Crime - Sacto 911

Judge in bizarre Vallejo kidnap case says police had right to use cellphone

A judge in Sacramento refused Thursday to toss out the evidence in the bizarre March 2015 kidnapping of Denise Huskins in Vallejo, saying police did not overstep their bounds when they used the suspect’s cellphone to track him down in a separate burglary case.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley leaves the case against Matthew Muller, a former attorney and U.S. Marine, intact and on schedule for a jury trial set for Jan. 30.

Nunley’s ruling came after Muller attorney Tom Johnson argued that the entire case rested upon an illegal search by Dublin police when they found Muller’s cellphone inside a home he had broken into, then fled from after one of the homeowners fought with him.

Johnson argued that Muller had a reasonable expectation of privacy for the information in the cellphone he left behind when he fled, and that police violated that constitutional right when an officer bypassed the locked screen by dialing 911, then asking a dispatcher what phone number he was dialing from. Cellphones allow 911 calls to be made even if the pass code is not entered into the device.

Johnson argued that making the 911 call to determine the phone’s number – something authorities eventually used to identify the owner of the phone and to arrest Muller – was illegal because it was made without a search warrant.

“It is absolutely a search,” Johnson argued. “Anytime you activate a phone and go inside that phone, you are searching it.”

Johnson maintained that police had time to first seek a search warrant because there was no emergency at the time. The burglar had fled, and the home’s residents were standing on the porch talking to police.

He acknowledged that he was asking a great deal from the judge to toss out the evidence – a move that could set the alleged kidnapper free – but said citizens’ rights under the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure were more important.

“Unlawful police conduct corrodes all of our civil liberties and threatens all of us, and this would be a terrible result for the government,” Johnson said of his request. “But it is, in fact, the right result.”

Prosecutors opposed that request, as well as Johnson’s motion that the judge order an evidentiary hearing in which Dublin police could be required to testify about what happened the night of the June 5, 2015, break-in.

Nunley rejected both requests, saying Muller had no right of privacy for something he left behind in a home he had broken into.

“It’s not his house; he had no right to be in the home,” Nunley noted.

The judge noted that the only information police took from the phone before they obtained a warrant was the phone number. The information that eventually led officers to Muller came after a warrant was obtained.

Muller, now 39, faces up to life in prison if convicted in the March 2015 abduction of Huskins from the Vallejo home she shared with her boyfriend, Aaron Quinn. Muller also faces an 11-year sentence in the Dublin break-in.

Monday’s half-hour hearing was the latest in a series of court sessions involving a kidnapping case that has captivated observers nationwide since Vallejo police initially dismissed the kidnapping report as a hoax. Eventually, authorities seized drones, video cameras and other devices that they now say were part of an outlandish plan for the kidnapping and, perhaps, the Dublin break-in.

In that case, a masked man broke into a family home at 3:25 a.m. and woke a couple by shining a laser into their faces and informing them that he had their daughter, who actually was sleeping in another room.

After a scuffle, the intruder fled, leaving behind handcuff-shaped zip ties and gloves. Johnson acknowledged in court Thursday that the intruder was Muller.

That break-in occurred three months after the Huskins abduction and eventually led authorities to Muller in that case, primarily because of the cellphone.

Huskins, who was 29 at the time she was abducted, was drugged and later sexually assaulted by her abductor, according to court documents.

The kidnapper left Quinn behind, tied up and drugged, and warned Quinn that he was being watched by video camera.

He freed himself and reported the kidnapping to police.

Huskins was released in Huntington Beach a couple of days after her disappearance, and Vallejo police initially looked at Quinn as a suspect, then decided the kidnapping was made up, a determination they later conceded was incorrect.

Huskins and Quinn filed a federal lawsuit against the department that is pending. Their attorney, Kevin Clune, said Thursday that the couple are “still living a total nightmare from what happened to them.”

“Obviously, they’re never going to get over the terrible ordeal they had to endure both at the hands of Muller and the Vallejo Police Department,” Clune said.

The couple, both physical therapists, have finally moved on to new jobs “after much difficulty and substantial disruption to their lives,” Clune said.

He added that “it is absolutely outrageous” that Muller has not been charged with sexual assault by the Solano County District Attorney’s Office or with charges related to when he allegedly tied up and drugged Quinn.

“It’s a travesty, because otherwise Muller’s not going to be held accountable for the horrible rape of Denise or what happened to Aaron,” Clune said. “It’s a total miscarriage of justice.”

Even after Muller’s arrest, the lead detective in the case, Matthew Mustard, was honored as Vallejo’s police officer of the year, despite allegations in the lawsuit that Mustard and other officers accused Quinn of killing Huskins and hiding her body.

Vallejo police did not respond to a request for comment. Solano County District Attorney Krishna Abrams said she cannot proceed with charges against Muller because federal prosecutors currently have all the evidence she would have to use.

“Unfortunately, my hands are tied” until the federal kidnapping case is concluded, she said, adding that she has met with both Huskins and Quinn to discuss their desire for additional charges.

Abrams added that it is feasible for her office to file charges once the federal case is over.

Quinn’s mother, Marianne, and brother, Matt, attended Thursday’s hearing and said afterward they wanted to thank Dublin police for helping to break the case.

“If it hadn’t been for the Dublin police, Matthew Muller would still be out there,” Marianne Quinn said.

Matt Quinn, 39, added that he hopes Muller “does the right thing and pleads guilty.”

Muller, who appeared in court Thursday with his wrists shackled at his waist, remains in the Sacramento County jail without bail. The next hearing in the case is set for Aug. 18, and Johnson said after the court session that there are no active plea negotiations underway.

“All we’re doing is preparing for trial,” Johnson said.

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam