Sunday, January 11, 2015

Tenth Circuit US v. Denson 13-3329

Decision here.

   Denson, an armed robbery convict out on parole, stopped reporting to his probation officer and disappeared.  As we all know, this sort of behavior is heavily frowned on.

   At some point, Denson opened a utility account in Witchita.  Why he used his own name is anyone's guess, but he did.  Police showed up at his address at 8:30 in the morning on a weekday, found the electric meter whirring away, and entered the house.*  Sure enough, Denson was home.  And during a protective sweep, they found a stash of guns. 

   Denson moved to suppress the guns, arguing that the police entry into his house was unlawful, and that even if it was lawful to enter it was not lawful to search the house once he had been arrested, and that even the protective sweep was lawful it was unlawful to seize the guns.

   First, the entry: Under Payton, the police have limited authority to enter the residence of a wanted person if they have reason to believe that the aforementioned wanted person is home.  In the Tenth Circuit, "reason to believe" is taken to mean reasonable suspicion.  In some circuits, it's taken to mean probable cause.  In this decision, the Tenth hinted that they might reconsider and go with probable cause at some point in the future, but they aren't changing their minds just yet.

   In any event, the police had probable cause to believe that Denson was home.  It was his only known residence, he wasn't known to have a job, it was 8:30 in the morning, he wasn't likely to be out and about whilst hiding from the police, and the electric meter was spinning furiously.  Taken together, those facts created a fair probability that Denson would be home (and probable cause is just a fair probability... it's not even necessarily more likely than not).

   Second argument: given that Denson was a known gang member with a violent history who was hiding from the police (and who was known to have a roommate who was also wanted), a protective sweep of the residence was justified.  That said, the police almost blew this one with their stupid little radar.  After all, shouldn't the police have known no one was in the house because their radar told them?

   The Court makes it clear that it'll probably decide that way in the future, but that in this case there just wasn't enough information on the reliability and the capabilities of the radar.  The court didn't know if the radar's ability to see who all was in a house was good enough to dispel the officers' fears that someone else dangerous might be inside.

   Third, Denson argued that the guns weren't readily recognizable as contraband because the cops didn't know if someone else owned the guns.  But felons aren't just prohibited from owning guns, they aren't allowed to possess them (and given Denson's ability to control the guns in his house, he constructively possessed them).  So the guns were readily recognizable as contraband.

   Denson's conviction was upheld.

*The police also used a radar device to see whether or not anyone was in Denson's house, and saw footprints in the snow in the back yard.  The court did not consider these facts.  The only reason that it would have been legal for the police to use the radar or to enter the back yard is if entry were already justified, so it's impossible to use those facts to justify entry.  Sometimes it scares me how little federal agents seem to understand the law... it's like they aren't even trying.  Unless it was local law enforcement pulling this crap, in which case I apologize to the feds.

Colorado Court of Appeals People v. Brown 11CA0556

Decision here.

   Brown appealed his conviction for murdering his wife.  Most of his arguments aren't relevant for this blog, but one of them was interesting.

   The police had obtained a warrant to search Brown's car.  They were surveilling for a couple of hours first.  They saw brown walk up to the car and put a backpack in it, and chose that moment to execute the warrant.  Brown asked to be able to take the backpack out of the car, but the police didn't allow him to, and evidence found in the backpack was later used against him.

   The Court of Appeals upheld the admission of the evidence from the backpack, holding that since it was in the car at the moment of seizure it was within the scope of the warrant.

Tenth Circuit US v. Long 13-5082

Decision here.

   Long was arrested after the police served a search warrant on an apartment being used for drug trafficking (Long was in the apartment at the time, along with a gun, a lot of cash, and a lot of cocaine).  In court, he challenged the affidavit for the search warrant.

   The affidavit relied on a confidential informant who had apparently given reliable information in the past.  Long argued that the affidavit did not establish probable cause because the informant did not name him, and because the police didn't corroborate the information the informant had given about the apartment.  The court held that it was unnecessary for the information to name or describe Long, since the informant asserted that there was cocaine in the apartment and the search warrant was directed at the apartment rather than at Long.  The court also held that because the informant had previously given reliable information, this tip was enough to establish probable cause without additional corroboration.

   Long's conviction was upheld.

Tenth Circuit US v. Hood 13-6182

Decision Here.

   Police were investigating a series of residential burglaries.  One of the suspects left a phone behind at one of the burglaries (idiot).  The police went to the apartment which the phone was registered to, and heard someone inside, but no one answered the door.  Then the police went to the parking lot and found a stolen car (associated with the same apartment).

   While they were dealing with that, one of the neighbors told them that someone was running from apartment 108 (which they had just left).  The went back to the apartment, and found Hood trying to get away.  He was wearing a heavy jacket and fumbling with his pockets.  They detained him at gunpoint, and handcuffed him after he told them he didn't know if he had a weapon.  Turned out that he had a gun in his pocket, and that he was a convicted felon.

   In court, Hood moved to suppress the gun.  He argued that the police violated the Fourth Amendment by pointing guns at him and handcuffing him.  On appeal, the Tenth Circuit explained that officers are allowed to use force during Terry stop to the extent that such steps are reasonably necessary to protect their personal safety and to maintain the status quo during the course of the stop.  The courts evaluate our actions based on whether the facts available to the officer at the moment of the seizure would warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that the action taken was appropriate.

   Under these circumstances (investigating a burglary, high crime area, suspect fleeing, clothing suitable for concealing weapons, fumbling in pockets), it's pretty obvious that the officers acted appropriately.  Hood's conviction was upheld.

US Supreme Court Heien v. North Carolina 13-604

Decision here.

   Heien was a passenger in (and owner of) a vehicle which was stopped for having a brake light out.  During the stop, Heien and the driver both consented to a search of the vehicle, and the cops found cocaine.  Heien was arrested for drug trafficking.

   Heien moved to suppress the cocaine, arguing that the stop was unlawful because the North Carolina traffic code only requires one brake light.  And although the way the traffic code is written is confusing (it requires "a stop light," but mentions that this light can be incorporated into the tail lights, and also requires that all tail lights be in working order), it turns out that Heien is right.  And so this case worked its way up through appeals, all the way to the Supreme Court.

   The Supreme Court upheld the stop.  Here's why: the Fourth Amendment requires that searches and seizures be reasonable, and therefore that officers act reasonably, but it does not require us to be perfect.  A stop can be based on a reasonable mistake of fact and still be valid.  The court uses the examples of arresting the wrong person with a warrant (who matches the suspect description) or pulling someone over for driving alone in a carpool lane only to find that there are kids in the back seat of the car.  In either case, the seizure would be valid even though it was erroneous and based on a mistake of fact.

   The court held that reasonable mistakes of law are no different than reasonable mistakes of fact.  That's not to excuse sloppy study of the law, but just recognizing that the police have to be ready to quickly apply the law to novel situations, and sometimes they don't have time to go do thorough research before deciding whether or not to detain someone.