Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Court Rejects Challenges to Inventory Search, Hearsay Claim to Affirm Drug Convictions

US v. Banks: Banks was involved with an elaborate scheme to illegally obtain prescription medication which was then provided to street-level dealers for distribution. Banks and his codefendants used fake prescription pads (containing the relevant DEA numbers of real doctors) from bogus medical clinics they set up to write prescriptions that were filled at local pharmacies. When one pharmacist became suspicious, Banks and a codefendant was arrested. When he was arrested, Banks was asked if there was anything in his car in the pharmacy parking lot that he wanted taken to the police station with him. Banks identified two bags in the trunk which were recovered and brought to the station. During the booking process the bags were opened. A subsequent inventory search revealed numerous pieces of evidence of the scheme. Some time later, a search warrant was executed at one of the fake medical clinics. The search produced two fingerprints which were collected on cards and sent away for analysis. The fingerprint cards including hand written notes from the evidence technician who collected the prints indicating where in the clinic they were found.

Prior to trial, Banks unsuccessfully moved to suppress the evidence found in the bags searched following his arrest. He also unsuccessfully moved to fire his public defender on the grounds the he "worked for the Government." Banks also, in a pro se motion, alleged that the district court lacked jurisdiction over him because he was a "real, live flesh and blood Man." Banks was convicted of multiple counts of drug possession, conspiracy, and fraud and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

On appeal, Banks raised three issues, each of which the Fourth Circuit rejected. First, he argued that the district court should have suppressed the evidence found in the bags taken from his car because the officer who searched the bags did not follow the department's own guidelines for inventory searches. The Fourth concluded that strict compliance with those guidelines was not necessary, as the guidelines were complied with "more generally" in an unusual situation caused, in part, by Banks's request that the bags be brought to the police station. The district court's conclusion that the search was not investigative was not clearly erroneous. Second, Banks argued that the admission of the evidence technician's notes on the fingerprint cards was erroneous because those notes were hearsay and their introduction violated Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36 (2004). The Fourth did not resolve those issues directly, instead concluding that any error was harmless given the weight of other evidence admitted against Banks. Finally, the Fourth rejected Banks's argument that the district court should have sua sponte moved to evaluate his competency, holding that Banks's odd behavior was simply "an ill-advised, self-defeating legal strategy."

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