The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from warrantless searches by the government, but does not generally apply to the actions of a private person. It can apply, however, if the private person is acting as a government agent. Courts consider whether the government knew of and agreed to the person’s conduct and whether the person’s intent was to help law enforcement. In a recent Washington case, a teenage defendant appealed her possession conviction after the juvenile court admitted evidence her mother found in a search conducted in the presence of a deputy.
According to the appeals court’s unpublished opinion, the mother reported her teen daughter had snuck out and came home intoxicated. The girl was asleep in bed when the deputy responded, and he did not think she looked intoxicated. The mother told him the girl had packed her backpack to run away. The deputy told the mother she could take the backpack and cellphone from her daughter. The mother emptied the contents of the backpack, including a small container that appeared to contain marijuana. The mother told the deputy she wanted her daughter charged. The state charged the girl with possession of 40 grams or less of marijuana while under 21 years of age.
The defendant moved to suppress the marijuana, arguing it was found in an unlawful warrantless search.
The mother testified she called the police and wanted her daughter arrested. She also testified she did not remember the details of her conversation with the deputy.
The deputy testified he had told the mother she did not have to give her daughter “the niceties of life.” He said he told her she could take away the backpack, but did not tell her to search it. He did not remember having any reason to believe the bag contained anything illegal. He said he was getting ready to leave when the mother started pulling things out of the backpack.
The juvenile court denied the motion to suppress. It found the mother’s testimony was not credible, noting her failure to remember details. The juvenile court also found the mother began taking the contents out of the bag without direction from the deputy. The court concluded the search was not done at the deputy’s direction or with his assistance.
The juvenile court found the defendant guilty and she appealed. On appeal, the defendant challenged the trial court’s finding that her mother “without any direction or prompting from [the deputy] began to pull things out of the backpack.” The deputy testified he had not told the mother to search the backpack, just that she could take it from her daughter. He said he did not have any reason to think there was anything illegal in it. He also said he was getting ready to leave when the mother started searching the backpack. The mother testified she did not recall the details of the conversation. The appeals court found there was substantial evidence supporting the juvenile court’s finding.
The juvenile court also found the deputy was primarily concerned with the defendant’s safety when he was there. He had been told she had taken a sleeping pill and possibly drunk alcohol. He also determined the defendant did not meet the criteria to be taken into custody. The appeals court determined these findings showed that the deputy had not acquiesced to the search. They also showed that the mother searched the backpack “to further her own ends.” The appeals court found the mother had not been acting as a government agent.
Because the mother’s search was not unlawful under the Fourth Amendment, the appeals court found the trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress the marijuana evidence. The appeals court affirmed the conviction.
Although the court found the facts in this case did not show the mother acted as a government agent in performing the search, slightly different facts could produce a different result. If your child is facing charges, the skilled juvenile defense attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC can help. Call us at (206) 622-6562 and schedule a consultation.