The March 2015 kidnapping of Denise Huskins in Vallejo made headlines worldwide when police mistakenly labeled it a hoax, then admitted that it happened – complete with bizarre details involving the use of drones, sedatives and disguises.
Now, the case may get even stranger.
Tom Johnson, the Sacramento attorney representing suspect Matthew Muller, is headed to court this week seeking to have all the evidence against Muller tossed out, which would scuttle the case.
Johnson’s argument is based on the claim that Muller, a Harvard Law School graduate and former Marine who served in Afghanistan, was arrested solely because he left his cellphone behind when he fled from a home he had broken into, and that police found it and searched it illegally to find out who owned it.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
The search was conducted by Dublin police when Muller broke into the home months after the Huskins abduction, then executed a hasty retreat when the homeowner fought back.
“This search was warrantless, unlawful and all the evidence obtained after the search should be suppressed,” Johnson wrote in a motion filed in U.S. District Court in April. “The search was the genesis of the entire investigation against Mr. Muller.
“It was quite literally the key that opened the door to the entire investigation and subsequent federal indictment.”
The search Johnson objects to is one in which Dublin police determined the number of the white Samsung Galaxy cellphone by bypassing the lock screen, which required a code to open.
Police managed this simply by dialing 911 (cellphones allow locked screens to be bypassed for emergency calls), then having dispatchers tell them what phone number made the call.
Officers then tried to determine who owned the phone by contacting Verizon, but the company would not release the information without a warrant unless it involved a life-threatening emergency, court papers say.
Hours later, police managed to obtain a search warrant, then discovered the phone was registered to Muller’s stepfather in Orangevale and, eventually, found their way to the family’s South Lake Tahoe home.
There, they arrested Muller and began seizing evidence at the home and elsewhere. Their haul included five drones, video cameras and other items that resulted in Muller being charged in Contra Costa Superior Court in the June 5, 2015, Dublin home invasion and in Sacramento federal court in connection with the Huskins abduction.
The kidnapping, which occurred after an intruder tied up and sedated Huskins and her boyfriend, Aaron Quinn, in their Vallejo home, sparked worldwide media attention after Huskins turned up alive in Southern California two days after her disappearance. Police labeled the whole incident a hoax.
Authorities subsequently apologized and conceded that Huskins had been a victim. She and Quinn are suing Vallejo officials over their ordeal.
After his arrest, Muller, a 1995 graduate of Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks, pleaded no contest to the Dublin charge and was whisked off to Sacramento to face the federal kidnapping charge, which could lead to a life prison sentence.
Now 39, Muller has been in custody at the Sacramento County Jail since then while the legal maneuvering in the kidnap prosecution was going on across the street in the federal courthouse.
Johnson says all the evidence supporting the charge against his client has to be scrapped because the officer’s decision to dial 911 to get the cellphone’s number was an illegal search and violated Muller’s constitutional right under the Fourth Amendment to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.
“Mr. Muller had safeguarded his expectation of privacy by locking the phone with a pass code,” Johnson wrote, adding that Muller did not intentionally leave his phone behind to be meddled with by police.
“If a person has just burglarized a home and the resident is calling 911, the first and most likely reaction is one of flight to avoid arrest,” Johnson argued. “Mr. Muller did not intend to abandon the phone; it was simply left there in the heat of an escape attempt.”
Federal prosecutors do not agree with Johnson’s reasoning, responding in court documents that “a burglar has no reasonable expectation of privacy in something he places in an intruded-upon house,” and that “a fleeing suspect has no reasonable expectation of privacy in the evidence he abandons.”
“The fact that the burglar kept the phone locked with a pass code is of no consequence,” prosecutors insist in their brief opposing Johnson’s effort to scuttle the evidence. “Objectively, the burglar had lost that phone forever.
“Opening an abandoned container does not infringe any reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Citing a 1960 U.S. Supreme Court opinion and two more recent federal appellate cases, the prosecutors wrote: “It is firmly established that warrantless searches of abandoned property do not violate the Fourth Amendment.”
Also, the prosecutors argue, police didn’t actually unlock the phone to search it; they simply used it to dial 911.
Both sides are expected to present their oral arguments Thursday to U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley.
Muller’s jury trial is scheduled for Jan. 30.