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Should you cooperate with the police, aka snitch, when faced with possible drug crimes?

June 21, 2013,

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Cooperation, Undercover Drug Deals, Snitching: Using the little fish to get the big fish.

We have found that our clients charged with drug crimes experience a state of insecurity and despair when it comes to doing undercover work or cooperating with the police. This is something that is outside of the comfort zone for nearly everyone, especially the family members of our clients faced with this dilemma.

The classic predicament: Should a person engage in undercover drug deals or hire a lawyer for advice and face the criminal charges in the court system?
Whether someone charged with a drug crime should cooperate with the police to get a favorable deal is a delicate and controversial topic. It is necessary to obtain legal advice should anyone be charged with a drug crime and asked to cooperate. Consultation with a criminal defense attorney is crucial - time is of the essence.

We have successfully defended clients charged with drug crimes since our firm's inception without taking the precarious route of "cooperation" with the police. This is especially true for clients who do not have a prior criminal record, and those that are caught with a small quantity of drugs or marijuana.

Some Facts about Cooperation with the Police

  • There is no guarantee that you will avoid criminal charges when you cooperate with the police!
  • The police will not be able to guarantee your safety if you engage in undercover drug deals!
  • Cooperation with the police ends when the police say it ends!
  • Cooperation may mean engaging in drug deals that not only involve much higher quantities than you had in your possession, but may also include buying other types of drugs!

What is the Purpose of Cooperation?

The need for inside information is a dynamic law enforcement tool in the war on drugs. A minor drug offender who is used by the police to get the 'bigger fish' is justified on the grounds that drugs are a dirty business. This issue necessitates the need for undercover informants. The end result is another drug bust which nets the police additional sources to gain information. Should the drug bust bear fruit, others will be implicated, assets forfeited and prosecutions will occur.

Retain a Lawyer to Protect Your Rights and Discuss Your Options

When someone is arrested for a drug crime, the arresting agency will attempt to get a suspect to cooperate, or snitch. This is usually followed an offer of possible preferential treatment in the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, I hear from my clients far too often that they are told by the police that they do not need a lawyer in this scenario. This is absurd and dangerous. Whenever someone forgoes his or her 6th Amendment Constitutional right to a lawyer, he or she can wind up doing risky undercover drug deals without ever knowing all of the possible options. In addition, we found that police dictate the level of cooperation that is required. In other words, cooperation is not over until the police say it is over. This may mean that someone who is not faced with serious drug charges is coerced, or persuaded, to participate in risky undercover drug transactions without ever getting sound legal advice.

Here is what the police do not tell you:

  • Pursuant to the 6th Amendment of the US Constitutional, you have a right to an attorney.
  • Pursuant to the 5th Amendment of the US Constitution, you have a right to remain silent.
  • Your attorney can petition for deals to have your case dismissed pursuant to MCL 333.7411 or HYTA (Youthful Trainee Act), even if you do not cooperate with the police.
  • You may have defenses to the drug charges. For example, illegal searches and lack of actual possession.
  • You may not be facing jail.

We have made references to an excellent You Tube video, "Don't Talk to the Police", in other internet posts. We found the video to be extremely informative, as well as objective.

Cooperation in the Federal Court System

Federal criminal prosecutions are handled in a much more formal manner. In the Federal court system, the issue of cooperation is much different than what we see at the state court level. In the Federal system, special formalities and agreements exist. They involve both the District Attorney and at least one law enforcement agency; usually the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). In the Federal arena, cooperation is prevalent and can be a factor to avoid a mandatory minimum sentence. The following language is contained within a Plea and Cooperation Agreement:

"If the defendant commits any crimes or if any of the defendant's statements or testimony prove to be knowingly false, misleading, or materially incomplete, or if the defendant otherwise violates this Plea and Cooperation Agreement in any way, the government will no longer be bound by its representations to the defendant concerning the limits on criminal prosecution and sentencing as set forth herein."

Don't do it alone. Our attorneys can help you determine the best course of action when it comes to dealing with your drug charges in the court system or the route of cooperating with the government. At times, cooperation with law enforcement may be a viable option. In the Federal system, it is routinely utilized in the plea bargaining and sentencing process. However, cooperation needs to be explored for each case on an individual basis by an experienced criminal defense attorney. Keep in mind that it is the client makes the ultimate decision whether to engage in cooperation or undercover operations with law enforcement officers. An attorney will look at the case from every angle, including the prospect of cooperation and whether drug charges can be fought and won. In addition, various Michigan statutes enable qualified offenders to obtain plea agreements for dismissals.


