Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Tenth Circuit US v. Esquivel-Rios 14-3162

   Decision here.

   This case has now made it back through the court system again.  Obviously, the original facts haven't changed much.  Since we last heard from our heroes, an evidentiary hearing in the district court has found that at the time of this stop Colorado temporary tags were not entered into CBI's database at all, so they would not have been available via an NCIC query.  I could have told you that, but I work in Colorado.  The trooper in this case works in Kansas, and so it's not surprising he didn't know that.

   The prosecution changed tactics.  Instead of arguing reasonable suspicion, they're now arguing that suppression is not an appropriate remedy.  Basically, the exclusionary rule exists as a means to deter violations of the Fourth Amendment by removing any police incentive to conduct illegal searches.  The exclusionary rule is a judicially created rule that isn't required (or even set forth) in the Constitution.  So in cases where it would not fulfill its purpose (de-incentivising constitutional violations), it just not applied.  

   Short version: when the police are acting in good faith, and reasonably believe that they are doing things the right way, the exclusionary rule doesn't apply even if it is later determined that there was a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

   That's what the prosecution was arguing for here: a ruling that the trooper in this case didn't know he was violating the Fourth Amendment.  The Tenth Circuit assumed for the sake of argument that there was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, and ruled that if there was such a violation then it was in good faith and suppression was not an appropriate remedy.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

US Supreme Court San Francisco v. Sheehan 13-1412

Decision here.

   The Ninth Circuit continues its quest to be the most reversed Federal court EVAR.

   Sheehan was living in a group home for people with mental illness, and wasn't doing so well.  She had stopped taking her meds, stopped communicating with her therapist, and stopped changing her clothes.  When a social worker went to check on her, she threatened to kill him with a knife (he didn't actually stop to see whether or not she really had a knife, but she did).  He backed out and called the police for help.  He also completed the paperwork to have her taken in for a mental evaluation, noting on the form that she was a danger to others and gravely disabled. 

   After the first two cops showed up, reviewed the paperwork, and had a hospital ready to admit Sheehan, they knocked on her door and told her they were there to help her.  When she didn't answer, they opened the door.  She sprang at them with a knife, and they closed the door.  They called for more help, but decided to take immediate action because they were dealing with an armed, violent, unstable person who they feared might be escaping, gathering more weapons, or harming someone else (they hadn't at this point determined whether there was anyone else in the room, although Sheehan asserts that they somehow would have been able to see that there wasn't).

   One officer pushed the door open again, and the other tried to subdue Sheehan with pepper spray.  When that didn't work, and when she continued to approach the officers without dropping the knife, both of them shot her multiple times.  Another officer arrived and kicked the knife out of Sheehan's hand (now that she was subdued), and she was taken into custody.

   Sheehan survived.  A jury deadlocked on the charges against her, and the prosecutors didn't bother to retry the case.  Then Sheehan sued the city and the officers who shot her, for an alleged violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The argument is essentially that the police should have accommodated her disability during the arrest by "respecting her comfort zone" and waiting until she calmed down.  I'd say that you can't make this stuff up, but someone obviously did... anyway, the Ninth Circuit denied qualified immunity, holding that a jury could reasonably find that the officers force the confrontation and that it's clearly established that you can't enter the home of an armed, mentally ill person when there's no objective need to do so.

   The Supreme Court granted cert on a couple of issues: first, on whether the ADA even applies to making arrests; and second, on whether or not the officers are entitled to qualified immunity.  But San Francisco's attorney's botched the argument so badly that the Supreme Court changed it's mind about cert on the first issue, and decided not to decide whether or not the ADA applies to making arrests.  So the lower courts can have fun with that.

   Regarding qualified immunity, the Court found the following: The police were initially justified in making entry into Sheehan's room because law enforcement officers may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.  After they closed the door, they were justified in opening it again for the exact same reason; and also because the two entries were really part of a single, continuous search.  Besides, they knew that Sheehan was armed, that she had just threatened to kill three people, and that delay could make the situation more dangerous.  Even if some idiot former chief of police testified that the officers should have tried harder to find non-violent solutions, the actions that they took here were reasonable.  Subduing Sheehan with pepper spray (or trying to) was reasonable, and when that proved ineffective and she was approaching officers with a knife, shooting her was reasonable.  So since all of that was acceptable under Constitutional standards, we're back to the first question of whether the officers violated Sheehan's rights by not accommodating her disability and respecting her comfort zone.

   The Supreme Court held that the officers didn't violate any clearly established right and therefore are entitled to qualified immunity.

Tenth Circuit US v. Pettit 14-4043

Decision here.

