Government Entities – Case Law Update, January 2019

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.


Escondido v. Emmons

Officers responded to a domestic disturbance 911 call.  They knocked on the door of the apartment and Plaintiff Emmons eventually opened it and came outside.  One of the officers told Emmons not to close the door, but Emmons closed the door and tried to “brush past” the officer.  The officer stopped Emmons, took him to the ground, and handcuffed him.  A body camera recording showed the officer did not strike Emmons nor display a weapon of any kind.  It also showed Emmons was not in any visible or audible pain.  Officers helped Emmons to his feet and arrested him for a misdemeanor offense of resisting and delaying a police officer.

The plaintiff filed a §1983 claim for excessive force.  The district court granted summary judgment in favor of one officer, finding he did not use force at all and the other was entitled to qualified immunity.  The Ninth Circuit reversed as to both officers reasoning, “The right to be free of excessive force was clearly established at the time of the events in question.”  The United States Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit as to the officer who was not involved in the excessive force claim.  It further vacated and remanded the judgment as to the other officer, reasoning the Ninth Circuit failed to recognize “the clearly established right must be defined with specificity.”  It explained:

“[I]t is sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine, here excessive force, will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts . . . “[I]t does not suffice for a court simply to state that an officer may not use unreasonable and excessive force, deny qualified immunity, and then remit the case for a trial on the question of reasonableness.”

quoting Kisela v. Hughes, 584 U. S. ___, ___ (2018) (per curiam) (slip op., at 4) (second alteration in original).

The Court concluded reiterated its earlier ruling, “‘While there does not have to be a case directly on point, existing precedent must place the lawfulness of the particular [action] beyond debate . . . a body of relevant case law is usually necessary to clearly establish the answer . . . .’”  quoting Wesby, 583 U. S. ___, (slip op., at 15) (2018).  The Court therefore remanded the case directing the Ninth Circuit “to conduct the analysis required by our precedents with respect to whether [the arresting officer] is entitled to qualified immunity.”


Johnson v. City of Roswell

The Tenth Circuit concluded officers acted reasonably in shooting a suspect who opened a door in response to their knock, exited his apartment with a metallic object in his right hand, and raised it in the officers’ general direction.  It ruled they were entitled to qualified immunity and affirmed summary judgment in their favor on the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment excessive force claim.  The plaintiff argued that the officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights by creating the circumstances that necessitated the officers’ use of deadly force.  The Tenth Circuit disagreed, stating, “While there may have been safer ways to contact Johnson, no reasonable jury could find that the officers recklessly or deliberately created the need to shoot him.”


State v. Newton

The Utah Court of Appeals ruled that the prosecution did not have an obligation to seek out exculpatory information unknown to it or any others acting on its behalf.


State v. Oryall

The Utah Court of Appeals ruled that drivers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their motor vehicle registration or driver’s license records.  Therefore, consistent with federal cases interpreting the United States Constitution, law enforcement officers may conduct warrantless, suspicionless checks of passing motorists’ vehicle registration and driver’s license information without running afoul of the Utah Constitution.


United States v. Dates

Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) agents tracked an email username used to solicit child pornography to an email address registered to the defendant.  Dressed in plain clothes, the agents knocked on the defendant’s apartment door.  The officers identified themselves to the defendant and stated they would like to talk to him about their investigation into whether someone else may be using his email address.  The defendant replied, “Okay.  We can talk out here.”  When the agent falsely told the defendant he would like to discuss whether the defendant used certain email addresses to determine whether those addresses had been compromised, the defendant said he did not want to “talk to you right now.”  The agent asked when they might talk, and the defendant said, “I don’t know,” but after further inquiry stated, “You can go ahead.”  The agent asked if the defendant owned a computer.  The defendant responded he did not want to talk but then said they could meet somewhere else.  The agent asked where and the defendant suggested McDonald’s after he dressed for work.  The agent asked if they could wait, and the defendant went into his apartment, locked his door, leaving the agents outside, and emerged about five minutes later.  The agent asked if he still wanted to go to McDonald’s and the defendant stated yes.  The agent asked if the defendant wanted to go with them or if they should follow him.  The defendant agreed to go with the agents.  Two minutes into the drive to McDonald’s, the defendant revealed his email address and Skype user display name, which incriminated him.  When he refused to answer more specific questions about viewing child pornography, the defendant stated he wanted a lawyer and asked to be driven home, which the agents did.

