Nov. 13, 2013 – Mexican and U.S. authorities searched Jack Johnson’s residence in Mexico without a warrant and found a computer that linked him to a murder-for-hire plot in Wisconsin. Recently, a state appeals court ruled that the search was lawful under the U.S. Constitution.
In 2009, Kimberly Smith was murdered in Oconomowoc. Her ex-boyfriend, Darren Wold, was a primary suspect, but investigators also connected Johnson to the crime. Johnson was Wold’s best friend. Ultimately, prosecutors accused Wold and Johnson of hiring a hit man to kill Smith.
During the investigation, Waukesha law enforcement learned that Johnson maintained a residence in Mexico. They contacted the FBI’s liaison to Mexico. After obtaining consent from Johnson’s landlord, Mexican and U.S. authorities searched Johnson’s home in Baja California.
Waukesha law enforcement told the FBI to search for Johnson’s computer. After seizing the computer, Waukesha police obtained a search warrant to access the computer’s contents. Johnson’s computer contained evidence that linked him to the murder-for-hire plot.
After a jury trial, Johnson was convicted as a party to first-degree murder. The circuit court had denied Johnson’s motion to suppress evidence obtained from the computer, despite Johnson’s argument that authorities violated Mexican law when they searched his home in Baja.
In State v. Johnson, 2012 AP837-CR (Nov. 13, 2013), a three-judge panel for the District II Appeals Court affirmed while noting that the U.S. Constitution still applies “in certain situations when foreign officials conduct searches targeting American citizens in foreign countries.”
“In such cases, federal precedent instructs that a search of a foreign residence is reasonable – and therefore constitutional – if it complies with foreign law,” wrote Judge Paul Reilly.
The state conceded that “it was not clear … whether the warrantless search of Johnson’s residence based on his landlord’s consent was indeed legal under Mexican and Baja California law.” But the appeals court noted that a foreign search can be upheld on other grounds:
“Federal courts have also recognized a ‘good faith’ exception to the exclusionary rule when United States officials reasonably rely on foreign interpretations of the legality of a search. …”
The panel noted that the FBI contact told his counterpart liaison in Mexico that the search needed to be lawfully conducted. The liaison told the FBI that, according to Baja California’s attorney general, warrantless searches are legal there if a landlord consents.
U.S. law enforcement was “objectively reasonable in relying on the assurances of Mexican authorities that the search of Johnson’s residence was legal under Mexican law,” Reilly noted.
The appeals panel rejected Johnson’s argument that U.S. law enforcement was required to make a separate inquiry to confirm the Baja attorney general’s information.
“Such an argument is without merit as we presume high-ranking Mexican law enforcement personnel know their own laws,” Judge Reilly explained.