Are you the cable guy or the FBI?
There is an interesting case before a U.S. Federal District Court in the Las Vegas area. The issue for the judge to decide is whether FBI agents can disconnect a utility service to an abode and then, disguise themselves as repairmen in order to gain entry and covertly search the premises in hopes of finding evidence that might justify the issuance of a search warrant.
The defendants in this case are a group of Chinese high rollers who are accused of running an illegal gambling operation from their Las Vegas villa at Caesar’s Palace Hotel and Casino. The government became suspicious of this group’s activities when they learned that some individuals in the group had been booted from Macau for illegal gambling activities. However, under the law, suspicion alone is not sufficient grounds for a search warrant.
The attorneys for the defendants in this case filed a motion to suppress asserting that the evidence in this case was obtained illegally when FBI agents disconnected the internet service to the villa, dressed up as internet service technicians, and entered the room claiming to be fixing the Internet connection. When inside the room, the agents snooped around and took photographs of items they believed to be incriminating. With this new found information, the agents believed that they had enough to get a search warrant. To make matters worse, when seeking the search warrant, the agents failed to disclose their sneaky tactics to the magistrate judge.
Can FBI agents legally do this sort “repairmen” ploy and get away with it?
The Fourth Amendment typically protects us under U.S. jurisdiction (even foreign nationals as in this case) from warrantless searches and seizures. However, when law enforcement is given consent to enter and search, a warrant is not required.
Here’s the problem: If law enforcement agents secretly cut off service to your house and pose as repairmen in order to get inside under false pretenses, are you really still consenting to a search? I’m of the opinion that you are only consenting to is a search for a cable connection. The attorneys for the accused gamblers say no, and they caution that saying yes would open a Pandora’s box for warrantless searches.
The next time your Internet or phone service goes out, it could actually be an elaborate plot by federal agents trying to gain access to your home. What do you think of this?
Of course, I will be following this case. No matter what the district judge decides, I am certain this issue will be appealed to a higher court.
Elizabeth B. Carpenter is a New Orleans attorney who focuses a significant portion of her practice on criminal defense in federal and state court.