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State v. Betancourth

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

March 22, 2018


          STEPHENS, J.

         This case requires us to consider the "independent source doctrine, " which is a recognized exception to the exclusionary rule under article I, section 7 of the Washington State Constitution. The superior court admitted into evidence Ray Betancourth's cell phone records, which were initially obtained under a jurisdictionally invalid district court warrant. Though a valid superior court warrant was subsequently issued for the same records, police did not physically return and reseize the evidence. In upholding admission of the cell phone records, the Court of Appeals fashioned what it deemed an "invalidity correction corollary" to the independent source doctrine. State v. Betancourth, No. 32683-7-III, slip op. at 43-44 (Wash.Ct.App. Dec. 8, 2016) (unpublished), http:// Betancourth argues that this corollary improperly interjects reasonableness or good faith considerations that are incompatible with our state constitutional privacy rights.

         We affirm the Court of Appeals. While we do not embrace the notion of an "invalidity correction corollary, " we agree with the lower courts that the exclusionary rule does not apply in this case. We hold that Betancourth's cell phone records were admissible under our existing independent source doctrine.


         On September 19, 2012, Betancourth assembled a group of friends to look for Terrance Frank, whom Betancourth suspected of breaking his car windows a few days earlier. 8 Verbatim Report of Proceedings (VRP) (June 20, 2014) at 1211-12. Betancourth drove the group around in his pickup truck until they located Frank walking down the sidewalk with two other men, Jordan Lemus and Jose Rodriguez. Betancourth's group exited the truck and chased after Frank, Lemus, and Rodriguez. Betancourth turned back after realizing he had left his truck running, while his friends chased Lemus and Rodriguez into an alley. Betancourth's friend, Marco Cardenas, pulled out a pistol and fired twice, killing Rodriguez. 6 VRP (June 18, 2014) at 919.

         On September 21, 2012, Toppenish police seized Betancourth's truck after witnesses identified the vehicle as having been used by Rodriguez's attackers. 1 VRP (Feb. 10, 2014) at 32-33. Betancourth arrived at the police station with his father and consented to an interview with Toppenish detectives. After the interview, Toppenish police obtained Betancourth's cell phone number. Later that afternoon, Detective Damon Dunsmore sent a preservation letter to Verizon Wireless to preserve records from September 19th to September 25th associated with Betancourth's number. Verizon preserved the phone records as requested.

         On September 25, 2012, the Yakima County District Court granted a search warrant ordering Cellco Partnership, d/b/a Verizon Wireless, to provide Betancourth's cell phone records, including text messages, from September 19 to September 25, 2012. Clerk's Papers (CP) at 215, 9-14. Detective Dunsmore faxed the warrant to Verizon's custodian of records in New Jersey, and Verizon provided the requested phone records to Detective Dunsmore in pdf format via e-mail. Id. at 9, 69.

         On October 9, 2012, Toppenish police called Betancourth back in for questioning. Betancourth denied any involvement in the crime. 8 VRP (June 20, 2014) at 1172. Police then showed Betancourth text messages from his cell, including a text message exchange with his girlfriend, Nancy Arriaga, where Betancourth told Arriaga he wanted to '"beat the shit [out of] them."' 7 VRP (June 19, 2014) at 1122. Toppenish police also played Betancourth an audio recording of Arriaga's statement. As the audio played, Betancourth stated, '"Guess you know what happened then.'" 8 VTP (June 20, 2018) at 1179. Toppenish police arrested Betancourth the following day.

         In September 2013, almost a year after Betancourth's arrest, a Yakima County Superior Court judge ruled in a separate case that RCW 10.96.060 authorizes only superior courts to issue warrants for the records of out-of-state companies.[1] Based on this ruling, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney David Soukup, who was assigned to Betancourth's case, contacted Toppenish Police Department Detective Jaban Brownell and requested that he obtain a new warrant for the Verizon phone records from a superior court judge. Soukup requested that Detective Brownell use exactly the same information he had used in obtaining the search warrant from the district court judge. Essentially, the new warrant was intended to cure a jurisdictional defect in the prior warrant.

         On October 9, 2013, Detective Brownell presented an affidavit for probable cause to Yakima County Superior Court Judge Susan Hahn. The affidavit was essentially identical to the affidavit used in September 2012. The only information Detective Brownell added was that the district court had granted a search warrant on the same information, and that he had been requested by the prosecutor's office to reapply for the warrant from a superior court judge. Id. Judge Hahn authorized the search warrant that day.

         On October 15, 2013, Detective Dunsmore faxed the new warrant to the custodian of records at Verizon Legal Compliance located in Texas. The facsimile face page stated, '"These records were requested by a district court warrant previously. Based on [a] recent court ruling they need to be based on a superior court warrant.'" CP at 216. The warrant did not request any additional information or records from Verizon. Verizon did not produce any records in response to the 2013 warrant because, as Verizon's executive relations analyst later testified, "[i]t would have been for the same information we had already provided." Id.; 2 VRP (June 2, 2014) at 147.

         Before trial, Betancourth moved to suppress the Verizon cell phone records. Betancourth argued that the records were obtained as a result of an unlawful search and seizure because the 2012 district court warrant was invalid and Toppenish police failed to obtain a second set of records pursuant to the 2013 superior court warrant. The trial court denied Betancourth's motion to suppress the text messages. 2 VRP (June 2, 2014) at 185-87. Without expressly mentioning the independent source doctrine in its ruling, the trial court stated that producing the records again would be fruitless and any violation of the statute was technical in nature. Id. at 186-87. Betancourth was ultimately found guilty of second degree felony murder and first degree assault.

         The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling allowing admission of the Verizon phone records.[2] Although the appellate court agreed with Betancourth that the independent source doctrine did not apply, at least not in its classic form, the court held that the records were admissible under a corollary to the independent source doctrine, which it called the "invalidity correction corollary." Betancourth, slip op. at 43-44. Under this corollary, "[e]vidence seized through an invalid search warrant need not be returned and reseized once the State garners a later valid search warrant as long as the invalid warrant does not taint the valid warrant." Id. at 42 (italics omitted). Finding that the phone records were properly admitted at trial, the Court of ...

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