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The recent ruling of an Oregon Court of Appeals has declared a common practice by the Portland police to be unlawful.

This practice, which has been going on for years, consists of having two officers and a U.S. postal inspector remove certain packages, sent via USPS Express Mail from the incoming mail stream at the Portland International Airport, without first obtaining search warrants.

The case that put this practice to the test was a recent one involving defendant Max Barnthouse (photo below). According to police, they separated a package addressed to his home because there were a number of “red flags” indicating that the package may be involved in illegal activity. These red flags including the following:

  • It was addressed to an obvious pseudonym.
  • It came from a state where medical marijuana is not legal to one where it has been legalized.
  • It had a handwritten address.
  • It had a different sender zip code than that from where the package was actually sent.
  • Its postage was paid for by cash or debit card.

The police separated the package addressed to “Maxi-pad Barnt” and then allowed a police drug dog to sniff it. When the dog signaled it was of interest, Portland police took the package to Barnthouse’s home. Although Barnthouse was not at his residence at the time, his roommates supplied police with his phone number.

Police told Barnthouse, over the phone, that he was not under arrest, but they wanted to search the premises and would get a warrant if he did not grant them permission.

can police intercept mail for drug dog

The search of Barnthouse’s room yielded stacks of money, a large quantity of marijuana and equipment for packaging. Based on this evidence, Barnthouse was arrested and booked as a drug dealer.

Before trial could begin, Barnthouse’s attorney, Stephen Houze, argued for suppression of the evidence due to unlawful search and seizure. Multnomah County Circuit Judge, Christopher Marshall, found in Barnthouse’s favor, ruling that removal of the package from the incoming mail was done without probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

Prosecutors then brought their case to the Oregon Court of Appeals. The appellate court agreed with the prior ruling, saying that police must have both probable cause and a warrant or the presence of one of the exceptions to the requirement for a warrant. For Max Barnthouse, the case is likely over as there is no longer evidence with which to prosecute. The decision may well have further ramifications, though, as the ruling will hopefully end an unlawful police practice that has been going on for years in Portland.

Pulling aside mail for a canine sniff test is done at the Portland International Airport as often as 40 times each day. The police then further investigate up to 14 packages per day, using databases to search for connections to known criminals. The Portland Police Department has not yet responded as to whether they will change this practice on the basis of the appellate court’s decision.

max barnthouse

​photo credit: Multnomah County Sherif

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