Our criminal justice system wants to convict the guilty, while protecting the innocent. As with any element of our society it is essential that we have in place some system for ensuring fairness and justice are preserved and served. By ensuring all elements of an investigation are fully explored and considered, within the prescribed mode of conduct, this can be achieved. Nowhere is the following of prescribed conduct more important than in proper collection and handling of evidence. It is essential to making a case and securing a conviction. Improper collection and handling of evidence gives rise to defense attorney’s moving to have evidence suppressed or evidence thrown out because it has been compromised or collected outside proper procedure. If vital evidence is suppressed, cases run the risk of being dismissed entirely or having their prosecution hindered. Criminals have been released because of improper evidence collection. When this happens, justice is bypassed.
Situation Under Discussion
The body of Clyde Stevens was discovered in the closet of a room, by the owner of the property, Mrs. Ellis. Mrs. Ellis called police to the scene. The suspect in the case, the son of the property owner, William Ellis, was domiciled within a finite area of the home, a bedroom not directly associated or connected to the area where the body was found. The police did not acquire permission from the property owner, Mrs. Ellis, permission from the suspect, William Ellis or a warrant to search the property beyond the immediate area where the body was found. The police proceeded to collect evidence beyond the area where the body was found and acquired evidence that supported the theory that William Ellis had committed the murder. William Ellis was arrested based on the finding of this evidence, outside of the immediate area of the body. Additional evidence was acquired from the home of the victim where the victim’s wife gave a statement and her consent for a search of the property.
The questions to be addressed in this situation are:
· Can evidence be legally suppressed in this case?
· What court cases support the suppression of evidence?
· What procedures should have been followed at the scene?
Can evidence be suppressed?
William’s Lawyer can argue to have the evidence excluded because the police had no warrant to search William’s room and no permission from either party involved (William or his mother). Police officers could argue that the room was part of the overall crime scene, the house being the crime scene rather than just the room where the body was discovered. If the police so argued, William’s lawyer could site Flippo v. West Virginia, where the courts “rejected the contention that there is a ‘murder scene exception’ to the warrant clause in the fourth amendment” (Georgia Law Enforcement Handbook, 2001). William’s lawyer could argue that the closet in which the body was found was the crime scene, not William’s bedroom, which would be considered his domicile. Any evidence found beyond an exploratory search for other victims or the perpetrator would require a search warrant. To go beyond a cursory sweep of the home, in search of other victims or the perpetrator, in places large enough to conceal a person, would not be legal. It would exceed the Elephant in a Breadbox doctrine (Stevens, 2003).
The only evidence that would be considered admissible would be evidence found in the immediate area of the crime scene (the closet where the body was found). Any search conducted without a warrant and all evidence obtained improperly, as well as any additional evidence it might lead to, would be inadmissible, because the search was illegal. The police should have obtained permission from the property owner at the least and more appropriately a warrant to search William’s bedroom.
Any evidence found in the Steven’s home could not be excluded, however, because a consent to search was given by the owner of the home.
What court cases support the suppression of evidence?
A search is an invasion of privacy. Prior to Katz v. U.S. (1967), privacy was defined in terms of the trespass doctrine. Today a “reasonable expectation of privacy” doctrine prevails. The Fourth Amendment does not protect against all invasions of privacy; it only forbids unreasonable searches and seizures. The exclusionary rule, which prevents the use of evidence collected in illegal searches, was created from the court case Mapp v. Ohio. (It is interesting to note that this case serves to penalize police and deter police misconduct, not to protect constitutional rights of suspects.) This case incorporated the Fourth Amendment into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Weeks v. United States is the first example of the use of the Exclusionary Rule. This case concerned illegally seized evidence indicating Weeks was involved in illegal gambling. Weeks objected to the introduction of this evidence in court. The objection laid the foundation for the Supreme Court appeal. The court stated in their decision, “if letters and private documents can thus be seized and used as evidence…his right to be secure against such searches…is of no value, and…might as well be stricken from the Constitution” (Oracle ThinkQuest, 2006).
