Case of Michigan Man Sitting in WV Jail Begs the Question: Do Police Need a Warrant to Enter/Search/Seize an RV or Motorhome?

In my last video I featured the case of a Michigan man currently rotting in a West Virginia jail for the high crime of traveling through West Virginia with a few hemp plants, possibly marijuana, I don’t know. A video of him refusing to consent to police entering his RV was shown in a Youtube video by the Real News Network, highlighting the actions of the Milton Police Department (which is in Cabell County, WV), including the fact that they take in a huge amount of fines as a result of their policing, despite having only around 2,500 residents. This begs the question, first of all, in general, do police need a warrant to enter, search, seize, etc., an RV or motorhome? Or is it just like regular automobiles, where only probable cause is required, rather than a warrant? Here’s the video, and below I’ll post an explanation of the applicable law:

Do police need a warrant to search an RV?

The Fourth Amendment generally requires the police to obtain a warrant before conducting a search. There is a well-established exception to this requirement, however, for automobile searches. See, e.g., Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 153, 45 S.Ct. 280, 69 L.Ed. 543 (1925). Under this exception, “[i]f a car is readily mobile and probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband, the Fourth Amendment thus permits police to search the vehicle without more.” Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940, 116 S.Ct. 2485, 135 L.Ed.2d 1031 (1996). Thus, once police have probable cause, they may search “every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search.” Id. 

In California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 390, 105 S.Ct. 2066, 85 L.Ed.2d 406 (1985), the Supreme Court held that a mobile home, on the facts presented, was more characteristic of an automobile than a fixed residence. 

The Court did look to the nature of the location where the vehicle was discovered, but only to ascertain whether the vehicle itself was, in an ontological sense, in use as a “movable vessel” or as a fixed residence. Hence, the Court’s reference to a “place not regularly used for residential purposes,” Carney, 471 U.S. at 392, 105 S.Ct. 2066 — from which the police would be less likely to infer that the object was residential in nature — served as a guidepost to determine, whether the object encountered was a vehicle or a residence. 

Summed up: was the RV on a public road, or situated such that it is reasonable to conclude that the RV was not being used as a residence?

1. Is the vehicle readily mobile? Absent an immediate search and seizure, could it have quickly been moved beyond reach of the police? Was the vehicle licensed “to operate on public streets” and subject to inspection as a motor vehicle?

2. Was the vehicle so situated that an objective observer would conclude that it was eing used not as a residence, but as a vehicle?

3. The search still must be reasonable under the circumstances. Was the search that occurred otherwise reasonable as would have been approved by a neutral judge had the officer applied for a search warrant?

If the vehicle can be categorized somewhere within the realm of a residence, rather than an automobile, then a warrant may be required. As with many search and seizure issues, the result will turn on the particular facts of each case. Or they should anyways…..

Brooke County Man Arrested in his Yard for Cursing – Lawsuit Incoming

Brooke County, West Virginia Sheriff’s Department deputies were called out to a neighbor’s complaint about dogs getting out of their yard. When they approached and talked to the dog’s owner, on private property, they were asked to leave. Some swear words were utilized by the dog’s owner. The cops then protect and serve the man, as shown and described in the video.

The body cam footage features Brooke County Deputy Niles Cline (not Crane, lol). The other deputy, Shane Logston’s body cam footage didn’t survive, because the “battery was dead.” The criminal charges were dismissed with prejudice through the assistance of Attorney Alex Risovich, who in turn brought the case to me. We will now seek justice through a civil lawsuit in federal court, for the violation of this man’s federally protected civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section 1983.

Lackluster’s video on the same incident:

Federal lawsuit filed against Parkersburg Police officers caught on video setting up a false arrest

Recently we filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in federal court, alleging that Parkersburg, West Virginia police officers were caught on video setting up the false arrest of a man for allegedly committing battery on a police officer. Fortunately there was surveillance footage, which was shown at the man’s jury trial, resulting in his acquittal. Warrantless arrests require the existence of probable cause. If no probable cause exists, for instance in the event that the arresting officers themselves create the alleged nonexistent crime, the Fourth Amendment is violated. “False arrest” is basically a type of unreasonable search and seizure.

Here’s the complaint, and the video will follow shortly:

WV Supreme Court Censures Family Court Judge Goldston for Illegal Search

Just a few minutes ago, the West Virginia Supreme Court issued their opinion in the Family Court Judge search case, censuring Judge Louise Goldston for performing an illegal search at the home of a litigant – my client, Matt Gibson. Though the Court elected not to raise the recommended fine of $1,000, the Court declined to opt for the less-serious written “reprimand.” Thankfully, the Court dismissed the Family Court Judicial Association’s arguments that Family Court judge have the power to engage in home searches disguised as “home views”:

We begin with a threshold question: Did Judge Goldston view the ex-husband’s home, or did she search it? We find that she searched it. A “view” is “the act or proceeding by which a tribunal goes to observe an object that cannot be produced in court because it is immovable or inconvenient to remove….”

