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Court News Ohio

Seizing Suspect’s Clothing at Hospital Illegal, but Did Not Affect Conviction

A police officer’s seizure of socks and underwear from a hospital room violated the constitutional rights of a teenage boy accused of killing his elderly neighbor, but excluding the evidence from the clothes would not have changed the outcome of the criminal proceedings, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

A Supreme Court majority affirmed the convictions of Jacob LaRosa, who was 15 when he pled no contest to multiple charges arising from a March 2015 incident, which culminated in the murder of 94-year-old Marie Belcastro in her Niles home. LaRosa was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for aggravated murder, along with an additional 30 years in prison on other counts.

The Court unanimously concluded that a Trumbull County Common Pleas Court incorrectly denied LaRosa’s request to suppress the evidence obtained from the clothes he wore when taken to a hospital after his mother discovered blood on him. However, the justices were divided 4-3 on whether the error had a substantial impact on LaRosa’s decision to plead no contest.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Patrick F. Fischer noted the police collected evidence of the victim’s DNA from LaRosa’s body and other clothes located at his home. Because any evidence from the socks and underwear would have been “duplicative” of what the prosecution already obtained, the trial court’s decision to allow the illegally seized evidence was “harmless error,” Justice Fischer wrote.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Fischer’s opinion.

In a partially concurring and dissenting opinion, Justice Michael P. Donnelly agreed with the majority that the socks and underwear evidence taken from the hospital was inadmissible, but found there was no basis to conclude that the trial court’s failure to suppress that evidence did not contribute to or have a material effect on LaRosa’s decision to plead no contest. He argued the Court should have remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

Justices Melody J. Stewart and Jennifer Brunner joined Justice Donnelly’s opinion.

Intoxicated Boy Hospitalized, Searched
When LaRosa arrived home in the late afternoon, his mother discovered blood on him. Believing her son had been assaulted, she called the Niles Police Department. Niles Police Officer Todd Mobley arrived at the home and found LaRosa, who appeared intoxicated, wearing only socks and underwear, and repeatedly saying statements such as “they’re going to kill me for this.” Mobley, who noted LaRosa had blood on him but no visible injuries, arranged to transport the teen to the hospital.

As an ambulance departed with LaRosa, Mobley was directed to a home across an alley from LaRosa’s and met Belcastro’s daughter. Two detectives joined Mobley and the officers discovered “blood everywhere” and Belcastro’s body in a bedroom.

Niles Officer Michael Biddlestone was instructed to secure LaRosa as a suspect in Belcastro’s death. Biddlestone handcuffed LaRosa to his hospital bed. Hospital staff removed LaRosa’s socks and underwear. A nurse advised the officer that there was blood on LaRosa’s groin and that the nurse wiped his groin clean with a washcloth.

Biddlestone obtained the socks, underwear, and washcloth from the hospital room. A detective who searched Belcastro’s home obtained a search warrant that allowed for a swab of LaRosa’s cheeks, penis, and hands for DNA evidence. Hospital personnel obtained fingernail scrapings from LaRosa and provided them to the detective.

Teen Seeks to Block Use of Hospital Room Evidence
LaRosa was charged in juvenile court with delinquency counts related to Belcastro’s death. The juvenile court granted the Trumbull County prosecuting attorney’s request to transfer the case to adult court. LaRosa then was charged with multiple counts, including aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, and attempted rape.

LaRosa filed a motion to suppress evidence taken from the hospital room, including the socks and underwear, the washcloth, and the fingernail scrapings. The trial court denied the motion.

LaRosa pleaded no contest to all the charges. Along with his prison sentence, he was also classified as a Tier III sex offender.

LaRosa appealed his conviction and sentence to the Eleventh District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s suppression rulings. LaRosa appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to consider his argument that the personal items seized from the hospital room without his consent and without a warrant violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Supreme Court Separately Analyzed Seized Items
The Fourth Amendment protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures, Justice Fischer explained, and the evidence collected at the hospital fell into three distinct categories for the Court to determine if the seizures were constitutional.

The Court first examined the washcloth, which LaRosa claimed that along with his clothing was his personal property and that he had an expectation of privacy in it. The prosecutor maintained the washcloth was hospital property, arguing that LaRosa had no privacy interest in the washcloth because LaRosa had no injuries. The blood wiped from his body with the washcloth was not his blood, but rather Belcastro’s, the prosecutor argued. Because police had a warrant to swab his penis, the police would have inevitably discovered Belcastro’s blood from the same area of LaRosa’s body as that which was removed by the washcloth, the prosecutor asserted, meaning it would have been admissible.

