Attorneys for a former Baton Rouge automobile dealer accused in the 2015 murder-for-hire of his ex-wife are again asking a judge to throw out vital cellphone evidence in the case, this time citing a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Authorities have said cellphone evidence led them to 67-year-old Hamid Ghassemi and to Tyler Lee Ashpaugh, one of his three alleged accomplices, and ultimately to the buried body of Taherah Ghassemi, 54.

Even though state District Judge Lou Daniel declined in 2017 to suppress cellphone evidence in the case, he scolded law enforcement for the way a search warrant was presented to a commissioner, saying an affidavit contained no probable cause to obtain Hamid Ghassemi’s phone records.

The judge, however, said Ghassemi had no expectation of privacy in the phone business records held by AT&T.

Fast forward to the Supreme Court’s ruling last June in a Michigan case, in which the sharply-divided high court said a suspect has a legitimate privacy interest in records held by a third party. The court also said a warrant is required to collect that information.

Now, Ghassemi's attorneys, Tommy Damico and Brent Stockstill, are asking Daniel to toss out Ghassemi's cellphone records and "the fruits of the poisonous tree created by those records."

In their motion to suppress the cellphone evidence, Damico and Stockstill claim in a Jan. 9 filing that Ghassemi — in light of the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling — had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the business records of AT&T.

"Specifically incoming calls to his phone was not information he intentionally shared with AT&T, but information AT&T collected in the ordinary course of their business," the lawyers argue.

Ghassemi's phone records indicate he received a call from Ashpaugh about 12:45 a.m. the morning after his ex-wife disappeared, the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office has said.

Ashpaugh's phone records show he had been at the woman's house the night she went missing, and at the sites where her burned car was located in Baton Rouge and her body was found in rural St. Helena Parish, authorities said.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the high court's June decision is limited to cellphone tracking information and doesn't impact other business records, including those held by banks.

"When the government tracks the location of a cellphone," Roberts stated, "it achieves near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone's user."

The chief justice noted that police can continue to respond to an emergency and obtain records without a warrant.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said Thursday his office does not believe the Supreme Court decision alters Daniel's ruling with respect to the sheriff's officers' actions "in any way."

In the case decided by the high court, Moore said, law enforcement obtained cellphone location information in an armed robbery investigation and did not have what are known as "exigent circumstances."

Exigent circumstances can exist, for example, when there is a genuine risk that someone's life is in danger.

"In our case, the detectives were not investigating a crime but were attempting to find and rescue a woman who had been missing for four days and obtained a search warrant which was signed by a commissioner," the district attorney said.

"It is important that although ... Judge Daniel found that the search warrant was deficient, he specifically declined to suppress the evidence not only due to a lack of a legitimate privacy interest but also because the officers in our case did not intentionally mislead the commissioner and had knowledge that constituted probable cause to obtain a warrant ... " he added.

Damico on Thursday reiterated his contention that the evidence the state is trying to rely on to prove its case was improperly and unconstitutionally obtained.

"We believe that we will win this motion and the evidence will be suppressed," he said.

In his 2017 ruling, Daniel said authorities had reasonable grounds and probable cause to seek Hamid Ghassemi's phone records. But he also noted that the search warrant affidavit contained "not one word" of probable cause, including the fact that the couple had gone through a bitter divorce or that Ghassemi allegedly had threatened to kill his ex-wife in 2013.

The sheriff's corporal who presented the warrant to then-19th Judicial District Commissioner Quintillis Lawrence testified previously in the case that he was in a rush to locate Taherah Ghassemi before she turned up dead.

Daniel also ruled that because the records were sought from AT&T in West Palm Beach, Florida, the commissioner lacked the authority to issue a warrant in another state.

Ghassemi, who owned Import One and Import One Elite on Airline Highway, is set to stand trial April 22 on first-degree murder. Prosecutors aren't seeking the death penalty. He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted.

Ashpaugh, 24, of Denham Springs, pleaded guilty in July to manslaughter in exchange for a 40-year prison term. He admitted shooting Taherah Ghassemi in the head but claimed she was already dead when he shot her.

Daniel Humberto Richter, 37, of Walker, pleaded guilty in September to manslaughter and second-degree kidnapping in return for a 50-year prison sentence. He admitted participating in the woman's abduction and slaying, and said he buried her body.

Richter once worked for Hamid Ghassemi.

Skyler Williams, 21, of Denham Springs, also is charged with first-degree murder in the case and faces a possible life sentence without parole if found guilty on that charge. He was 17 when Taherah Ghassemi was killed.

Ghassemi, who paid his ex-wife $1 million in a divorce settlement, is accused of paying $10,000 to have her killed.

She disappeared in mid-April 2015 and was discovered May 16 of that year.

     


Follow Joe Gyan Jr. on Twitter, @JoeGyanJr.