Alabama Supreme Court: Warrantless Search of Suspected Meth Lab

In a ground-breaking decision, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that officers were justified in conducting a warrantless search of a suspected methamphetamine laboratory because of the high risk of explosion.

Birmingham drug defense lawyers note the ruling was made in relation to an event that occurred in Montgomery, where police and firefighters responded to a call about a possible methamphetamine operation in an apartment complex. Officers said that once they arrived, they encountered an ammonia-like smell they believed from their training to be indicative of a meth lab. They knocked, and when a resident opened, the smell intensified. A man, woman and two children inside, including an infant, were removed and the building was evacuated.

Firefighters conducted a protective sweep of the apartment, which is when they found an “inactive meth lab” inside a foam cooler. The defendants hadn't been actively producing the drug, officers say, but everything was inside the cooler that would be necessary to do so.

Police said the amount of time and number of officers inside the structure was limited due to the noxious nature of the dangerous fumes. At least one officer reported suffering adverse health effects as a result of being inside the unit.

The defendants were arrested on charges of first-degree unlawful manufacturing of a controlled substance.

When Alabama v. Clayton went to trial, the defense successfully petitioned for a motion to suppress all evidence uncovered from inside the apartment on the basis that the officers had entered the apartment illegally because they lacked a warrant. The court found that there was “no outward sign that danger was imminent.”

This effectively stripped prosecutors of whatever evidence they had of a crime, which would have meant dismissal of the charges. But the state appealed. The appellate court affirmed the trial court's ruling, and the state appealed again to the Alabama Supreme Court.

The high court reversed the lower court rulings, finding that exigent circumstance existed due to the fact that officers had concerns for the safety of their officers, those inside the building and the general public. The court found that because officers had probable cause and because the process of methamphetamine manufacturing is by its nature an explosion risk, the decision to enter the property without a warrant was proper.

That means that all evidence obtained in the course of that entry can now be used against the defendants in court.

The justices cited the 1948 case of Johnson v. U.S., in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled there are limited circumstances in which law enforcement officers can enter a residence without a search warrant. The court also cited the 2003 Alabama case of Cameron v. State in which the court ruled that while warrantless entries and searches of residential property are presumptively unreasonable, such actions can be justified if the state can show that there was both exigent circumstances and probable cause.

Exigent circumstances are often determined on a case-by-case basis, but they are generally taken to mean that officers aren't required to delay action if they fear that doing so would endanger lives.

The decision significantly whittles away the rights of those suspected of certain drug crimes in Alabama, and underscores the critical need for these individuals to seek immediate counsel from an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Federal Charges Filed Against Alabama Prison Inmates, Guard in Alleged Drug Trafficking Ring

Authorities with the Drug Enforcement Administration recently made six arrests, announcing the effective shutdown of a drug-trafficking ring responsible for the distribution of methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana.

The operation allegedly stretched from Texas to California, with those in Alabama prisons – including a corrections officer at Kilby State Prison in Montgomery – reportedly playing a key role.

Birmingham drug defense lawyers note this case underscores the fact that crimes committed in prison are taken just as seriously as those on the outside. Worse for the defendant is that on the inside, privacy rights are severely limited. There is no need for investigators to obtain a warrant to search, and communications are routinely monitored as a matter of protocol. Defendants also are surrounded by a lot of people with great incentive to turn on them, and tell authorities whatever they want to hear.

Plus crimes committed in prison can carry additional penalties.

Authorities say a good amount of information was gleaned from phone conversations intercepted from a prison inmate who was using a contraband cell phone.

The defendants in this case are facing an additional 10 to 20 years behind bars if convicted of the drug-trafficking charges of which they are accused. Under the federal system, there is no possibility for parole in these cases.

According to authorities, the federal investigation was launched in early 2012. It's not clear exactly how authorities were alerted to the operation, but they say that at some point, a prisoner at the Kilby prison convinced the guard to become involved in transporting loads of methamphetamine across the country.

That officer was later arrested by Oklahoma State Police, who reportedly caught him traveling with 30 pounds of methamphetamine in the back of his black sport utility vehicle. The DEA said that was a “significant turning point” in the investigation, and led them to several other participants, including two from Birmingham, and others locked up in the Bullock County Correctional Facility and the Staton Correctional Facility.

There is no indication at this time that the drugs were actually brought inside any of the prisons. Alabama Code 13A-10-36 holds that second-degree promoting of prison contraband (i.e., drugs) is a Class C felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. This was the charged filed against 11 people in a recent Shelby County case when authorities determined that Bibles were being used to smuggle drugs into area jails.

In the more recent federal case, authorities say they have so far seized a total of $230,000 and some 90 pounds of methamphetamine.

That such efforts had the ability to thrive in Alabama prisons is perhaps unsurprising, given the current state of the system. The U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report on the conditions at Julia Tutwiler Prison not long ago, and since then, local media has been focused intently at examining the conditions at other state prisons.

It was noted that the inmate-to-officer ratio is twice the national average, and the state prison system houses more mentally ill than the state's mental hospitals.