We agree that the ex-husband’s home was “immovable” and certainly “inconvenient” to produce in court. View, BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY (11th ed. 2019). However, Judge Goldston did not go to the property to observe the ex-husband’s house; she went there to locate and seize certain of its contents—pictures, DVDs, and other items of personal property. These items of personal property were not “immovable or inconvenient to remove” from the home. Ibid. In fact, the ex-wife removed many of these items during the so-called “view.” Accordingly, we find that Judge Goldston’s actions at the residence were not a view.

On the contrary, the record is clear that Judge Goldston went to the property to locate things, not simply to observe them. Her own words support this conclusion. When the ex-husband demanded a list of what she was seeking, she appeared to reply, “[y]ou have a list of everything [unintelligible] attached to the order.” When the ex- husband professed not to “know where some of it’s at[,]” she replied, “Well, we’re gonna find it.”

Looking for things is a “search” by any sensible definition of the term. As the United States Supreme Court stated in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 16 (1968), “it is nothing less than sheer torture of the English language to suggest that a careful exploration of the outer surfaces of a person’s clothing all over his or her body in an attempt to find weapons is not a ‘search’”.

Searches are an activity of the executive department. State ex rel. Parma Cmty. Gen. Hosp. v. O’Donnell, 2013-Ohio-2923, ¶ 7 (stating that “searches are executive in nature.”). “Indeed, searches are so quintessentially executive in nature that even a judge who participates in one acts ‘not * * * as a judicial officer, but as an adjunct law enforcement officer.’” State ex rel. Hensley v. Nowak, 52 Ohio St. 3d 98, 99, 556 N.E.2d 171, 173 (1990)….

In light of these clear prohibitions, we hold that the West Virginia Constitution forbids a judicial officer to participate in a search because a search is an exercise of executive power. W. Va. Const. art. 5, § 1. Because Judge Goldston plainly engaged in such a search, we find that the so- called “view” was improper.

Federal Court Allows Lawsuit Against Putnam County for Illegal Task Force Searches to Proceed

This morning a federal judge denied the motion to dismiss filed by Putnam County, who had asked the Court to dismiss the first of several lawsuits filed against Putnam County for a pattern and practice of illegal searches by their “Special Enforcement Unit,” who were caught on video searching the inside of my client Dustin Elswick’s home, which you may have seen on Youtube.

Usually in federal civil rights lawsuit, you are required to sue the individual government employee or officer who engaged in the violation. However, under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978), counties and cities (i.e., political subdivisions) may be sued directly when they have adopted some policy or practice which authorizes a constitutional violation against citizens by police officers. These are known as “Monell Claims” and they are very difficult to prove, generally. So they are pretty routinely dismissed. I’m happy this one wasn’t. Presumably the other two cases just like it will also be allowed to proceed…..

The Complaint’s other allegations include that PCC purposely established and operated the the SEU and knew of and condoned the SEU officers repeated constitutional violations. Id. ¶ 51. This alleges that the PCC was the “moving force” behind the constitutional violations where it deliberately created a unit of officers who did not comply with procedural safeguards and engaged in constitutional violations. See Bd. of Ctny. Comm’rs of Bryan Cnty. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 404 (quoting Monell, 436 U.S. at 694).

Here’s the Court’s memorandum order and opinion allowing the case to proceed:

Federal Lawsuit Filed in the Creepy Cops Caught on Video Case

The lawsuit was filed today on behalf of Dustin Elswick, against Putnam County, West Virginia, along with four police officers involved in the infamous “Special Enforcement Unit.” These are the cops who were caught on hidden camera searching the inside of Dustin’s home. Although they cut the wire on an outside surveillance camera, they were apparently unaware of the cameras inside the home.

This is a federal “Section 1983” lawsuit alleging the violation of federal constitutional rights; namely, the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. A warrantless search of your home is automatically unconstitutional in the absence of one of two exceptions: consent, or exigent circumstances (emergency), neither of which apply here. Two prior federal lawsuits have already been filed against the SEU thus far for similar allegations in the Johnson case, as well as the Dillon case. The remedy is an award of money damages, along with reasonable attorney fees and expenses.

There was an internal investigation, as the news reported, but we never received information about the outcome. That sheriff has since been replaced.

Here’s the Complaint:

Here’s the original video:

Here’s the update video:

Another Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit Filed against the Putnam County “Special Enforcement Unit”

This week we filed a second federal civil rights lawsuit against the Putnam County, West Virginia so-called “Special Enforcement Unit.” This is the same “SEU” guys who were featured in the Dustin Elswick video. This case features one of the victims who came forward after the Elswick video became public.

It involves a young man who was visiting a friend’s house, on his way to go fishing. The SEU just happened to raid his friend’s home, without a warrant, keeping my client in handcuffs for an extended period of time while they searched the house. Apparently they found a small amount of pot in the friend’s house and a couple hundred dollars in cash, which they took. No paperwork documenting the event was ever provided in response to our FOIA requests. There were no criminal charges.