The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree doctrine first established in Silverthorne Lumber Co. v. U.S. (1920), states that any evidence illegally obtained is inadmissible, as well as any evidence or testimony obtained as a result of the illegally seized evidence. Inevitable discovery is one loop-hole to this doctrine, based on Nix v. Williams (1984), the courts determined that if illegally obtained evidence would in all likelihood eventually have been discovered anyway, it is admissible (Stevens, 2003).
What procedures should have been followed at the scene?
Laws have been established and procedures are in place that must be followed when collecting evidence. The investigator must follow all local, State and Federal laws as they relate to evidence collection. The investigator, prior to or upon arrival at the death scene, should work with other agencies to: determine the need for a search warrant, identify local, State, Federal, and international laws and identify medical examiner/ coroner statutes and/or office standard operating procedures (National Criminal Justice Reference Service, 2006).
There are three main components of investigation: physical evidence, interviewing and interrogation. Within each of these components there are best practices which, when not followed can put a case at risk.
Arrival At The Scene
The first officer on the scene must put into effect procedures that will protect and secure the victim, the suspect, the public, law enforcement and/or rescue personnel, while preserving and protecting the evidence (Byrd, 2004). The first officer at the crime scene must produce clear and concise documented information regarding his or her observations and actions at the scene, which establishes a starting point for the investigation, the crime baseline. The first officer on the scene, in the situation under discussion in this paper, should call in the status of the situation and request a detective or investigator, medical assistance for Mrs. Ellis and the coroner. He or she should then secure the area where the body was found, make a determination of what had been touched and by whom prior to his or her arrival and determine who was in the house at the time of the discovery and who lived at the residence. No evidence appeared to be at risk, so the officer would then maintain security at the scene and wait for the investigating officer.
There are three basic stages in the proper processing of a crime scene. They consist of scene recognition, which is usually performed by the first officer, Initial scene assessment and documentation usually performed by the investigating officer and evidence collection, which should be performed by individuals properly trained in the accepted procedures and protocols for the task. These three stages of crime scene investigation lead to the three basic components of the investigation. The crime scene recognition provides a base point for physical evidence collection. The initial crime scene assessment and documentation establishes identification of victims, witnesses and potential suspects, which gives the investigation its starting point for interviewing and interrogation.
Physical evidence collection involves the gathering of various types of materials and samples from the crime scene which includes such things as blood, body fluids, other biologicals, fingerprints, fibers, weapons, clothing, written material, or any other item that might potentially provide information in relation to the crime, the victim or the suspect. Before any evidence is collected, it is imperative that the investigator follow all laws and rules governing the situation. In the situation under discussion in this paper simple permission from the owner of the property to search might not be sufficient. Mrs. Ellis could give permission for the police to search a specific area of the property, such as William’s bedroom under the Consent Search Exception. An individual who possesses common authority over the premises such as a landlord can authorize a consent search within limits (not the whole house), if their waiver of rights is voluntary and made intelligently (Stevens, 2003). However, given the seriousness of this situation and the fact that Mrs. Ellis’ mental state could be brought into question, securing a warrant would ensure there is no later objection to evidence based on the son’s bedroom being a separate space and not part of the property under the owner’s control or directly connected to the crime scene. A search warrant for the entire property should be secured. Collected evidence and standard or reference samples from the scene must be dated and their collection locations identified. The individual collecting the evidence must also be noted. A chain of custody for all evidence must be established. The actual protocols for evidence collection are extremely detailed. Individuals must understand the various tests that will be conducted and how mishandled evidence can adversely affect those tests. (Federal Bureau Of Investigation, 2003).
If proper procedures are followed, physical evidence can be used to support testimony, convict offenders or provide identification where no witnesses are present. If improper procedures are used, something as simple as evidence chain of custody errors can obliterate the value of the evidence.
