Government Entities – Case Law Update, August 2017

United States v. Workman

Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea to one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Defendant appealed the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress the firearm, arguing that officers used unreasonable “high risk” traffic stop procedures to investigate a “completed misdemeanor,” Defendant’s flashing of a firearm in public, and the unreasonable nature of the force involved in the stop elevated it from an investigative detention to an arrest without probable cause. The Tenth Circuit concluded the precautionary measures of force that the officers employed in seizing Defendant were reasonable, and did not cause his seizure to rise to the level of a de facto arrest, which would have required a showing of probable cause. Consequently, the seizure here was lawful.

Harte v. Board Comm’rs Cnty of Johnson

Robert Harte and his two children visited a garden store where they purchased a small bag of supplies to grow tomatoes and other vegetables in the basement of the family home as an educational project with his 13-year-old son. Unbeknownst to Harte, Sergeant James Wingo of the Missouri State Highway Patrol was parked nearby in an unmarked car, watching the store as part of a ‘pet project’ where he would spend three or four hours per day surveilling the garden store, keeping meticulous notes on all of the customers: their sex, age, vehicle description, license plate number, and what they purchased. More than five months later, a sergeant in the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office (“JCSO”), emailed Wingo about the possibility of conducting a joint operation on April 20; the idea stemmed from a multi-agency raid on indoor marijuana growers that was conducted on the same date the previous year. That raid, known as “Operation Constant Gardener,” was spearheaded by Wingo on the basis of several hundred tips he had amassed from his garden store surveillance. The raid would end with police searching the Harte’s trash and finding loose tea leaves, suspecting a marijuana grow operation in the Harte house. A SWAT team descended on the family home (complete with battering ram, bulletproof vests, and assault rifles), keeping the entire family under armed guard for two and a half hours. In this appeal, the Tenth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants-officers. The court affirmed the grant of summary judgment on all claims asserted against defendant Jim Wingo, and affirmed as to the plaintiffs’ excessive force and Monell liability claims. However, the Court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on the unlawful search and seizure claims asserted against the remaining defendants. On remand, plaintiffs’ claim under Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154 (1978), was limited to their theory that one or more of the remaining defendants lied about the results of the field tests conducted in April 2012 on the tea leaves collected from the plaintiffs’ trash. The Court further reversed summary judgment as to the four state-law claims raised on appeal.

United States v. Roberson

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed prior rulings that despite a show of authority by officers, a suspect is not considered seized until he complies with the officer’s commands.

The defendant and another person were smoking marijuana in the defendant’s car in a bar parking lot.  Four marked patrol cars drove into the parking lot in “wolf-pack” technique by entering from different corners of the lot.  The officers were not responding to a specific incident but arrived in response to the bar’s request for more frequent police patrol due to problems with criminal activity.  One of the patrol cars shined spotlights and bright takedown lights on the car while two officers approached the car.  The officers’ patrol car did not block the defendant’s car, but their line of approach meant that the defendant would have hit the officers had he tried to drive away.  As soon as the officers got out of their car, they saw the defendant making “stuffing motions” underneath the driver’s seat.  The officers ordered the occupants to show their hands.  The passenger complied, the defendant did not.  The officers then drew their guns and once again commanded the defendant to show his hands, but he still did not comply.  Only when one of the officers reached the driver’s side window did the defendant stop the stuffing motions, roll down the window, and put his hands on the steering wheel.  The officers opened the door and smelled marijuana.  They later found a gun under the driver’s seat, where the defendant had been making his stuffing motions, and a bag of marijuana in the center console.  The time between the officers’ exiting their car and reaching the car’s window was 30 seconds at most.

The issue in deciding the motion to suppress was whether the defendant was seized without reasonable suspicion, rendering the ensuing search of his car unlawful under the Fourth Amendment.  The Tenth Circuit concluded that shining bright lights on the defendant’s car and walking toward the car was indeed a show of authority, which escalated when the officers commanded Mr. Roberson to put his hands on the steering wheel.  However, he was not seized at that point because he put his hands on the steering wheel in compliance with the officers’ commands.  “This was the first moment a reasonable officer would think Mr. Roberson had submitted. The officers already had reasonable suspicion before this happened.”  Therefore, it denied his motion to suppress.

State v. Navarro

Officers stopped defendant for a tint violation and requested another officer bring a tint meter to the scene.  It arrived approximately 20 minutes after the stop.  During that time, a drug dog arrived and alerted on the car.  The officers searched the car and found two guns, drug paraphernalia, and a substance that appeared to be methamphetamine.

The defendant conceded that the traffic stop was justified but argued the police “impermissibly exploited the traffic stop” by shifting to a narcotics investigation unrelated to the purpose of the stop, therefore rendering the search unlawful under the Fourth Amendment.  The only question on appeal was “whether the detention following the stop was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the interference in the first place.

The trial court concluded the tint meter did not arrive until after the arrival of the K-9 unit.  Because the K-9 alerted on the defendant’s vehicle, the detectives had reasonable suspicion of additional serious criminal activity, and could appropriately expand the investigative scope of the initial stop.  The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

State v. Taylor

In this case, the Utah Court of Appeals reaffirmed two long-standing principles.  First, “[A] traffic stop motivated by pretext is valid so long as a legal basis for the stop exists,” as long as the officer does not fabricate the offense.  Second, consent to search a car given before the original purpose of the traffic stop is complete is lawful.

State v. Sanchez-Granado

The Utah Court of Appeals reiterated the rule that while experience and training alone only leading to a hunch of illegal activity is insufficient to support an investigative detention, “specific observations . . . developed from the application of []training and experience to the facts and circumstances,” allow a court to defer to the officer’s “ability to distinguish between innocent and suspicious actions.”

These summaries are written by Heather White and are for informational purposes only.  Neither Snow Christensen & Martineau, nor Heather White, represented any of the parties involved.

Salt Lake City Business Lawyer & Litigation Attorney Heather White

Heather S. White