Illegal Searches Part 3: The Home

November 6, 2012,

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In this concluding portion of our series, we will discuss illegal searches as they relate to an individual's home. The following will serve as a paradigm for exploring police searches of the home;

Were the police allowed to enter the home?
Were the police allowed to search the home?
What was the scope of the permissible search within the hom
e?

The 4th Amendment provides the most safeguards to people in their homes. This stems from colonial America and is one of the foundational principles of the Bill of Rights. The 4th Amendment is premised on the idea that the home is one's castle and the government cannot enter it unless there is good reason to do so. Searches of the home can be separated into two categories, searches with and without warrants. A search absent a warrant is presumptively unreasonable. Without a warrant, police can only search somebody's home if there is exception to the warrant rule. However, this is one the situations in law where it is said the exception swallows the rule.

Searches WITH Warrants

This post will discuss two types of warrants, search warrants and arrest warrants. Arrest warrants will be discussed more as an exception to the warrant rule. A search warrant must be based on probable cause. Probable cause is presented via affidavit which must be signed by a judge or magistrate. Warrants can be defective on the grounds they are 'stale', or based on old information. They can further be defective on the grounds of scope and specificity. There needs to be some guidance as to what can be seized in order to limit officers' discretion. However, it can sometimes be difficult to challenge warrants because of the "good faith exception", often preventing the suppression of evidence where an improper warrant was relied on in good faith.

Searches WITHOUT Warrants

The major recognized exceptions to the warrant requirements are;

1) Consent (standing),
2) Exigent circumstances,
3) Emergency aid,
4) Search incident to arrest,
5) And plain view.

The police may enter a home where there is consent that is freely given. However, from a legal standpoint one must have standing (or the authority) to give consent. Somebody must be more than just a temporary guest in order to give the police permission to search somebody's home (an overnight guest, however, is sufficient). Where there is an immediate and pressing interest in preserving evidence, protecting police/the public, or preventing a suspect from escaping police can enter a home under the 'exigent circumstances' doctrine. Where there is a reasonable belief that somebody is in need of medical attention police may enter a dwelling. However, police must have more than 'speculation that someone inside side may have been injured' in order to justify a warrantless intrusion under this doctrine. As stated above, where an arrest warrant has issued police may enter a home to effectuate that arrest without a separate warrant. This does not allow the police to enter a third party's home and further they will be limited to only conducting a protective sweep within the home. Where a police officer is positioned somewhere he/she is legally allowed to be and can see evidence of a crime that officer can seize the item. The example that is often given is where police sees evidence of a crime through a window, absent an exception, they must still obtain a warrant to enter the home.

Continue reading "Illegal Searches Part 3: The Home" »

Illegal Searches Part 2: Automobile Searches

October 30, 2012,

hot pursuit.jpgIn the second part of our 3 part series on searches, this blog will discuss the rules governing automobile searches. The following needs to be considered when a motorist is pulled over and subsequently searched;

Was the stop a traffic stop or a stop based on suspicion of criminal activity?
Was any search justified?
Was the scope of the search justified?

As alluded to in our prior post, being in an automobile affords individuals much less 4th Amendment protection than being in their home. Police can search a car without a warrant under the 'automobile exception'. Such searches must be supported by probable cause. According to case law, the general population doesn't have a reasonable expectation of privacy within their automobile because it is operated upon public roadways and is highly regulated by the government. Thus, automobiles upon public roadways are subject to a much lower expectation of privacy than a private home - other drivers, and police officers, can see directly into the majority of traveling cars. It should also be noted warrantless searches may be conducted pursuant to a valid inventory search after the seizure of an automobile.

Police can stop a motorist either for violation of the motor vehicle code or based on the hunch of criminal activity. Where the officer actually observes a traffic violation they are allowed to make a stop. However, it is often a traffic stop that allows the police to make an arrest for a more serious crime. The police can run a background check during a traffic stop, if that check shows outstanding warrants the police may then arrest that individual and search their vehicle. Moreover, the police do not need a warrant in order to run a license check of a vehicle.