   Pettit was driving across Utah when he was stopped for repeatedly crossing the fog line.  During the stop, he was acting abnormally nervous (the trooper specifically described that his lower body was fidgeting, his whole arm was shaking when he handed over a driver's license, and he told the trooper twice in 25 seconds that he was making him nervous).  Pettit's travel plans were also the sort of thing that makes any cop think of drug trafficking (he was driving a car registered to an absent third party one-way across the country with very little luggage or personal effects).  Also, his license was suspended in both of the states where he had a driver's license.

   The initial stop was at 3:32.  At 3:43, the trooper had completed a citation for the traffic offense, but he did not actually give Pettit the citation or return Pettit's ID card to him.  Instead, he asked for consent to search the car, which Pettit granted.  During the search, he found $2000 cash.  A K9 who showed up during the search quickly alerted to the scent of drugs, and 2.5 kg of cocaine were finally found in the spare tire.

   In court, Pettit moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the trooper unlawfully extended the stop without reasonable suspicion.  His motion was denied, he was convicted, this appeal followed.

   Although the police are allowed to do certain things during an ordinary traffic stop (such as request license and registration, run computer checks, issue citations, ask questions whether or not they are related to the stop, and request consent to search), a traffic stop may not extend beyond the time reasonably required to effectuate its purpose.  An officer may only extend the traffic stop beyond that time if either 1- the encounter becomes a consensual encounter or 2- the officer develops reasonable suspicion of other criminal activity during the stop.

   The Tenth Circuit held that at 3:43, the traffic stop was over.  By then, the trooper had already completed all of the normal tasks associated with a traffic investigation, and was prepared to issue a citation (although he did not immediately do so).  However, since the trooper did not return Pettit's documents to him, this had not become a consensual contact.  So the important question is whether or not the Trooper had reasonable suspicion.

   Reasonable suspicion has been defined by the Supreme Court as a particularized and objective basis for suspecting criminal conduct under a totality of the circumstances.  It's not a difficult standard to meet, it doesn't require that an officer eliminate all innocent explanations first, or even that a suspect be more likely guilty than innocent.  In this case, the factors listed above (Pettit's unusual nervousness, the normal indicia of drug trafficking, and even the suspended licenses) were enough to amount to reasonable suspicion when viewed as a whole.  The detention thus being justified, Pettit's conviction was affirmed.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Colorado Court of Appeals People v. Campos 14CA0125

Decided 4-24-15

   The Colorado Court of Appeals has ruled that employment is a thing of value for the purposes of the identity theft statute (which prohibits using someone else's identifying info to obtain a thing of value).

Colorado Court of Appeals People v. Lopez 13CA1681

Decided April 23, 2105

   Lopez assaulted his wife, breaking her collarbone.  He was hanging out outside the hospital when a cop wanted to ask questions about that.  He threatened her with a knife, but apparently prefers to only beat up women who don't have tasers, so he didn't actually attack her.

   His temper bought him a menacing charge (for threatening the cop with a knife) and an obstruction charge.  After he was convicted of both, he appealed.  The court of appeals held that even though the officer didn't actually see the knife (it was found during a later search while he was being arrested), the evidence was sufficient to convict him of menacing because the emphasis of a menacing charge is properly on the defendant's conduct, not on the the victim's. 

   As far as obstruction goes... this analysis was conducted for the way that the obstruction statute read in 2011 (it has since been appealed).  Because of some unusual wording in the statute, Lopez argued that someone can only be convicted of obstructing a peace officer if the peace officer is making an arrest.  What the statute actually said) is more akin to what you would expect from an obstruction law (don't interfere with the police...), with an added caveat that if the police happen to be making an arrest then it doesn't matter if the arrest is illegal, you still aren't allowed to obstruct them.  Although the statute is pretty clear if you read it and think critically about what it says (said, that is), the court chose to explain it in a metaphor involving citrus fruit.  Not kidding, go read it it.  I had a good laugh.

Tenth Circuit US v. Washington 14-7017

Decided 4-22-15

   Washington and a friend were driving from one city in Oklahoma to another.  The car was a rental borrowed from Washington's passenger's mother, and there was a shit ton of weed in it.  They got caught, and convicted of distribution, and appealed.

   Washington's friend's conviction stood, but this is Washington's case.  The Tenth Circuit held that his mere presence in the car, even combined with speculation about what he might have known, was not enough to find beyond reasonable doubt that he knew about the drugs in the car (particularly given that he was not the only one in the car).  Apparently, there was stronger evidence tying his friend to the drugs.