Using the statements the defendant made during the drive to McDonald’s, the agents obtained a search warrant for the defendant’s home, which uncovered multiple computers and a thumb drive containing child pornography.  The defendant moved to suppress the inculpatory statements he made during the car ride to McDonald’s, which the district court denied.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court.  It ruled:

  1. The car ride to McDonald’s was a consensual encounter because a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would have felt free to terminate the interview with the agents for the following reasons:
    1. The agents wore plain clothes, did not brandish their weapons, and did not touch the defendant;
    2. Each time the defendant indicated he did not want to talk he subsequently changed his mind, allowing the agents to ask additional questions;
    3. The defendant went into his apartment and locked the agents outside for just over five minutes while he dressed;
    4. The defendant proposed the meeting at McDonald’s to talk further;
    5. The defendant chose to ride with the agents in their car.
  2. Miranda warnings were not required because the defendant was not in custody but was engaged in a consensual encounter with the agents.


United States v. Martinez

A state police dispatcher reported a robbery at a Wells Fargo in Winslow, Arizona.  An Arizona State Trooper, heard this report while patrolling I-40 about an hour east of Winslow.  The dispatcher identified two suspects: (1) a man wearing a Bud Light hat and (2) a man running “from the bank in the alley wearing a blue-and-white checkered shirt [and] blue jeans.” R. vol. 2, 16 (alteration in original). The dispatcher did not identify any vehicle the thieves might have used to make their escape, nor did the dispatcher identify the race, ethnicity, or physical features of either of the two robbery suspects.

At 12:13 p.m. that same day, the trooper heard a second report of activity along the I-40 corridor, this time in Flagstaff, Arizona.  This second report described an event that took place before the Winslow robbery:  an alert about a “suspicious” white Cadillac spotted outside a Wells Fargo branch earlier that morning.  The report described the Cadillac’s driver: a Native American man wearing “a light blue checkered hoodie” and a Bud Light hat.  It said that the Cadillac headed east from Flagstaff at 11:00 a.m.  One of the two reports relayed that one of the suspects was wearing glasses.

Less than fifteen minutes later, the trooper saw a white Cadillac driving east on the other side of the highway.  He turned around to pursue it and asked dispatch to run its license plate.  The trooper caught up to the Cadillac and pulled alongside to look into the driver’s window but could not see into the vehicle because of the tinted windows.  He was only able to make out the outline of the driver, whom he described as wearing glasses and had facial features that led him to believe the driver was a Native American male.  The trooper pulled over the Cadillac without witnessing the driver commit any traffic violations.  A subsequent search of the Cadillac revealed evidence linking the defendant, the passenger in the car, to an entirely different bank robbery in Utah.  The defendant was indicted for robbery and moved to suppress evidence found during the stop arguing the trooper did not have reasonable suspicion to stop the Cadillac.  The district court denied the motion and the defendant appealed.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court concluding the trooper lacked reasonable suspicion to stop the car.  It explained the trooper had no particularized basis to believe that the Cadillac he passed on I-40 was the same Cadillac reported as suspicious in Flagstaff and possibly involved in the robbery in Winslow.  “A white Cadillac on an interstate highway isn’t specific; nor is a driver with Native American “facial features”—especially in Arizona.  The court characterized the officer’s beliefs as “nothing more than an ‘unparticularized suspicion or hunch . . . .’”  It offered the following reasons as support for its decision:

