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An arrest pursuant to a civil writ of bodily attachment for unpaid child support is equivalent to a warrant under the Fourth Amendment

 

In U.S. v Phillips the defendant challenged the arrest on a civil writ of bodily attachment for unpaid child support on the grounds of a violation of the Fourth Amendment. As a result to his stop and arrest police officer discovered he was in possession of a firearm at the time he was being arrested on the writ. The issue addressed here was whether a writ of bodily attachment is a Warrant within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution so that the officer found the firearm during a valid search incident to arrest.

A Florida court issued a writ of bodily attachment for unpaid child support that ordered the police to take Phillips into custody and confine him to the county jail but the writ allowed Phillips to purge this contempt and immediately released from custody by the payment of $300.   The police also wanted to question Phillips about a recent shooting in Miami. When an officer who recognized him and knew about the writ of bodily attachment, approached him, the officer patted him and found the loaded .380 caliber firearm. Because Phillips had a prior drug felony, he was indicted on one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm and an armed career criminal.

Denying the motion to suppress the firearm, the district court concluded that a civil writ of bodily attachment is no different from a criminal arrest warrant for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment. It found the search and seizure of the firearm was part of a search incident to arrest.

In his challenge to the search, Phillips argued that the officer had no authority to conduct a search incident to arrest because he had no authority to arrest Phillips in the first place. He argued that a civil writ of bodily attachment is not equivalent to a criminal arrest warrant for the purpose of the Fourth Amendment. In a brief review of the history of warrants the court found that the Fourth Amendment does not require warrants to be based on probable cause of a crime, as opposed to a civil offense. Nothing in the original public meaning of probable cause or Warrants excludes civil offenses.

The appellate court found that a writ of bodily attachment for unpaid child support satisfy definitions for a warrant and in fact the standard for issuing a writ in Florida courts is higher than the standard for probable cause. Whether a writ of bodily attachment is based on civil contempt as opposed to a crime makes no difference. The court found a close analogy to bench warrants or “capias” that instructs a police officer to arrest someone to ensure they appear in court. Because bench warrants and writs of bodily attachment for unpaid child support are virtually indistinguishable. The court concluded that a writ of bodily attachment for unpaid child support is a warrant for purposes of the Fourth Amendment and the arrest was reasonable.