National Pulse

California police release true-crime podcast in hopes the public can help find a fugitive

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Collin Miller, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, says that California law holds that a private person looking for evidence could constitute a government search if the government knew of and acquiesced to the private search, and if the private individual intended to assist law enforcement.

“So, if the police encourage searches by private citizens who uncover evidence that they otherwise wouldn’t have sought out, could that lead to a Fourth Amendment challenge to the evidence?” he says.

The podcast ends each episode with a physical description of Chadwick and an announcement of its tip line phone number, but there is no warning to listeners regarding how involved they should be in the investigation.

A long tradition

Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City who is not a lawyer, says she doesn’t see any ethical or legal issues with the podcast, describing it as a “more sophisticated ‘wanted’ notice” that reaches a larger audience. She reasons that because Chadwick didn’t appear in court after having been granted bail, “the police department has the right to ask the public to assist in locating the fugitive.”

Framed this way, the podcast is an extension of a modern American tradition. America’s Most Wanted, for example, solicited public help on television between 1988 and 2012. Local stations have broadcast variations of Crime Stoppers programs that enlisted the public’s help in cracking unsolved cases. In recent years, amateur sleuths have taken to the internet to collect and share information surrounding cold cases on sites such as Project: Cold Case and Defrosting Cold Cases.

Manzella says she has no legal concerns about the Newport Beach police podcast, though she hastens to add that she is not an attorney.

Regardless of potential pitfalls, Haberfeld believes that the attention gained by the podcast will inspire other departments to produce their own, adding a new dimension to how police work with the public to solve crimes. With many police departments understaffed and under-resourced, “any constructive help from the public, especially when looking for a dangerous fugitive, is much needed,” she says.

This article was published in the January-February 2019 ABA Journal magazine with the title "Serial Sleuths."

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