The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution are collectively known as the Bill Rights. These original amendments guaranteed 8 rights to criminal defendants facing prosecution by the federal government. They are:
- Protection against unreasonable search and seizure;
- Grand jury indictment;
- Double jeopardy (shall not twice be put in jeopardy of criminal prosecution);
- Right to a jury trial;
- Right to confront and cross examine adverse witnesses;
- Right to counsel;
- Protection against excessive bail;
- Protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
These rights were ultimately made available to state criminal defendants through three amendments to the Constitution—13th Amendment (1865), 14th Amendment (1868), and 15th Amendment (1870).
Exceptions to Constitutional Rights
The justice system, however, is never what is appears. LaMarcus Thomas learned this lesson the hard way.
In the fall of 2014, the Winchester, Virginia Police Department initiated a child sexual assault investigation against Thomas. The investigation was assigned to Detective Charles Coleman.
Coleman learned that Thomas was a churchgoer who met the mother of two young boys at the church. He often served as a caretaker for the two boys. The mother learned that there had been allegations of inappropriate sexual contact between Thomas and the boys. She reported the matter to the local police.
As part of his preliminary investigation, Coleman arranged for the two boys to be interviewed about the alleged sexual impropriety between them and Thomas.
In a November 8. 2018 decision the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that Coleman observed the interview from a separate room and listened as “both boys stated that Thomas had put his hand inside their pajamas and fondled their genitals during a sleepover at a hotel.”
Criminal Investigation Leads to Allegations of Sexual Assault
Armed with this information, Coleman called Thomas to the police station for an interview. The interview was recorded. Thomas admitted to Coleman that he had touched the boys’ genitals. Coleman promptly filed a criminal complaint against Thomas requesting two warrants for the suspect’s arrest. The complaint stated the ages of the boys and estimated the time of their assault as on or about October 11, 2014. The detective determined the date of the allegations by checking hotel records indicating that Thomas had stayed there on September 16, 2014 and again on October 11th accompanied by two children.
State Investigation leads to Federal Indictment
Coleman then brought the Virginia State Police and the FBI into the investigation. As is the case is many state child sex crimes investigations, the local U.S. Attorney’s Office will assume the role of investigating and prosecuting the case when multiple states are involved, or aggravating circumstance exists. Thomas’ case was referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Virginia.
On January 5, 2015, a magistrate issued two warrants for Thomas’ arrest. The warrants were executed by Coleman. Thomas was taken into custody that same day. The detective seized Thomas’ cell phone from the suspect’s pocket during the arrest.
After consulting with prosecutors, Coleman sought a search warrant for Thomas’ cell phone. He prepared a probable cause affidavit to support the warrant, outlining the nature and scope of his investigation. The detective added that it was “common for offenders like Thomas” to keep “contact items” stored on their cell phones.
On January 13, 2015, a magistrate issued a warrant for Thomas’ cell phone. The Fourth Circuit said a forensic analysis of the phone discovered explicit images of Thomas with two minors. The local media reported the images of the two minors were the same two boys Thomas had confessed to Coleman that he had fondled.
Indicted on Child Pornography Charges
Exactly one year later, January 13, 2016, a federal grand jury for the Western District of Virginia indicted Thomas on six counts of producing child pornography.
A skilled federal public defender representing Thomas immediately moved to suppress the evidence seized from the cell phone. The district court conducted a hearing on the motion, after which the court concluded that while the warrant affidavit supported the charges lodged against Thomas, it did not contain facts sufficient to link those charges to the ensuing search of his cell phone. In other words, the affidavit failed to establish probable cause linking the phone to the suspected offense.
The district court nonetheless allowed the evidence into testimony after finding other facts known to the officer supported an “objectively reasonable belief” that there was probable cause to execute the search.
Fourth Amendment and Exclusionary Rule
Thomas’ Fourth Amendment right to be free of an unreasonable search and seizure had been violated. The amendment’s exclusionary rule ordinarily provides that “evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment cannot be used in a criminal proceeding against the victim of the illegal search and seizure.”
A constitutional violation, however, does not always end the Fourth Amendment inquiry before the courts.
In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Leon created what is known as a “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule; namely, that if a law enforcement officer has an “objectively reasonable belief” that there was probable cause to execute the search at the time of the search, then a Fourth Amendment violation can be excused.
In the Thomas case, the district court was permitted, according to the Fourth Circuit, to step outside the “four corners of the affidavit” and consider “uncontroverted facts” known to Detective Coleman that he “inadvertently” left out of his probable cause affidavit in order constitutionally justify the search of the suspect’s cell phone.
Man Sentenced to 30 Years
With the motion to suppress the cell phone evidence denied and the likelihood of conviction before a jury enhanced, Thomas reached a plea agreement with the government. He formally pled guilty on January 20, 2017. He was sentenced to 360 months in prison followed by a lifetime of supervised release.
Many people, if not a majority, believe that constitutional rights are etched in stone; that if violated, a criminal defendant will have the charges against them dismissed, their conviction set aside, and they will be discharged from custody.
The LaMarcus Thomas case illustrates this is not always the case.