White’s attorney contests validity of search warrant

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Jill Craft, left, and Amanda Love, attorneys for fired Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White, walk into the 19th Judicial Courthouse Wednesday for a hearing over a search warrant issued for a missing cellphone.
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Jill Craft, left, and Amanda Love, attorneys for fired Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White, walk into the 19th Judicial Courthouse Wednesday for a hearing over a search warrant issued for a missing cellphone.

Lawyers for fired Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White on Wednesday accused a police detective of shopping around for a judge willing to sign a search warrant that furthered the criminal investigation into a city-parish cellphone White failed to return after he was fired in February.

The allegations came during a contentious court hearing before state District Judge Chip Moore, whom White’s attorneys asked to quash the search warrant and suppress any evidence the police collected from it. White’s attorney Jill Craft has challenged the validity of the warrant, which Detective Cleveland Thomas obtained last week to search the cellphone of Kim McCants, a Zachary woman authorities said was in regular contact with White on his city-parish cellphone.

City-parish officials have said they were trying to find White’s cellphone after he repeatedly denied being issued one.

While acknowledging they lacked definitive proof, White’s attorneys claimed that Thomas first asked state District Judge Louis R. Daniel to sign off on the search warrant. When Daniel refused, White attorney Amanda Love said, Thomas apparently waited several days and then brought the warrant to Commissioner Nicole Robinson, who signed it.

Robinson became a court commissioner in January. Commissioners are quasi-judges who make recommendations to judges but cannot accept guilty pleas or sentence defendants or otherwise make what is known in the law as a final adjudication.

Daniel had been on duty to sign warrants on the original date noted on the warrant, Love said, adding that date was then scratched out and replaced with the date Robinson signed it. White’s attorneys subpoenaed Thomas to testify about his efforts to obtain the warrant when the hearing resumes at 2 p.m. Thursday.

“We have reason to believe that this officer sought a warrant from Judge Daniel, and clearly Judge Daniel didn’t sign the warrant,” Love said outside Moore’s courtroom. “I think there’s no other explanation, really.”

Craft added, “What it does say from the officer’s standpoint is you theoretically have somebody telling you there’s no probable cause on the face of this thing, and so instead of accepting that you’re going to go try your luck somewhere else, and the court system just does not work that way.”

Daniel declined to comment, citing ethical considerations. Robinson also refused to comment.

“Our reaction is that if Ms. Craft has evidence tending to show forum shopping by the Baton Rouge Police Department, she has yet to provide it to the Parish Attorney’s Office,” Assistant Parish Attorney Joseph K. Scott III said in a telephone interview. “At this point, it’s just another claim made in court with nothing to substantiate it.”

The legal wrangling comes as Baton Rouge police are investigating White “for a number of possible infractions, including but not limited to the theft of the city-parish cell phone,” city-parish attorneys said in court filings. City-parish officials filed a request for a subpoena Wednesday for Craft to be ordered to return White’s phone, which the filing said “may also contain evidence leading to or corroborating other potential criminal activity under investigation at this time.”

Scott refused to elaborate on that “potential criminal activity,” citing the pending investigation.

Mayor-President Kip Holden fired White in February for a long list of departmental policy violations. The criminal investigation began after police made several attempts to retrieve White’s cellphone.

“We’ve requested the telephone on numerous occasions,” Assistant Parish Attorney Tedrick K. Knightshead told Moore at Wednesday’s hearing. “We want our property returned.”

White initially denied ever having been issued a city-parish phone, even as officers came to his home to confront him, according to city-parish court filings. Craft has said White mistakenly thought he left the phone in his office upon cleaning out his desk, and only later realized it was packed up among some of his belongings.

White has since given the phone to Craft, who has said she intends to introduce it as an exhibit during White’s civil service appeal hearing next month.

Parish Attorney Mary Roper sent a written request to Craft on March 27 asking her to turn over the phone no later than noon the following day, according a copy of the letter filed in court. Craft emailed Roper in response, saying she was out of town until Tuesday and that she would comply but wanted to ensure White’s privacy concerns were taken into account, according to court records.

Police officers later were sent to Craft’s downtown law office in an attempt to collect the phone, the filings say, but were told by employees that Craft was unavailable and that they did not know the phone’s physical location.

Craft has alleged the investigation is aimed at embarrassing White and persuading him to drop his civil service appeal, a claim city-parish officials have denied.

City-parish attorneys, defending the necessity of the search warrant, said in court filings that McCants’ phone, having received the “bulk of the communication” from White’s cellphone, represented “potential evidence of wrongdoing.”

But Craft has argued the search warrant failed to establish probable cause and contained significant deficiencies, including the omission of White’s name as the target of the investigation. She filed a motion to quash the search warrant last week, also seeking the destruction of any evidence the authorities retrieved from McCants’ phone.

City-parish officials countered that the search warrant was sufficient and legal. They added in court filings that the constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure would only apply to White if he could show “a reasonable expectation of privacy in the area searched for the items seized.”

They also noted that White did not claim to have a property interest in McCants’ phone.

In challenging the warrant, Craft subpoenaed a copy of Thomas’ cellphone records from January to March, a copy of the Police Department’s active duty roster, and copies of all emails to and from Thomas’ account last month. White’s attorneys say the emails will show Holden and his office have been intimately involved in the criminal investigation of White.

The city-parish opposed the subpoena as “clearly overbroad,” citing a provision in the state’s public records law that exempts from disclosure records that pertain to reasonably anticipated criminal litigation.

They also said some of Thomas’ emails are protected because they could reveal and endanger confidential sources.

Moore determined the duty roster was irrelevant and that Thomas does not have a city-parish phone. He ordered the city-parish, however, to turn over any emails Thomas received from Holden or his office regarding the investigation.

Holden, for his part, has denied involvement in the criminal investigation and accused Craft of spreading misinformation about his administration.