The Pitonyak Case: When is a private-property search justifiable?

Because evidence was illegally obtained, Colton Pitonyak's conviction should be tossed out, lawyers argue

Colton Pitonyak
Colton Pitonyak (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Because criminal evidence was illegally obtained by the family of murder victim Jennifer Cave, Colton Pitonyak's conviction should be tossed out – along with the tainted evidence – and the 24-year-old former University of Texas student should receive a new trial, lawyers for Pitonyak argued Jan. 23, before a three-judge panel of Texas' 3rd Court of Appeals. If the court fails to reverse the error, attorneys Terrence Kirk and Joe Turner opined, the decision would effectively endorse the idea that any search of private property can be justified by the evidence it yields, contrary to constitutional protection.

According to Kirk, the family of 21-year-old Cave broke the law Aug. 18, 2005, by entering Pitonyak's apartment without probable cause, even after Austin Police Department officers advised the family that police lacked sufficient evidence to enter the residence. Inside the apartment, Cave's mother, Sharon, and Sharon's fiancé, Jim Sedwick, found Cave's lifeless and partially dismembered body in Pitonyak's bathtub.

Testifying during his January 2007 trial, Pitonyak admitted that he must have shot Cave but said that he didn't remember doing so because he'd been intoxicated for several days straight on booze and pills. He said that Cave was his "best friend" and that he had no reason to hurt her; he couldn't explain why her corpse had been mutilated (she'd been stabbed repeatedly, her head and hands crudely hacked from her body), but he nonetheless laid the blame for the desecration on his former friend Laura Hall. Ultimately, Pitonyak was convicted of murder and sentenced to 55 years in prison. (Hall was tried and convicted last summer of hindering Pitonyak's apprehension by helping him flee to Mexico and of tampering with evidence in connection with Cave's dismemberment. She was sentenced to five years in prison.)

In a pretrial hearing, Pitonyak's trial attorneys, Roy Minton and Sam Bassett, had argued that Cave's family had entered his apartment illegally, thus rendering the evidence inadmissible. Travis Co. District Judge Wilford Flowers disagreed, ruling the Cave family had enough evidence to suggest their daughter was in danger: She'd failed to show up for work at a new job that she was excited about, she'd last been seen with Pitonyak on Sixth Street the night before she disappeared, and her car was found parked near Pitonyak's West Campus apartment. But according to Kirk, Flowers' ruling was just wrong: If the police did not have enough evidence to enter the apartment or to suggest that Cave might be inside and in imminent danger, neither did her parents. At issue is the "emergency doctrine," a legal proposition that can be applied when a reasonably prudent person is confronted with a set of exigent circumstances – such as when another person's life is in imminent danger – and is excused for taking action that would otherwise be illegal. In this case, Kirk and Turner argue, Cave's family did not have objective evidence that their daughter was in danger, meaning their inspection of Pitonyak's apartment was, in essence, a warrantless search without cause. There was no "explicit violence or suggestion of violence" evident to Sharon Cave before she and Sedwick entered Pitonyak's apartment, the lawyers say. All they had was suspicion, and Sharon Cave's intuition, that something was wrong. Sharon Cave may have been justifiably "terrified" about the fate of her daughter, but that was not enough to force entry into the apartment, Kirk argued. If that was all that was necessary under the law, then "any time you have a missing persons case, you can break into a house just because you're worried – just because [the missing person] 'doesn't usually do this,'" Kirk told Justices Jan Patterson, Diane Hen­son, and David Puryear. "What if [Cave had] just run off? There is no indication of violence."

But Puryear and Patter­son appear­ed skeptical about the need to show objective evidence of violence in order to legally justify the search. Indeed, Patterson asked why Sharon Cave's "intuition" wasn't enough to justify her and Sedwick's actions. If the court were to rule in Pitonyak's favor, evidence collected as a result of the family's search – including a hacksaw found on Cave's body, a machete found in Pitonyak's dishwasher, and various photographs of Cave's body, for example – might be difficult to submit as evidence, unless prosecutors could convince Hall to testify about what exactly occurred inside Piton­yak's apartment that night. To date, Hall has declined to testify in court.

After the Wednesday afternoon hearing, Turner told reporters that the appeals court would be setting a "very dangerous precedent" if it concludes the search of Pitonyak's apartment was legal: allowing private citizens "to make up their minds about what is an emergency and what isn't" and generally opening the door to court-sanctioned vigilante justice. Such hunches are best left to the police to handle, he said, because they are trained to know when, and under what circumstances, a search can be undertaken. "The natural tendency is to say, 'Well, that worked out well,'" Turner added. "But you cannot justify an illegal search by what is found."

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Jury finds former UT student Colton Pitonyak guilty of "knowingly and intentionally" murdering Jennifer Cave, gives him 55 years

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Colton Pitonyak, Jennifer Cave, Laura Hall, Joe Turner, Terrence Kirk, 3rd Court of Appeals, David Puryear, Jan Patterson, Diane Henson

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