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Government Entities – Case Law Update, July 2019

All summaries are written by Heather White and are for informational purposes only.  Snow Christensen & Martineau represented clients in some of the cases listed below, but the firm was not legal counsel for all of them.

 

Coburn v. Whitaker Construction

In this case, the Utah Supreme Court declined to abandon the open and obvious danger rule embodied in sections 343 and 343A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts and Hale v. Beckstead, 2005 UT 24, 116 P.3d 263.  However, it expressed a willingness to entertain future arguments where a party seeking to overturn this precedent meets its burden of proof.

 

Colbruno v. Kessler

Colbruno, a mentally unstable pretrial detainee, ingested metal shards from a call box in his cell.  On the way to the hospital, he defecated and urinated in his smock.  County sheriff’s deputies escorted him naked through public areas of the hospital to an exam room where he was handcuffed.

Colbruno filed suit claiming the deputies violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights.  The trial court denied the deputies qualified immunity, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed.  The Court concluded that the alleged constitutional violation of “exposing a person’s naked body involuntarily is a severe invasion of personal privacy” and was “obvious.”  This opens the door for inmates to claim that involuntary nakedness in front of the public constitutes a constitutional violation.

 

Crall v. Wilson

Police entered a home they knew had two occupants:  the owner and a guest for whom they had an arrest warrant for a nonviolent crime.  After announcing their presence, including an intent to “send the dog into the bedroom to bite,” and receiving no response from the occupants who claimed they did not hear the announcement, officers released the dog into a bedroom which turned out to belong to the occupant for whom they did not have a warrant.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the execution of the validly-issued arrest warrant did not violate the Fourth Amendment where the subject of the warrant was “temporarily staying” as a residence.  If he had merely been a guest in the home, execution of the warrant would have been unreasonable absent a search warrant or exigent circumstances.  It went on to talk about the difference between “temporarily staying” in a residence and being a guest.

It also concluded the officers did not unlawfully detain the occupant who was not subject to the warrant because officers “may temporarily detain individuals, including third parties, in the course of executing a valid arrest” and may conduct a protective sweep of a residence without a separate search warrant and without probable cause or reasonable suspicion if they have a reasonable belief the protective sweep is necessary for safety.  It is important to remember they must articulate specific facts justifying the need instead of reciting a mere conclusion they felt threatened or it was necessary for safety.

Finally, the court concluded the officers did not use excessive force in utilizing the police dog.  It reasoned the “officers announced their presence in the home and [] loudly announced that [they] would deploy the dog if the occupant of the bedroom did not emerge,” and they “could not see what the individual in the bedroom was doing, but had reason to think a person was in the room refusing to exit.”

 

Kuschinski v. Box Elder County

Plaintiff was held in the Box Elder County Jail for seventeen days on a probable cause determination that he was driving under the influence.  However, no evidence showed he was actually driving impaired, and Plaintiff was never brought before a judge for his initial appearance or formally charged with any crimes.  The district court concluded that Plaintiff had not suffered a flagrant violation of his constitutional rights and that he could not identify a specific municipal employee who had violated his rights. The Supreme Court held (1) Plaintiff’s bail clause claims were properly dismissed because Plaintiff failed to demonstrate that the bail clause was self-executing; but (2) the court incorrectly applied the standard for determining when a municipal employee is liable for damages for a constitutional violation in dismissing Plaintiff’s due process claims.

The Utah Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the judgment of the district court dismissing on summary judgment Plaintiff’s claims against Box Elder County and the Box Elder County Sheriff’s Office, including claims of violations of his rights to due process and bail, holding the court did not err in dismissing the bail clause claims but erred in dismissing the due process claims.  It first explained the district court erred when it dismissed Plaintiff’s due process claims for failing to identify an individual at the County who committed a flagrant violation.  It held, “A plaintiff need not identify a specific government employee in order to hold a municipality liable under the Utah Constitution.”

The court further held that “the district court applied the incorrect standard for determining when a municipality acts flagrantly.”  It set forth the standard for flagrant violations of Utah constitutional rights.  “[W]e hold that a plaintiff seeking to prove that a municipality committed a flagrant violation must show an “action pursuant to official municipal policy of some nature caused a constitutional tort.”  And, in order for an action pursuant to an official municipal policy to constitute a flagrant violation, the plaintiff must show (1) the existence of a municipal policy or custom, (2) that this policy or custom “evidences a ‘deliberate indifference’” to the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, and (3) that this policy or custom was “closely related to the ultimate injury.”