Because the penile swabs revealed the victim’s DNA, the Court affirmed the decision to allow the washcloth seizure.

LaRosa also challenged the fingernail scrapings, arguing the warrant allowed for the swabbing of his hands, but did not specifically mention or authorize taking fingernail scrapings. Citing U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the opinion stated that the purpose of a search warrant prevents “general searches” that allow for “wide-ranging exploratory searches.” In this case, the warrant did not authorize an open-ended search but only allowed for three specific areas of LaRosa’s body to be searched, including his hands.

Because the fingernails are part of an area specified in the search warrant, the Court permitted the search and seizure of LaRosa’s fingernails.

Court Determined Clothing Illegally Obtained
The prosecution maintained that it did not seize LaRosa’s socks and underwear because it was the hospital staff that took them from LaRosa. Once removed, LaRosa had no expectation of privacy in the clothing, the state maintained.

LaRosa argued that when the hospital took his clothing, the hospital was merely holding his property and had no right to possess them or give them to anyone else. The Court agreed that it was the police, not the hospital, that seized the clothing. It concluded that the prosecution had failed to establish that any exception to the search-warrant requirement applied to the seizure of the clothing.

Evidence From Seized Clothing Weighed
Because some of the evidence LaRosa challenged should have been suppressed, the Court stated it had to determine whether the trial court’s ruling was reversible error. The opinion noted that a limited number of prior cases address the situation of determining the significance of an error that occurs at a suppression hearing, which takes place before a trial begins, and the impact that error has on leading a defendant to plead no contest.

Among the decisions the Court cited was the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ United States v. Leake (1996) decision. While the federal courts do not have an explicit test to determine harmless error, the Sixth Circuit stated a court must inquire into the “degree of success and probability that the excluded evidence would have had a material effect on the defendant’s decision to plead guilty.”

The opinion noted that courts often do not have a full picture of the evidence at the suppression hearing stage, and it is difficult to determine at that time whether excluding the evidence would change the defendant’s decision to plead no contest. The opinion stated “it might be the rare case” in which denying a motion to suppress would be considered harmless error.

The Court noted the state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation prepared a report that was introduced during the suppression hearing, which contained no test results from LaRosa’s socks. The report found Belcastro’s blood on LaRosa’s shirt and shoes. A bloodstain from his underwear did contain the victim’s DNA, but that evidence is “duplicative of the DNA evidence that was lawfully obtained” from a swab of LaRosa’s penis.

Because the washcloth and fingernail evidence were obtained legally, and along with the other evidence the police collected, suppressing the evidence from the clothes would not have had a material effect on LaRosa’s decision to plead no contest, the Court majority concluded.

Determining Intent Dangerous, Partially Dissenting Opinion Stated
In his partially dissenting opinion, Justice Donnelly described the majority’s harmful-error analysis as “woefully ill-considered” and “wholly disruptive to the right to appeal” certain pretrial rulings following a no-contest plea and “fundamentally incompatible with LaRosa’s right to due process of the law.” The dissenting opinion stated the problem is that no evidence of a LaRosa’s guilt had been admitted into the case record at this early stage of the proceedings.

The dissent maintained that at the suppression hearing stage, the trial court only knew the evidence the prosecutor stated it would present if the case proceeded to trial, and the state clearly intended to use the socks and underwear. Justice Donnelly stated he could not see how the majority can fairly say LaRosa’s decision was unaffected by the trial court’s ruling, and that the majority should not “usurp LaRosa’s right to decide for himself” whether he would change his no-contest plea had the evidence been suppressed.

Justice Donnelly further stated that the majority’s application of the harmless-error rule practically defeats the reason for pleading no contest, which is to obtain appellate review over a select category of pretrial rulings implicating constitutional rights. From now on, a defendant who enters a no-contest plea to contest an erroneous trial court evidentiary ruling can be stuck with the no-contest plea even after showing that the trial court ruling that induced the no-contest plea was constitutional error.

The dissent stated criminal defendants must now understand that they may lose their cases even if they demonstrate the evidence should have been suppressed. The practical consequences of the decision may be fewer no-contest pleas, more criminal trials, and irreparable damage to the vindication of constitutional rights, the dissent concluded.

Suppressing the clothing taken from the hospital would not give LaRosa a “free pass,” the dissent stated, but both LaRosa and the prosecutor “deserve the opportunity to reassess their respective positions with a clear understanding of the evidence that may or may not be used at trial,” the dissent concluded.

2020-0337. State v. LaRosa, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-4060.

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