We’re alleging multiple civil rights violations, including unreasonable search and seizure and excessive force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Here’s the Complaint, in full.

Petition for Rehearing En Banc Filed in the Walker Case

Here’s the Petition for Rehearing and Petition for Rehearing En Banc we filed yesterday in the Walker AR-15 open carry case, which will give effectively stay the case while the other judges on the Fourth Circuit have an opportunity to review our petition and consider whether to get involved.

If the Panel Opinion remains, Black is meaningless, because there will always be “more” available to any police officer. Even if an individual has violated no law, they will be subject to detainment based on any speculative crime which generally could be committed by any anonymous person. A man walking in the direction of any woman might be a rapist, given that he would appear to have the physical ability to carry out a rape. Any driver of a car heading in the direction of any other human being might be a potential murderer, because they appear to have the physical ability to run-over people, should they so choose. The analogies could go on and on because, like the Michael Walker case, these scenarios are all generalized, rather than based on individualized reasonable suspicion. 

Deputy Donahoe did, and claims to have done numerous other times, exactly that which Black forbade: to assume that being a felon in possession of a firearm was the default status; that, without more, he could detain and ID anyone he saw with a firearm. He admitted that he had no information that Walker may have been a prohibited person. (J.A. 162:5-8). Donahoe admitted under oath that had no indications that Mr. Walker was a threat to anyone, nor appeared to have any ill intentions (J.A. 167:1-4). Donahoe told Mr. Walker at the beginning of the stop, “At this point, I have the absolute right to see whether you’re legal to carry that gun or not.” (See J.A. 209 – Video of Incident). 

The District Court acknowledged that “where a state permits individuals to openly carry firearms, the exercise of this right, without more, cannot justify an investigatory detention.” Black, 707 F.3d at 540 (J.A. 326). There was no “more.” Walker had committed no crime. He wasn’t observed committing a crime. Not a single person alleged that a crime was committed by Michael Walker. To allow a police officer’s subjective fear of AR-15s, or of theoretical copycat crimes, to be utilized as “more,” effectively swallows the rule. This opens the door to racial profiling, and so on. To allow the Panel Opinion to stand is to unravel Black, and important civil rights protections.

Family Court Judges vs. Judicial Investigation Commission

The saga of the Family Court Judges attempting to sway justice in the case of the Family Court Judge Search Case continues. As I already posted about, I sent a FOIA request to the Family Court Judicial Association to ascertain, among other things, who actually voted to engage in this conduct. Their lawyer responded, as I expected, denying that they are accountable to the public via FOIA:

So this is like saying that any group of government officials can just form their own “voluntary association” and then conduct business pertaining to their official jobs, and even use their government employees, emails, and so on, and yet avoid FOIA accountability. We’ll have to see about that.

Here are some of the recent filings flying back and forth in their efforts at intervening in the pending disciplinary matter involving Judge Goldston:

Here is Judge Goldston’s brief to the Supreme Court in this matter, apparently emboldened by the support of her colleagues, attempting to get out of the discipline she had already agreed to:

Fourth Circuit Holds Mass Aerial Surveillance is Unconstitutional

This past Thursday, on June 24, the Fourth Circuit quietly issued an en banc opinion in “Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle v. Baltimore Police Department, which challenged the Baltimore Police Department’s Aerial Investigation Research (AIR) pilot program on Fourth Amendment grounds. In an opinion written by Chief Judge Roger Gregory, the Court held that the AIR mass aerial surveillance program was an unconstitutional search and seizure (at least at the point the data was accessed).

The AIR program “tracks every movement” of every person outside of a structure in the City of Baltimore, retaining 45 days worth of data which is a “detailed, encyclopedic” record of where everyone came and went within the city during daylight hours. Law enforcement can “travel back in time” to observe a target’s movements, forwards and backwards. The Court likened the data to “attaching an ankle monitor to every person in the city,” and noted that, “whoever the suspect turns out to be, they have effectively been tailed for the prior six weeks.”

The Court held that “because the AIR program opens “an intimate window” into a person’s associations and activities, it violates the reasonable expectation of privacy individuals have in the whole of their movements.” Whereas traditional aerial or static camera surveillance have been upheld as reasonable by the courts, those cases “all involve some discrete operation surveilling individual targets.”

The AIR program records the movements of a city. With analysis, it can reveal where individuals come and go over an extended period. Because the AIR program enables police to deduce from the whole of individuals’ movements, we hold that accessing its data is a search, and its warrantless operation violates the Fourth Amendment.

Opinion at p. 28

The AIR program is like a 21st century general search, enabling the police to collect all movements, both innocent and suspected, without any burden to “articulate an adequate reason to search for specific items related to specific crimes.

Opinion at p. 32

Since this holding came from the Fourth Circuit sitting en banc, the only where to go from here is to the U.S. Supreme Court.