A U.S. District Court complaint accusing a Kona woman of using bitcoin to try to hire a hit man to kill her husband has been dismissed after a higher court’s ruling in an unrelated case limited agents’ ability to search electronic devices.
Emmy Baofang Chen, 52, was arrested and accused via complaint filed in June 2019 of accessing two different dark net websites to hire a hit man to kill her husband, who had filed for divorce in late 2018. After several continuances of a preliminary hearing, during which prosecutors would show probable cause exists to support two counts of federal interstate communications threats, the case was dismissed in late April.
An April 22 order signed by Magistrate Judge Kevin J. Mansfield states the U.S. Attorney for the District of Hawaii dismissed the complaint “on the ground(s) that certain evidence that was collected during a border search in the course of the underlying investigation has been affected by a subsequent decision of the Ninth Circuit, United States v. Cano, 934 F.3d 1002 (2019).”
The decision referred to is one handed down by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in August 2019 overturning the conviction of a man for cocaine importation because Customs and Border Patrol agents searched his cellphone extensively in 2016 for evidence of drug crimes.
The three-judge panel found border officials can examine a cellphone for contraband, but cannot search it to determine whether a person has committed a crime as the latter action violates a person’s Fourth Amendment right prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure.
The higher court’s ruling affects nine Western states in the circuit, including Hawaii.
Attorney Gary K. Springstead, one of three attorneys who represented Chen, was reached Thursday and said he would check with his client to provide a statement, but hadn’t responded as of press-time. One other declined comment and the third hadn’t responded.
U.S. Attorney Kenji Price’s office didn’t additional comment on the case.
According to the affidavit filed in June 2019 in support of the now-dismissed complaint against Chen, federal authorities first learned of a plot to kill Chen’s husband, R.B., in February 2019 when Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents were alerted that an unknown subject using the monikers “HAPPYNEWYEAR” and “HAPPY 2019” had tried to hire a hit man online in early January.
Subsequent investigation led agents to Chen, according to an affidavit filed with the complaint. Upon contacting R.B. and notifying him of the “ongoing threat,” the man told federal agents in mid-February 2019 the only person who would want him dead was Chen, because she was the sole beneficiary of his will and the two had a history of disputing over finances and that Chen had threatened to kill him in the past.
At the time of the alleged offense, R.B. and Chen no longer resided together. A restraining order prohibiting Chen from threatening or causing verbal or physical abuse was also in effect, according to the affidavit.
However, when contacted in mid-February 2019 by agents, R.B. said he and Chen were attempting to reconcile.
The affidavit also notes that when Chen and R.B. returned in May 2019 from the Philippines, “as part of a routine customs border search, CBP and HSI agents interviewed CHEN and R.B. separately, and detained CHEN’s electronic devices to search them.”
Those devices, the affidavit states, contained evidence that Chen was responsible for the transactions with the websites used to seek out a hit man.
Chen was arrested in June 2019 and granted release with conditions in lieu of $100,000 bond shortly thereafter. That bond was exonerated May 7.