Judge tosses detective's doorknob swab results

Published July 11, 2005 12:59 am
Ionscan machine: A cloth allegedly showed traces of meth, but he says the officer should've had a warrant before taking the sample
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Most visitors just knock on the door. But when a detective approached Troy Levi Miller's home one day last year, he made no attempt to contact anyone inside.

Instead, he wiped a sterile cloth over the doorknob and left.

A test on the cloth allegedly revealed traces of methamphetamine, and those results helped a narcotics task force get a warrant to search the South Salt Lake house. But now, U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball has thrown out the test as a violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.

Kimball's ruling was the third one from a federal court in Utah - and only the fourth in the nation - involving the Ionscan 400B, a machine that analyzes microscopic particles picked up by wiping a surface with a sterile cloth. The cloth is placed in the machine, which gives an alert when certain substances, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, are found.

A doorknob is part of the private area of a residence and the officer should have gotten the search warrant before taking the swab, Kimball said.

"A visitor could not turn the doorknob without invading the privacy of the home's occupants - the only purpose for turning the doorknob is to gain access to the privacy of the home," the judge wrote in a June 30 decision. "A doorknob is not something that is transitory that could be borrowed, taken, or moved to another location. . . . It is a component part of the home."

However, Miller isn't off the hook. Kimball also decided there was enough other evidence, without the test results, to provide probable cause for a search warrant.

That leaves in place felony charges of possession of a controlled substance and aiding in the manufacture and sale of methamphetamine against the 34-year-old Miller.

Police argue that the presence of controlled substances shows that individuals who use or sell narcotics touched the tested area and is evidence of drug dealing in the residence.

The dispute over the technology centers on whether a doorknob is part of a home, a factor that helps determine whether police must get a search warrant before getting a swab. In addition, defense attorneys note that anyone can touch a doorknob, and argue that the mere presence of drug particles is no evidence of a crime.

The three Utah rulings and a 1999 decision out of the Virgin Islands have split on the issue.

In the Virgin Islands case, a trial judge threw out the analysis of a swab taken from a home's screen door, saying the search for marijuana residue violated the Fourth Amendment.

In Utah, U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart took a similar stand, ruling in August that the Ionscan test of an Ogden man's doorknob required a warrant. However, he upheld a search of Anthony Diviase Mora's home, saying other evidence provided probable cause.

Just a few months before, his colleague, Judge Tena Campbell, refused to throw out evidence against Dennis Daybell of Magna obtained through an Ionscan test.

She said the procedure reveals nothing about the inside of a house and compared use of the machine to having a trained dog sniff for drugs.


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