This case, coming to us via Andrew Fleischman, would be Keystone-Cops-comical if it weren't such a hideous example of law enforcement using someone's rights as a doormat. What began as a 911 call for assistance with an unresponsive infant soon devolved into a full-blown search of house by several officers without a single warrant between them.
Arielle Turner was indicted by a grand jury for the death of her infant. That's gone now, thanks to the careless, self-destructive actions of the officers at the scene. All evidence obtained during the unlawful search has been suppressed, with this Georgia Supreme Court ruling [PDF] upholding the lower court's decision.
Arielle and her mother, Terry Turner, called 911 to report her 10-week-old baby was unresponsive. EMTs arrived and began treating Turner's daughter before taking her (and Arielle) to the hospital. The child's grandmother remained at home.
The first officer to arrive was Joseph Wells who comforted Terry Turner while standing on the porch. Terry invited Officer Wells to come in and sit down because her legs were starting to hurt. They sat and conversed. Detective Victoria Bender arrived shortly thereafter, letting herself in through the open front door. Neither of these two officers performed any searches or seized any property.
Over at the hospital, an examination did not turn up any signs of abuse or foul play. Investigators believed the infant's death to be accidental. This information was relayed to Detective Bender, who passed it on to Terry Turner. Either something got lost in translation or the officers already on the scene decided to make a command decision. Suddenly, the home they were already in was declared a crime scene, despite there being no evidence of foul play.
Once that happened, the floodgates opened. From the decision:
Shortly thereafter, more officers arrived, including a crime scene investigator who, at some point, began photographing the residence. Detective Bender started questioning Terry about the events leading up to the infant’s death and asked Terry to “take her around and tell [her] what went on last night.” Terry testified that she did not consent to the officers entering or searching her home, and she explained that she did not stop the officers because Detective Bender “just told me that’s what they was [sic] supposed to do.”
As to the sudden unexplained presence of a crime scene investigator, the court has this to say about the spotty testimony offered by other officers named in the lawsuit:
At the motion hearing, none of the law enforcement officers could explain how the crime scene investigator was notified or who summoned him to the scene, and the State did not call him as a witness at the hearing.
Another officer brought Arielle Turner back to her house full of cops. About that same time, the county coroner arrived. The coroner also decided to engage in a warrantless search, which included recording some video with his cellphone. Officers seized pretty much anything baby-related and took them to the sheriff's office.
All the assembled officers believed they had a right to do this under state law. Supposedly the state's Death Investigation Act trumps the US Constitution.
At the hearing on Appellee’s motion to suppress, all of the testifying officers confirmed that they did not obtain a search warrant, that they did not have probable cause to search the house, that they did not ask for permission to search the home, and that they did not believe a crime had occurred when the search of the home took place. Instead, the officers and Alcarez explained that their investigation was done pursuant to Georgia’s Death Investigation Act. See generally OCGA § 45-16-20 (2015) et seq. In total, law enforcement remained in Appellee’s home for approximately three hours questioning witnesses, searching, photographing and videotaping the home, and seizing evidence.
The government tried to argue consent was given for a search. Supposedly, Terry Turner's request one officer (who never performed a search) come in and sit down was a permission slip for several officers to search the entire house and seize multiple items for the next three hours. The court says the law (and the Constitution) simply does not permit this interpretation.
Here, a reasonable officer would understand that Terry’s invitation for Wells to enter her kitchen was not consent for additional officers to conduct a search of the home.
The court goes on to note there was no consent, not even tacitly. If anything, Terry Turner was unaware of her rights and no officer on the scene felt compelled to obtain actual consent when it was far easier to just act like everything was being done by the book.
The record further supports the trial court’s finding that Terry merely acquiesced to the authority of the officers. The record reflects that, after the child was pronounced dead, numerous members of law enforcement responded to the Turner residence in order to investigate the death of the child without probable cause, without a search warrant, and without even a suspicion that a crime had been committed. The officers admitted at the hearing that they did not ask Terry for consent to search the home, to take photographs or video, or to remove any items from the residence. Despite this, at least four members of law enforcement, including a crime scene investigator (whose presence, astoundingly, no one can explain) participated in a search of Appellee’s home.
Law enforcement had the knowledge and the power. The officers chose to only use the latter. A deliberate misreading of the situation turned into playground for unconstitutional behavior. At any point, the search could have been stopped and the damage mitigated by a warrant request. Instead, cops took the inch Turner gave and stretched it into a country mile. And they used all this ill-gotten evidence to cook up a case against the infant's mother, even after hospital personnel stated they saw no indications of abuse or foul play.
This is the government at its ugliest -- willfully abusive and meaninglessly punitive. Hopefully this suppression of evidence will result in better behavior, but the past has shown law enforcement officers are slow learners. Why play by the rules when rolling the federal court dice still pays off regularly?