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Men Challenge Warrantless Search of Doorknobs

Men Challenge Warrantless Search of Doorknobs

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Three men are challenging searches made of their homes after police -- without search warrants -- tested their front door handles for drug traces.

The tests allegedly revealed microscopic drug particles, which officers then cited in requests for search warrants.

People have an expectation of privacy at their front door, which is part of the home itself, assistant federal defender Wendy Lewis wrote in her motion to throw out evidence seized during a 2003 search of Anthony Diviase Mora's house in Ogden.

Although we may allow for someone knocking on the door, we do expect that items on the front door themselves are protected, she said.

Federal prosecutors insist no warrant is needed to swab a doorknob and run the ion-scanning test to detect whether occupants and visitors have been in contact with drugs.

The exterior of a home cannot be expected to remain untouched, as friends, solicitors, campaign workers and delivery people come to the door, Assistant U.S. Attorney Leshia Lee-Dixon argued.

Defense attorneys contend that before police test door handles, they need to get a search warrant by showing a judge other, independent evidence of illegal activity.

Attorney Jon Williams, who is representing Troy Miller of South Salt Lake city, said in a brief that the front door is protected from unreasonable searches.

"The doorknob is the most sacrosanct part of the (home). Its sole purpose is to gain entry," he said.

Mora was arrested by Ogden police in December after officers allegedly found a box of bullets in his home. He is awaiting trial on a charge of possession of ammunition by a convicted felon.

Dennis Daybell, 51, of Magna is charged with possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute and illegal firearm possession. Police searched his home in April.

Miller, 33, is facing five counts of possession of controlled substances and aiding in the manufacture and sale of methamphetamine. His home was searched in March.

The cases all request that evidence from the homes be tossed out because police used the results of the tests to get warrants.

U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart ruled last month that test of Mora's doorknob required a warrant, but he upheld the search of Mora's home because there was additional evidence presented to get the warrant.

Stewart cited a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court opinion that required police get a warrant before using thermal imaging technology to sense heat lamps in use in a home.

Stewart said taking the sample from Mora's door was similar.

"The swab of the outside of the doorknob reveals something about the details of the interior of the home that is unknowable without physical intrusion -- that persons who have handled drugs have entered," the judge said.

However, U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell refused to throw out the evidence against Daybell, saying test differs from thermal imaging and reveals nothing about the inside of a house.

"Rather, use of the Ionscan machine is analogous to use of a trained dog to sniff and indicate the presence of narcotics," she wrote in July.

Miller's challenge is pending before U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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