 

Mitchell v. Wisconsin

Mitchell was arrested for operating a vehicle while intoxicated after a preliminary breath test registered a blood alcohol concentration triple Wisconsin’s legal limit for driving.  Mitchell was too lethargic for a breath test at the police station and was, therefore, transferred unconscious to a nearby hospital for a blood test.  His blood was drawn under a state law that presumes that a person incapable of withdrawing implied consent to BAC testing has not done so.  Charged with violating drunk-driving laws, Mitchell moved to suppress the blood test results.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the lawfulness of Mitchell’s blood test.  The United States Supreme Court vacated that decision concluded that when a driver is unconscious and cannot take a breath test, the exigent-circumstances doctrine generally permits a blood test without a warrant.  BAC tests are Fourth Amendment searches for which a warrant is normally required.  However, the “exigent circumstances” exception allows warrantless searches to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence when there is a compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.

The Court previously held that the fleeting nature of blood-alcohol evidence alone did not bring BAC testing within the exigency exception but that unconscious-driver cases involve a heightened urgency.  When the driver’s stupor deprives officials of a reasonable opportunity to administer a breath test using evidence-grade equipment, a blood test is essential for achieving the goals of BAC testing.  Highway safety is a compelling public interest, and legal limits on a driver’s BAC serve that interest.  Enforcing BAC limits requires testing that is accurate enough to stand up in court and prompt because alcohol dissipates from the bloodstream.  When a drunk-driving suspect is unconscious, health, safety, or law enforcement needs can take priority over a warrant application.  A driver’s unconsciousness is itself a medical emergency and a driver so drunk as to lose consciousness is likely to crash, giving officers other urgent tasks.

The Court, however, vacated the Wisconsin court’s decision and remanded the case to allow Mitchell to attempt to show that his case was unusual and that police could not have reasonably judged that a warrant application would interfere with other pressing needs or duties.

 

State v. Ahmed

The Utah Court of Appeals ruled that Rule 16 of the Utah Rules of criminal procedure entitled a criminal defendant to an officer’s surveillance location to develop exculpatory information despite assertions it would compromise officer safety concerns, concerns for the owner of the particular building, and the fact disclosure would result in law enforcement’s loss of the site for future surveillance work.

 

State v. Harvey

The Utah Court of Appeals ruled that an officer in a DUI case was not a qualified expert on the subject of alcohol burn-off rates and therefore should not have been allowed to testify about this subject.  The court explained, “[L]earning about something in cursory fashion during training does not make a person an expert.”  It continued, “Unlike signs of impairment or the behavior of drug traffickers, the burn-off rate of alcohol from the human system is not something that an officer can observe and form an expert opinion about based on training and experience . . . Burn-off-rate testimony requires ‘a formulaic calculation derived from scientific understandings of physiological processes that cannot be achieved through reading a training manual, conducting routine [DUI] investigations in the course of law enforcement, and attending [a training] course.’”

 

State v. Malloy

Dispatch notified an officer of a DUI accident in a fast food parking lot.  The officer approached the vehicle and peered into the window to find the driver was slumped over and unconscious.  As the officer opened the door to check on the driver’s wellbeing, the driver awoke.  While doing so, the officer observed a drug pipe on the floor between the driver’s feet.  After waiving his Miranda rights, the driver told the officer he had taken some narcotics for foot pain.  A series of field sobriety tests showed signs of drug impairment.  The officer arrested the driver for DUI, and a search incident to arrest revealed the driver was in possession of heroin.  The driver was charged with DUI, possession of drug paraphernalia, and possession of a controlled substance.

The driver moved to suppress the evidence supporting the possession charges, arguing the officer searched his car without probable cause in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.  The district court denied the motion and the driver appealed.  The Utah Court of Appeals concluded “the officer had reasonable suspicion to seize [the driver]’s vehicle and detain him for further investigation into an eyewitness report that [the driver] was driving under the influence” and that “[t]he officer’s opening of the vehicle door was incidental to his investigation into [the driver’s] impaired condition and therefore did not violate [the driver’s] Fourth Amendment rights.”  It explained, “[T]here is no dispute that the officer had reasonable suspicion to detain [the driver] and investigate his impaired condition. Opening the door of [the driver]’s car was a reasonable form of investigation into [the driver]’s condition and within the scope of the lawful detention.  Because the officer was investigating [the driver]’s condition and not conducting an independent search, he did not violate [the driver]’s Fourth Amendment rights, and the district court properly denied the motion to suppress.” (internal citation omitted).