  1. No one reported seeing a white Cadillac— or any other vehicle—at the Winslow robbery.
  2. The alleged rarity of white Cadillacs on this stretch of I-40 is simply not specific or particularized enough to support a reasonable inference that the Cadillac Phillips saw was the Flagstaff Cadillac.  The mere rarity of white Cadillacs along Phillips’s patrol route didn’t give him reasonable suspicion to pull over the first one he saw.
  3. A car the same make and color as one possibly involved in a robbery that occurred approximately 65 miles away.
  4. A potentially Native American man wearing glasses, surely describes a large swath of the population of Arizona.
  5. Clothing descriptions between the Flagstaff event and the Winslow robbery provide some basis to connect the Cadillac in Flagstaff with the robbery in Winslow. But those consistencies were entirely irrelevant to Phillips’s ultimate decision to stop the Cadillac because Phillips didn’t see the driver or passenger wearing the described clothing items.
  6. To be completely consistent with the timeline, an individual would need to infer that either (1) the timestamp for the Winslow robbery is incorrect or (2) the Cadillac traveled well over the speed limit— over 90 miles per hour—between Winslow and the traffic-stop location, but was never stopped for speeding. Under the timeline theory, law enforcement would have reasonable suspicion to stop any vehicle on any road, so long as two things are true: (1) the vehicle matches a general make-and-color description of a vehicle involved in criminal activity, and (2) it’s theoretically possible for the vehicle to have been driven to the location where it’s spotted by law enforcement in the time that’s passed since the criminal activity took place.


United States v. Morris

Two witnesses called the police to report the defendant had fired shots from his porch in their direction as they passed in their vehicle.  Two officers, both wearing body cameras, responded.  They announced their presence over an intercom and ordered the defendant to exit the house with his hands up.  The defendant’s mother appeared on the porch in response.  The officers asked her if she was okay.  She responded that she was but was “groggy” because she had taken medication to alleviate her arthritis pain.  The officers took her to a patrol car where they questioned her about her son’s whereabouts.  The officers asked several times if they could enter the house to look for him.  She told them no, her son was not in the house.  One of the officers told her they would get a warrant and take her to jail if they found him inside.  The officers continued to talk with her and asked her a final time for consent to enter, which she gave.  When they entered, they found the defendant and several firearms and homemade silencers, including the pistol he allegedly fired which prompted the call for their response.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress claiming his mother’s consent to enter and search the house was not free and voluntary because she was under the influence of medication and was coerced.  The district court denied the motion and the defendant appealed.

The Tenth Circuit denied the motion.  It “noted a disconnect between the transcript that appeared ‘noticeably more coercive’ than the ‘noticeably courteous’ interaction captured by the video.”  It showed the mother was, “responsive,” “mentally alert,” “reasonably articulate,” and “discernibly intelligent.”  Moreover, she did not appear “flustered or intimidated . . . .”  It further reasoned that the threat to get a warrant and take the mother to jail were not improper under these circumstances because the intent to get a warrant was not merely a pretext to induce submission but was genuine, and the threat of jail was conditioned on the mother lying about the presence of her son in the house, not on her failure to consent to a search.


United States v. Shrum

Defendant’s common law wife unexpectedly died at the couple’s home.  Officers “secured” the home, prohibiting the defendant access.  Approximately three hours later and without access to his home, Defendant signed a consent to search form permitting an investigator to enter his home for the express purpose of retrieving his deceased wife’s medication in anticipation of an autopsy. While in the home, the investigator saw ammunition in plain view inside an open bedroom closet.  After returning to headquarters, the investigator learned the defendant was a convicted felon and recalled seeing the ammunition in the closet.  Several hours later, the investigator, based on what he had seen and learned, contacted a federal agent and asked him to obtain a search warrant for the defendant’s home.  A federal magistrate judge issued the warrant at 10:00 p.m.  A late night search of the home, which local authorities still would not permit the defendant to access, uncovered not only the ammunition but also two loaded firearms and suspected methamphetamine.  A grand jury subsequently charged the defendant with two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm, one count of being a felon in possession of ammunition, and one count of possessing methamphetamine.  The defendant filed a motion to suppress the incriminating evidence used to charge him, which the district court denied.  The defendant appealed the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit ruled the initial securing of the defendant’s home constituted an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment and reversed the denial of the motion to suppress.  The Court explained, “[A] police officer armed with probable cause to believe a home contains evidence of a serious crime that might otherwise be destroyed may lawfully secure the home and restrict entry while waiting for an assisting officer to diligently procure a search warrant.”  However, where officers do not have such probable cause, consent, or exigent circumstances, the Fourth Amendment prohibits them from preventing the owner access to the home.  Securing the home without any of these constitutes an unlawful seizure of property and violates the Fourth Amendment.


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