Interviewing is the investigator’s opportunity to acquire evidence and testimony that will assist in establishing the facts, identify potential suspects and potentially provide corroboration. In the situation under discussion in this paper, as much information as possible should be acquired from Mrs. Ellis before she is removed from the scene ( i.e., the time of the discovery, the events leading to the discovery, what she did when she discovered the body, if she spoke with anyone other than the police?). Witness or victim interviews should be conducted as near to the time of the event as possible because the more time that passes between the event and the interview, the more information may be lost. Individual recall and retention varies with the passage of time. The witness should be allowed to give their account uninterrupted and the account should be taped for later reference. Open-ended questions should be used and care should be exercised to ensure the investigator does not skew or taint the information provided during the interview by inadvertently providing known or presumed details to the witness or victim or by asking leading questions. When questioning Mrs. Ellis, the investigator must both consider Mrs. Ellis a potential suspect and be aware that, if she is not the perpetrator, she has been traumatized by the experience of discovering the body. Care must be exercised. If the questioning of Mrs. Ellis must be conducted later, especially if in a hospital setting, the potential medical risks must be considered and the fact that the witness may be medicated taken into account and noted in the file. All existing conditions that might have impact on the victim or witness statement or testimony should be noted in the interview report (Holmes, 2003).
Well planned out and conducted interviews can provide details that might not be accessible from any other source. Descriptions of suspects, vehicles, smells, sounds and motion all add to the elements that create a focus for the investigation and may result in the apprehension and conviction of a suspect. Poorly planned, sloppily conducted interviews have the potential to damage a case. Where the investigator has tainted the testimony by leading the witness to conclusions, the evidence only serves to support the investigator’s preconceived ideas of the crime and may lead the investigation away from the perpetrator.
Interrogation of suspects is the third component of the investigation. Where the most accepted definition of interrogation has come to mean the actual formalized questioning of a suspect once under arrest or otherwise detained, this paper defines it as any exchange between investigators and the suspect. Interrogation is almost universally endorsed, by the policing community, as a necessary component of any effective investigation (Williams, 2000).
The ultimate goal of the classic interrogation is to elicit a confession from the suspect, provide inculpatory evidence or generate information pertaining to other crimes (Leo, 1994). In the expanded view of interrogation informal conversations (interrogations) with the suspect prior to arrest are usually what trigger suspicion and focus investigation in the suspect’s direction (Williams, 2000).
In the situation under discussion in this paper, William Ellis should have been located and interrogated as quickly as possible. Based on the statement given by Mrs. Stevens to the investigators, William Ellis was a likely suspect because he appeared to have a negative history with the victim and he dwelled within the home where the victim was found.
There are established parameters for what constitutes a proper interrogation, a basic “dos and don’ts” list. Based on the Reid Technique, dos include: respecting Miranda, direct positive confrontation (clearly indicate that the suspect is responsible), offering moral or psychological excuses for the suspects criminal behavior, using soft language (taking money rather than stealing money), downplaying the seriousness of the crime, using hypothetical questions designed to stimulate internal thoughts from the suspect, and offering alternative questions associated with the crime (Jayne, 2004). Don’ts would include such things as promises of a lighter sentence or a lesser charge, physical or emotional abuse or torture, deprivation of sleep, food or water for extended periods of time, failure to allow suspects their right to counsel and revealing details of the case.
Overall, based on the information available, the situation under discussion in this paper was poorly handled. Why it was poorly handled can only be supposed. Investigations are conducted by real people, living real lives, with good days, bad days, days when they are tired, days when they are being influenced by others and days when they are wondering why they get up every morning and do the job they do.
At the very least, Mrs. Ellis should have been asked if a search of her son’s room might be conducted. While this in itself might be fraught with potential risk it would have been better than no permission and no warrant. The police might try to make a case for Emergency Situation Exception, but this would be unlikely to hold since they had the scene under their control and there did not appear to be any immediate risk to evidence (Wikipedia, 2005). There is a possibility they might try to use Inventory Search Exception and then the Plain View Doctrine. Since Mrs. Ellis was being removed to the hospital, it could be argued that an inventory search would be necessary to protect the department from disputes and claims. Unless evidence is at risk or a suspect is at risk of flight, getting a warrant and ensuring the warrant is accurate and “fair on its face” is best practice.