 

State v. Martinez-Castellanos

An Officer stopped Martinez-Castellanos for a license plate violation, which was for California plates.  When the Officer approached the car, he noticed Martinez-Castellanos making “jittery movements.”  Martinez-Castellanos produced an expired driver’s license from Colorado but claimed he had a valid Utah license.  The registration revealed that although the car was properly registered, the current stickers were not applied.  While talking with Martinez-Castellanos about the stickers, the Officer noticed Martinez-Castellanos had “rapid speech” and “jittery movements, which” concerned the Officer Martinez-Castellanos might be on a stimulant.

The Officer returned to the patrol vehicle and ran checks which confirmed that Martinez-Castellanos had a valid Utah driver license and revealed he had an extensive criminal history, including drug offenses.  He, therefore, told Martinez-Castellanos he was going to perform field sobriety tests.  Based on those tests, the Officer concluded Martinez-Castellanos was under the influence.  He arrested Martinez-Castellanos and searched the car, finding drugs and drug paraphernalia. At the jail, Martinez-Castellanos’s blood tested positive for marijuana at a level consistent with recent use.

Martinez-Castellanos was charged several counts of possession and one count of driving with a controlled substance in the body.  Martinez-Castellanos filed a motion to suppress arguing the Officer unreasonably extended the scope of the traffic stop to investigate him for substance abuse.  The trial court denied the motion.  After a lengthy and complicated appeal process, the Utah Court of Appeals concluded the Officer’s actions were justified by a reasonable suspicion that Martinez-Castellanos was under the influence of a controlled substance.  It explained Martinez-Castellanos’s behavior during the traffic stop supported a finding of reasonable suspicion, as it amounted to more than general nervousness and fast speech, and was specifically consistent with being under the influence of a stimulant.  That suspicion was heightened when the Officer learned of Martinez-Castellanos’s criminal history, which included multiple drug-related charges as well as a felony conviction and a probation revocation for possession of a controlled substance.

 

State v. Sanders

The Utah Supreme Court ruled Utah Code § 76-10-503 does not include an affirmative defense for innocent possession, nor does case law does require it.  Therefore, such a defense may not be successfully raised by a felon in possession.

 

State v. Smith

Several employees of a McDonald’s restaurant noticed a man in the parking lot (later identified as Smith) asleep in his car with the motor running.  In response to a request by the manager to leave, Smith left his parking spot, drove around the building, and re-parked in the same parking lot.  An employee notified the police, who responded to a welfare check of a “male, slumped over the wheel, [who] appeared to be sleeping,” and who had also been “driving their car around the parking lot multiple times, and then had fallen asleep at the wheel in a parking stall.”  (alteration in original).  When officers arrived, they found the car still running and parked behind the stall before approaching.  They did not activate their emergency lights or unholster any weapons.  Smith was asleep hunched over the center console, so they knocked on Smith’s car window multiple times in an attempt to wake him.  When Smith eventually awoke, the officers asked him to open his door, and he complied.  The officers smelled alcohol on Smith’s breath and had him perform field sobriety tests, which he failed.  Additionally, upon checking Smith’s driver license in a database, they learned Smith’s license had been revoked.  The officers arrested Smith and read him his Miranda rights, after which Smith admitted he had consumed enough alcohol to make him believe that he was over the legal limit.  The officers took Smith to the police station where they administered a breathalyzer test, which indicated that Smith’s blood-alcohol content was .135.  He was charged with DUI.

Smith moved to suppress his statements as well as the results of the field sobriety and breathalyzer tests, claiming the evidence was obtained through an illegal seizure.  Specifically, he argued the officers did not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe a crime had been committed.  The district court ruled that although the officers had seized Smith, the seizure was justified under the community caretaking doctrine.  It therefore denied the motion.  Smith appealed that ruling.

Applying the community caretaking doctrine set forth in State v. Anderson, 2015 UT 90, ¶ 25, 362 P.3d 1232, the Utah Court of Appeals affirmed the legality of the seizure.  It explained the officers were motivated by checking on the welfare of Smith and did so in a minimally invasive manner.  “Although the officers positioned their vehicle in such a way that Smith could not easily drive away, Smith was already parked and asleep in the driver’s seat, and was not intending to go anywhere anytime soon.”  Moreover, they did not activate their lights or draw their weapons, and the seizure was long enough only to ensure Smith did not pose a threat to himself or others.  Additionally, the officers were motivated by a concern for Smith and for the public.

