the 39 year old father of four. After his two months in jail which began Friday, Taylor is ordered to be on probation for three years and offer 100 hours of community service. He was also ordered to write letters of apology to the customers he victimized. For multiple second degree felonies to end in a single two month prison sentence is incredible. The probable explanation for the judge’s mercy, beyond the obvious help of an experienced defense attorney, is likely due to Taylor’s lack of a criminal record prior to the communication fraud and theft charges. For anyone facing charges that seem too immense to handle, don’t lose hope until discussing what a criminal defense attorney can do for you.

Law Enforcement Use of GPS Tracking Devices

Law enforcement officers have different measures to obtain information about a potential suspect including the use of “slap-on” GPS tracking devices attached to vehicles. Without a warrant however, this practice may constitute a violation of the suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights regarding unreasonable searches.

GPS tracking devices

Photo by: Surrey County Council News

Photo by: Surrey County Council News

The “slap-on” GPS tracking devices are mechanisms that can be placed inconspicuously on the undercarriage of a vehicle allowing police the ability to track the movement and location of said vehicle. These tracking tools allow law enforcement to keep tabs on potential suspects over an extended period of time and can be used to learn the whereabouts of illegal activity.

Protection from unreasonable searches

For several years, “slap-on” GPS tracking devices were under debate, with many claiming they violated a person’s Fourth Amendment rights regarding unreasonable searches. The Fourth Amendment states “The right of the people to be secure ( . . . ) against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause ( . . . ). In October of 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed that GPS tracking devices constituted a “search” and law enforcement must obtain a warrant based on probable cause before placing such devices on a vehicle.

Ankle monitors

Photo by: Washington State House Republican

Photo by: Washington State House Republican

While tracking devices on vehicles were deemed unconstitutional without a warrant, the question was raised whether or not SBM monitors, commonly referred to as ankle monitors should fall under the same scrutiny (Grady v. North Carolina). Each state has their own specific uses for electronic tracking in the form of ankle monitors. Some states use these devices to forever track the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders after they have finished their sentencing. Other states such as Utah permit law enforcement to use ankle monitors on individuals placed on probation. (Utah Code 77-18-1.16)

Grey area

As law enforcement’s use of electronic searches is being evaluated, it is wise to consult with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney to ensure that your rights are not being violated by the use of tracking devices or other means of technological trespass.

Right of a Probationer to Refuse Consent to Search by Police

Offenders on probation have to follow strict rules to ensure their freedom including permitting AP&P officers to visit them at home and work, conducting searches anytime without a warrant; however the Fourth Amendment protects the probationer the right to refuse consent to search when approached by the police.

Knock and talk

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Photo by: Chris Yarzab

Police officers will often use a controversial investigative technique called a “knock and talk” to gather information and possibly gain admission to a residence without having reasonable suspicion of a crime. This is done simply by knocking on the door and asking to speak to the resident or even asking to come in. The neighboring Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which governs appeals in the western U.S. stated “T]here is no rule of private or public conduct which makes it illegal per se, or a condemned invasion of the person’s right of privacy, for anyone openly and peaceably, at high noon, to walk up the steps and knock on the front door of any man’s “castle” with the honest intent of asking questions of the occupant thereof — whether the questioner be a pollster, a salesman, or an officer of the law.”

Come on in!

Donald William Fretheim of Cedar City Utah was on probation following a conviction for drug possession and distribution when a pair of officers with the narcotics division used the knock and talk approach at his door. While investigating a drug case in the neighborhood, they found their way to Fretheim’s apartment. The officers asked Fretheim if they could come into his apartment to speak with him to which he agreed and willfully let them enter.

Consent to search

Once inside Fretheim’s apartment, the officers spotted a soft drink can on the ground that appeared to have been constructed into a cheap pipe used to smoke marijuana. When questioned about it, Fretheim admitted it was drug paraphernalia and gave the officers consent to search the rest of his apartment. The consensual search turned up with additional paraphernalia along with marijuana and methamphetamine. After being read his Miranda rights, Fretheim confessed to the police officers that the drugs and paraphernalia were his.

Probation searches apply to AP&P officers only

Consent to Search

Photo by: Hernán Piñera

Since Fretheim was on probation, he assumed he had to comply with the police officers’ request to speak with him, enter his home, and search his belongings. The reason he thought this was possibly due to the declaration in the Probation Standard Conditions issued by the Utah Department of Corrections stating that being a probationer, he must “Permit officers of Adult Probation and Parole to search [his] person, residence, vehicle or any other property under [his] control without a warrant at any time, day or night upon reasonable suspicion to ensure compliance with the conditions of the Probation Agreement.”

Mistakenly waived Fourth Amendment rights

Unfortunately, Fretheim was unaware that although he was on probation, his Fourth Amendment rights still allowed him to refuse consent to search as long as it was not by an AP&P officer. When he permitted officers to not only enter his apartment but to search his home as well, he waived his Fourth Amendment rights to search and seizure. Even though he was unaware of his right to refuse consent to search, he gave his permission so the consent was deemed valid in court.

Know your rights

When police knock at the door it can be intimidating and most residents wish to be compliant with law enforcement. It may seem illegal to deny them entry to a home and feel downright criminal to ignore the door completely. This is why it is important for individuals to understand their constitutional rights, especially during “knock and talk” approaches when the police have no legal reason to be at their home. Unless an officer has a warrant or demands to enter, the occupant has a choice. If an officer asks permission to enter or search the home, the resident has the option whether to even respond; just as they would to a nosy neighbor or a door-to-door salesman. For more information on your Fourth Amendment rights regarding searches and seizures so you can be prepared if law enforcement knocks at your door or for counsel regarding charges, contact a criminal defense attorney.