Police may expand the scope from a brief detention to issue a traffic ticket where there is a fair probability of contraband/evidence in the vehicle based on the totality of the circumstances. If a law enforcement official see's, say for example a bloodied weapon, in plain sight during a traffic stop they may immediately seize that weapon. Another scenario, one that regularly plays out in this office, is where an officer smells alcohol or marijuana during a traffic stop. The smell of marijuana justifies a search of the motor vehicle. Similarly the odor of intoxicants allows the police to conduct roadside sobriety tests.

Where there is no traffic violation, law enforcement may make an investigative stop where they believe criminal activity is taking place. Where there is probable cause that a crime is being committed police may stop an automobile without a warrant (for example where a car is described as leaving the scene of a recently committed crime). Probable cause can be premised on as little as an anonymous tip. Depending what the probable cause is for (meaning a stolen vehicle versus a bag of drugs) will dictate the initial scope of the permissible search. Practically speaking, the police will likely find a way to search the entire car through one of the warrant exceptions. Further, probable cause will typically give pretty wide latitude in terms of what portions of the car can be searched absent a warrant. Police can, for example, open a container if they have reason to believe there is evidence of a crime in that container. However, the search needs to be somewhat logical. That's to say that police likely do not have the authority to search a purse if they stop an automobile under suspicion that it's harboring illegal immigrants.

Beneath is some case law regarding automobile searches.

- The police may not search an automobile if the stop was solely for the purpose of seeing the motorist's license.
- The police may search a car incident to a custodial arrest.
- The police may not search a car where a ticket is issued for a traffic offense provided that's the reason the car was stopped.
- Police may search a car made at the end of a hot pursuit of a crime scene.
- Police may search a car believed to be stolen.
- The police may allow a dog to sniff an automobile during a legitimate traffic stop.

Continue reading "Illegal Searches Part 2: Automobile Searches" »

Illegal Searches Part 1 of 3: General Rules and Searches of a Person

October 11, 2012,

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Oftentimes clients ask the following questions;

When the police searched me, was their search valid?
Were the police allowed to search me?
Did the police have the authority to search me?

Answer: It depends, this three part blog series will explore what types of searches are and are not valid.

The 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that no one should be subjected to an unreasonable search. Michigan's standard for searches is not higher than that of the Federal Government.

The general rule is that a search without a valid warrant is unreasonable. Where there is no warrant it must be demonstrated that there was both probable cause and a valid exception.

Beneath are the recognized scenarios where law enforcement may conduct a warrantless search;

1) When incident to a lawful arrest,
2) Under the "plain view doctrine",
3) Based on voluntary consent,
4) Pursuant to a custodial inventory search,
5) Pursuant to statute,
6) When presented with exigent circumstances,
7) Automobile searches,
8) And stop and frisk searches.

The Constitution affords the most protection to homes. Much less protection is extended to motorists and individuals. This post is devoted to what is required to search an individual without a warrant.

Terry Stops

Pursuant to the Terry v Ohio U.S. Supreme Court decision, a police officer has the authority to stop a suspect when he/she has reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is occurring. Basically, the officer must be able to describe the situation and explain his actions based upon his experience as a police officer. This pertains only to whether or not an officer can stop an individual who is walking down the street.

Whether or not the officer can search the individual is dependent upon the circumstances of the encounter. Although the person has been stopped based upon the officer's reasonable suspicion, the officer is limited in how he/she can search the individual's person. When the officer has reasonable suspicion that the person is armed and presently dangerous or is engaging in criminal conduct, they are entitled to search the individual. The frisk, as it's known, is limited to a search for weapons by patting down only the outer clothing of the person. During this search if an item is immediately recognized as contraband it may be seized pursuant to the "plain feel" exception. However, an officer cannot, for example, manipulate an objected suspected to be contraband through the clothes or remove that object in order to determine that it is indeed contraband.

Both the search and the stop must be reasonable. This is determined through an objective test, which means that if the behavior meets a certain threshold, it's reasonable. If not, the police behavior is unreasonable.

Courts have held the following -

1) It is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment for a cop to stop and question an individual on the street.
2) While a person's mere presence in a high crime area may not be enough to warrant a frisk, running from such an area is.
3) An officer's personal observation of criminal activity is not needed to form reasonable suspicion, it can be based on third party information.
4) Police officers cannot manipulate someone's carry-on luggage in order to determine its contents, whereas a canine sniff (properly limited in scope) is not a "search" as defined by law.
5) Police may question persons on public transportation.


Continue reading "Illegal Searches Part 1 of 3: General Rules and Searches of a Person" »