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Can the police use the clothes I wear into a hospital against me?

Based on the Ohio Supreme Court’s recent decision in State v. LaRosa, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-4060, the short answer is the classic lawyer response of “it depends” or “maybe.” The answer for LaRosa was “not without a warrant” but that didn’t legally prohibit the police from collecting fingernail swabs and a bloody washcloth from the hospital that were ultimately used to get a conviction and life sentence without parole.

What are the facts of the LaRosa case?

The application of LaRosa to everyday visits to the ER is going to be very rare. The facts of LaRosa are as unique as they are gruesome. LaRosa, a fifteen-year-old boy, came home covered in blood and appeared intoxicated. His mother called 911 and a responding officer called for an ambulance despite not finding any visible injuries on LaRosa. While he was en route to the hospital, officers were called to investigate LaRosa’s neighbor’s home; there they found blood everywhere and the neighbor dead.

Because he was suspected of killing his neighbor, LaRosa was handcuffed to his hospital bed by an officer. While at the hospital LaRosa’s clothes were removed by hospital staff to provide him with treatment. During treatment, a nurse wiped LaRosa’s groin with a washcloth that belonged to the hospital. As part of the homicide investigation, a warrant was obtained to search LaRosa’s body for evidence, including his hands. Based on this warrant, the police obtained LaRosa’s fingernail scrapings that were collected by hospital staff. The government used LaRosa’s clothes, the washcloth, and fingernail scrapings to indict LaRosa and ultimately convict him of aggravated murder, aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery, and attempted rape.

What was the Ohio Supreme Court trying to decide?

LaRosa filed a motion to suppress challenging the legality of the police’s collection of his clothes, the washcloth, and his fingernail scrapings. In short, LaRosa argued that the collection of these items was an unreasonable search and seizure; thus, it violated his constitutional rights.

The trial court and appellate court both disagreed with LaRosa’s arguments and denied his motion. While the Ohio Supreme Court found that some of the items (his clothes) were collected illegally, it didn’t reverse LaRosa’s conviction because it found that any error in denying LaRosa’s motion was harmless error.

What is the takeaway from State v. LaRosa?

For lawyers, the case is an important application of the harmless error rule in cases with a no contest plea after a denied motion to suppress. But the case has some important takeaways for non-lawyers too.

If nothing else, State v. LaRosa is a nice reminder of the important factors that a court will examine when determining whether an unreasonable search and seizure has occurred. Based on these factors, you can better understand when the Fourth Amendment applies (and protects you from illegal search and seizure), and when it doesn’t.

What does the Fourth Amendment protect me from?

In general, the Fourth Amendment is designed to protect you from unreasonable searches and seizures (e.g., arrests) by the government. But it doesn’t protect you from all searches and seizures. As the Ohio Supreme Court analyzed in State v. LaRosa, there are key elements that must be present for the Fourth Amendment to apply.

A, A government actor

Like the rest of the Bill of Rights, the Fourth Amendment is designed to protect citizens from a tyrannical government. But it doesn’t protect us from private citizens searching our bodies or property or taking our property without permission. In LaRosa, the Ohio Supreme Court had to decide if LaRosa’s clothes and fingernail scrapings were taken from him by the government or private citizens (i.e., hospital staff). Because if the items were taken solely by the hospital staff, then the Fourth Amendment wouldn’t apply, and the court was correct to deny his motion to suppress.

The Court determined that even though the items were removed by hospital staff, that LaRosa’s clothes were confiscated, or taken from him, by the police; thus, the Fourth Amendment did apply. The fingernail scrapings were obtained pursuant to a warrant so there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment.

B. A warrant

If the police get a valid search or arrest warrant from a judge, then they have legal permission to search or seize you or your private property. The Fourth Amendment has this exception written into its language. However, a warrant must be narrowly tailored; meaning that the warrant must list the specific places and items that are covered by the warrant. If the warrant isn’t particular enough, then the warrant is invalid and is a violation of your Fourth Amendment rights.

In LaRosa, the warrant to search LaRosa’s body for evidence included his hands. While LaRosa argued that the warrant was too broad and did not include searching his fingernail scrapings, the Ohio Supreme Court disagreed. The scrapings were collected legally, and thus the trial court did not error in denying LaRosa’s motion to suppress.

C. Your property

The Fourth Amendment protects you from government interference in your private property. It is perhaps more easily understood if you look at what is not protected under the Fourth Amendment. You do not have Fourth Amendment protection from government searches or seizures of property that is available to the general public (e.g., items discarded in a public trash can or collected during a trash pull from your garbage cans at the end of your driveway), and you do not have Fourth Amendment protection from government searches or seizures of someone else’s property.

In legal terms, you only have Fourth Amendment protection if you have a possessory interest (i.e., something you own) in the item and/or if you have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” (i.e., something you don’t allow public access to). Accordingly, the Court in LaRosa discussed these concepts when analyzing the various items collected from LaRosa at the hospital. The washcloth was determined to not be protected by LaRosa’s Fourth Amendment rights because it was the hospital’s washcloth not LaRosa’s property. It also wasn’t his blood on the washcloth. In short, he had no possessory interest or expectation of privacy in the washcloth, so the trial court was correct to deny his motion to suppress for that item.

Again, the fingernail scrapings were collected pursuant to a warrant; thus, the Court found no error in denying LaRosa’s motion to suppress for collecting that evidence. However, the Court did find that LaRosa’s clothes were subject to Fourth Amendment protection. Unless the clothes that were taken off LaRosa’s body were taken by the police pursuant to a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement (e.g., an emergency, belief that evidence of crime will be destroyed, or because the items are clearly evidence of a crime based on just looking at the item) then the police’s seizure of those items was a violation of LaRosa’s Fourth Amendment rights.

So, what does LaRosa decision mean for me?

Well, it was not helpful in getting LaRosa’s conviction overturned the Court’s decision did confirm that the police need a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement in order to collect your clothes as evidence of a crime even if they are removed by hospital staff during treatment in the ER. More importantly, LaRosa made it clear that the basic elements of a Fourth Amendment analysis are still relevant; therefore, it’s important that you speak with and hire an attorney that is experienced with criminal procedure and capable of filing, and arguing, a valid challenge to governmental overreach. Call Rittgers Rittgers & Nakajima today to speak with experienced criminal trial lawyers that can help you defend your constitutional rights.