One judge posed a robust dissent.  She argued the extent of the seizure was not minimally invasive because of the number of officers who responded (three) and blocked Smith’s “chance of escape.”  She noted the officers were not primarily motivated by a caretaking function but by investigating crime, as an officer testified he suspected Smith was guilty of a DUI.  She concluded the perceived emergency was not serious enough to justify the officers’ actions, claiming it was not necessary to block in Smith’s vehicle to do so, and the welfare check could been accomplished by a single officer pulling up alongside Smith, knocking on the door, and asking Smith if he was all right.  Officers should be aware of these arguments as they investigate and testify in future cases.

 

Torres v. Madrid

In this case, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed the rule that “a suspect’s continued flight after being shot by police negates a Fourth Amendment excessive-force claim” because “‘a seizure requires restraint of one’s freedom of movement.’” An officer’s intentional shooting of a suspect only constitutes a seizure where the “‘gunshot . . . terminate[s] [the suspect’s] movement or otherwise cause[s] the government to have physical control over him.” (alterations in original.)

 

United States v. Loera

While executing a warrant to search Loera’s home for evidence of computer fraud, FBI agents discovered child pornography on four of Loera’s CDs.  Despite discovering the pornography, the agents continued their search for evidence of computer fraud:  one agent continued to search the CDs that were found to contain some child pornography and a second agent searched other electronic devices belonging to Loera, not including those particular CDs (Search 1).  After the agents finished their on-site search, they seized a number of electronic devices that appeared to contain evidence of computer fraud, plus the four CDs that were found to contain child pornography, and then brought the seized items back to their office.  One week later, one of the agents reopened the CDs that he knew contained some child pornography so that he could describe a few pornographic images in an affidavit requesting a (second) warrant to search all of the seized electronic devices for child pornography (Search 2).  A magistrate judge issued the warrant, and, upon executing it through two searches, the agents found more child pornography.  In the subsequent prosecution against him for possessing child pornography, Loera filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized pursuant to each search, arguing that the searches violated the Fourth Amendment.  The district court denied the motion and Loera appealed.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed the denial of Loera’s motion to suppress, holding, among other things, that the Fourth Amendment did not require police officers to stop executing an electronic search warrant when they discovered evidence of an ongoing crime outside the scope of the warrant, so long as their search remained directed at uncovering evidence specified in that warrant.

 

United States v. Mathews

Mathews was convicted of state crimes in Colorado and was sentenced to a term of imprisonment.  Mathews participated in a program that allowed him to serve part of his sentence outside a jail cell subject to GPS monitoring.  Mathews was identified as a possible suspect in a string of pawnshop robberies while participating in the GPS monitoring.  An officer investigating these robberies accessed Mathews’s historical GPS data for the dates the robberies occurred and the data placed Mathews in the vicinity of the robberies.  The officer used this information to obtain a search warrant for an address frequented by Mathews. The search that followed yielded inculpatory evidence.  Mathews was indicted for several related crimes and moved to suppress the historical GPS data from his ankle monitor and any evidence developed from the use of the historical GPS data, arguing the GPS data and the fruits of the subsequent search was accessed without a warrant.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that any “search” of the GPS data, which was used to obtain the warrant, was permissible under the Fourth Amendment and affirmed the denial of his motion to dismiss.  The court explained that Mathews’s status was akin to that of a probationer or parolee and, therefore, the search would be analyzed in light of two exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.  The first is generally known as a “special needs search,” which holds “it is constitutionally reasonable for a parole officer to search parolees in compliance with a parole agreement search provision, but without a warrant.”  The second is known as the totality-of-the-circumstances exception, which “authorizes warrantless searches without probable cause (or even reasonable suspicion) by police officers with no responsibility for parolees or probationers when the totality of the circumstances renders the search reasonable.”  “[W]hen the terms of a parolee’s parole allow officers to search his person or effects with something less than probable cause, the parolee’s reasonable expectation of privacy is significantly diminished.”  Courts look to a defendant’s parole or probation agreement and the state regulations applicable to his case to determine whether a search of a parolee or probationer is authorized by state law.

Mathews claimed he had a heightened expectation of privacy against suspicion-less searches because any warrantless and suspicion-less search of a parolee or probationer must be done in furtherance of the purpose of parole or probation.  However, the United States Supreme Court abrogated the “in furtherance” requirement long before Mathews was placed in the Community Intensive Supervision program.  Therefore, he did not have a heightened expectation of privacy in the historical GPS data, rendering the search valid.

 

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Heather S. White