Temple of Justice Update: A Fractured Decision on Illegal Searches
In State v. Smith, the WA Supreme Court offers a ruling, but no clear rule, on warrantless searches.
The Lakewood police department had a practice of randomly searching guest registries at hotels to find out if there was a warrant out on any guest. The Washington State Supreme Court, in State v. Jorden, 160 Wn.2d 121 (2007), declared that practice unconstitutional. Before the Court reached its decision in Jorden, the police searched the Golden Lion Motel’s registry.
State v. Smith Facts
Christopher Smith, one of the motel’s guests, had an outstanding warrant, so the police knocked on his door to arrest him. What they saw inside was horrific. A woman, Quianna Quabner, bloodied and limping, sobbed in the corner. The woman’s 12-year-old daughter was in the room, too. Quabner’s daughter told the police that Smith sexually assaulted her and threw the bloody clothes in the parking lot dumpster. The police looked in the dumpster and found just what the girl described. Without getting a warrant, the police searched the rest of the motel room and interviewed the victims.
Before Smith’s trial, the Jorden decision came down. Smith relied on Jorden and asked the trial court to suppress all the evidence the police gathered after searching the motel’s guest registry. The court agreed that the physical evidence from the motel room could not be used, but admitted everything else: police observations of the room and victims, evidence from the dumpster, and testimony of the witnesses themselves.
State v. Smith Ruling
Smith’s case eventually reached the Washington State Supreme Court, where the central issue was whether the evidence was properly admitted. The Supreme Court, in a decision announced June 6, held that it was. State v. Smith (No. 86951-1). But it relied on various justifications, none of which received a majority. Justice Stephens wrote the lead opinion, joined by three others. Her opinion first rejected the reasoning of the Court of Appeals, which had relied on the rule that evidence may be admitted if it was found by lawful means independent of an illegal search. The lead opinion rejected that argument because it is “impossible to extricate the officers’ presence at the motel threshold and their observation of [the victim] from the illegal search[.]”
Instead, the lead opinion relied on a rule that allows police to search a house without a warrant if immediate assistance is required to save a life. Under that rule, it doesn’t matter if the police arrived at the door based on an illegal search. Once they believed (and their belief must have been reasonable) that someone inside needed help, they could enter and the evidence they saw in plain view is admissible.
Chief Justice Madsen concurred in the result, but for a different reason, writing that the Jorden case was wrongly decided and should be overturned. “Indeed,” she wrote, this search “was of the very type Jorden was intended to prevent and which the lead opinion now seeks to invalidate.” But no other justice joined the Chief Justice’s opinion.
Justice González agreed that the conviction should be upheld, but also for a different reason. He argued that victims may testify even if the search that found them was illegal. There is no absolute rule “barring a witness’s testimony, especially a victim’s testimony, merely because an officer broke the rules in finding that victim.” According to Justice González (and the three justices who joined his opinion), among victims’ rights “is the right to testify against their attackers.”
Justice Chambers, who no longer sits on the Court but did when the case was argued, was the lone justice who believed the conviction should be overturned. He agreed the facts “are reprehensible” and found the desire to uphold the conviction “understandable.” But, he argued, “officers of the law must have actual authority of the law to intrude into private affairs, even the affairs of bad men.” Justice Chambers rejected the proposition that the police — having acted illegally to arrive at Smith’s doorstep in the first place —could nevertheless rely on what they saw from the doorstep to justify their warrantless search.
Because no opinion garnered a majority of the Court, no clear rule can be gleaned from Smith. What is clear is that the various justifications for admitting the evidence point to a continuing schism within the Court that will surely present itself in the future.