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State v. Ruiz

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourth District, San Antonio

July 26, 2017

The STATE of Texas, Appellant
Lauro Eduardo RUIZ, Appellee

         From the 186th Judicial District Court, Bexar County, Texas Trial Court No. 2015CR4068 Honorable Andrew Carruthers, Judge Presiding

          Rebeca C. Martinez, Patricia O. Alvarez, Luz Elena D. Chapa, Justice.


          Patricia O. Alvarez, Justice.

         This case stems from Appellee Lauro Eduardo Ruiz's ten-count indictment charging Ruiz with attempted production of sexual performance by a child. Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 43.25(d) (West 2016) ("A person commits an offense if, knowing the character and content of the material, he produces, directs, or promotes a performance that includes sexual conduct by a child younger than 18 years of age."). The trial court granted Ruiz's motion to suppress and excluded all photographs, evidence, and data obtained from the search of Ruiz's cell phone. This State's appeal ensued.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On February 26, 2014, two female students at a private high school notified Dean of Students Dolores Rodriguez that Ruiz, a substitute teacher, was acting inappropriately. The students provided images of Ruiz's cell phone, placed on top of his bag, near the podium, with the camera facing up, and allegedly capturing images from underneath the female students' skirts. Rodriguez contacted Academic Dean and Vice Principal Steven Hayward; Hayward summoned Ruiz to the administrative offices. Principal Gilbert Saenz was not on campus at the time.

         Pending Principal Saenz's return to campus, Rodriguez and Hayward began investigating the allegations. Rodriguez posed the initial question to Ruiz-whether "anything happened that day in the classroom." A very nervous Ruiz acknowledged "he had a problem." Ruiz's nervousness and "fidgeting" with his cell phone led Rodriguez to fear the possible deletion of information. Rodriguez requested that Ruiz place the cell phone on Saenz's desk; both Rodriguez and Hayward testified that Ruiz complied without incident, comment, or objection. Shortly thereafter, Principal Saenz arrived. All three administrators testified that Ruiz again admitted that "he had a problem" and that there were inappropriate images on his cell phone. Saenz terminated Ruiz's employment and informed Ruiz that law enforcement would be notified.

         Principal Saenz advised Ruiz that the cell phone would be turned over to law enforcement authorities. Pursuant to his own request, Ruiz retrieved several phone numbers from the cell phone. At some point, Saenz saw approximately twenty videos or images on the cell phone. After Ruiz obtained the information from his cell phone, he returned the cell phone to Saenz, and Saenz placed the cell phone in a manila envelope and sealed the envelope. Consistent with his statement to Ruiz, Saenz contacted the Castle Hills Police Department, made a report, and turned the cell phone over to the officers. Pursuant to a search warrant, the Castle Hills Police Department officers viewed and secured several images depicting the area underneath the students' skirts. Ruiz was subsequently charged with multiple counts of attempted production of sexual performance by a child.

         On December 31, 2015, Ruiz filed a motion to suppress any and all tangible evidence seized in connection with the case asserting that Principal Saenz did not obtain a warrant and no exception to the warrant requirement applies. The State filed a memorandum of law in opposition to the motion to suppress on March 11, 2016. Following an evidentiary hearing on March 9, 2016, and on April 7, 2016, the trial court made the following oral findings of fact, see State v. Cullen, 195 S.W.3d 696, 699 (Tex. Crim. App. 2006) (explaining that trial court's findings on a motion to suppress may be written or oral):

• "the information obtained from Ruiz's cell phone was a result of a private citizen seizing [Ruiz's] telephone;"
• "Ruiz may or may not have consented to leaving his cell phone with school authorities;"
• "Ruiz did not consent to [Saenz's search of Ruiz's cell phone];"
• "Saenz . . . conducted a search of the defendant's telephone without obtaining a search warrant;"
• "[Saenz] subsequently gave the information he had obtained from the search of [Ruiz]'s cell phone to law enforcement authorities;"
• "a search warrant was obtained by police officers;" and
• "information was obtained from [Ruiz's] cell phone through the search warrant."

         The trial court concluded that because Saenz's actions did not fall under the warrantless search exceptions of either consent to search or exigent circumstances, Saenz's warrantless examination of Ruiz's cell phone violated Texas Code of Criminal Procedure article 38.23(a). See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 38.23(a) (West 2005).

         The trial court also made the following oral conclusions of law:

• "Information [taken from the cell phone was] fruit of the poisonous tree since the initial examination of the contents of [Ruiz's] cell phone was without a warrant, was without ...

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