Mother’s 4th Amendment rights not violated in search after son’s death

A mother convicted of the negligent death of her son has lost her argument that the search of her apartment and phone following his death was a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights.

In Meghan E. Price v. State of Indiana, 18A-CR-1513, emergency personnel were dispatched to Meghan Price’s apartment on a call of an unresponsive child. When they arrived, Price’s 5-year-old son B.P. was lying on the ground in front of her apartment’s stairway. B.P., who suffered developmental delays due to a condition known as Fragile X chromosome, had previously been the subject of Department of Child Services investigations for several years leading up to the incident.

B.P. later died at the hospital, and an autopsy found B.P. weighed 35 pounds and had died from asphyxiation and the effects of elevated levels of several medications, including anti-depressants, blood pressure medication and a prescription drug used to treat schizophrenia. Officers then returned to the apartment, retrieved Price’s cellphone and confiscated it from her.

A search warrant for the phone was then obtained, and officers discovered several messages regarding B.P. exchanged between Price and her boyfriend, Steven Ingalls. One message sent by Price that stated she would “kill him (B.P.) in such a violent way that the news can’t even describe the scene without throwing up.” The message also said she would not be “going to prison over that little scrawny hand-flapper.”

Officers further found that Price had researched overdoses caused by the schizophrenia drug two days after the messages were sent. Thus, the mother was charged with murder- and neglect-related crimes, but she moved to suppress the search of her apartment and cellphone.

The Morgan Circuit Court denied that motion, and Price was convicted of neglect of a dependent resulting in death and was sentenced to 36 years in the Department of Correction. On appeal, Price argued the trial court abused its discretion by denying her motion to suppress, specifically claiming both searches violated her Fourth Amendment rights.

But the appellate court found Price’s first argument failed to stand when it concluded the brief walk-through of her apartment was permitted due to the exception for “exigent circumstances.”

“We cannot find many situations more urgent than a child who has been found unconscious, was on his way to the hospital, and an officer’s need to save that child’s life by looking for apparent dangerous substances in the apartment that the child might possibly have consumed, and in turn offering that information to doctors to aid in the child’s treatment,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote. “Additionally, we note that unlike the majority of cases discussing exigent circumstances, Detective (Chad) Richhart’s entry was not motivated by an intent to apprehend a suspect or to seize incriminating evidence.”

The appellate court further found that the warrantless entry constituted a legitimate exercise of the community caretaking function of the police, and thus did not violate Price’s Fourth Amendment right. Similarly, the seizure and search of her cellphone was justified because Price acted questionably while sitting in a police car, where she was “actively punching stuff on the screen” of her phone and refusing to return it to officers when requested. 

Further, on Price’s assertions that the search warrant was overly broad, the appellate court disagreed, ultimately concluding that the evidence seized from her phone was not obtained pursuant to an impermissibly general warrant.

“Like looking through drawers in a home or office file cabinet for specific files or letters that are relevant to the investigation, a great deal of other information had to have been sifted through Price’s phone to find the relevant information,” Riley wrote.

Thus, the appellate court found no abuse of discretion in the admission of evidence from either search.

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