Government Entities Case Law Update – Law Enforcement, July 2021

All summaries are written by Heather White and are for informational purposes only. 


Caniglia v. Strom

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Warrantless search and seizure.  During an argument with his wife, the plaintiff put a gun on their dining room table and told her to shoot him.  His wife left overnight.  She was unable to reach him the next morning and called police for a welfare check. The responding officers accompanied the plaintiff’s wife to the home, where they found the plaintiff on the porch.  Believing the plaintiff posed a risk to himself or others, the officers called for an ambulance.  The plaintiff agreed to go to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation if the officers would not take his guns from the house.  When the plaintiff left, the officers found and took his weapons.  The plaintiff sued the officer claiming they unlawfully entered his home and seized him and his firearms without a warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the officers, and the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, based on a purported “community caretaking exception.”  The United States Supreme Court unanimously reversed, stating the community caretaking exception did not apply to homes the same way as automobiles.  “What is reasonable for vehicles is different from what is reasonable for homes . . . and this Court has repeatedly “‘declined to expand the scope of . . . exceptions to the warrant requirement to permit warrantless entry into the home.’”


Dalton v. Town of Silver City

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Summary judgment denied to officers alleged to have violated equal protection by shielding fellow officer.  The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a jury could conclude that officers violated a victim’s right to equal protection by treating her differently because her assailant was a police officer with whom she had been in a domestic relationship.  The court explained that when other domestic violence victims reported domestic violence to the police department, the non-police officer assailant was arrested 94 percent of the time.  When the victim and her son in this case repeatedly reported the officer’s domestic violence, the officer was never arrested.  A reasonable jury could conclude these facts demonstrate disparate treatment of domestic violence victims whose assailants were not police officers and whose assailants were police officers with whom they had been in a domestic relationship.


Gibson v. Brown

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Probable cause for warrantless arrest.  In this case, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled an officer had probable cause to arrest the plaintiff for child abuse based on a daycare provider’s observation and report to him, as well as his own observations, of injuries to the child that looked like they were inflicted with a whip or belt, the child’s sister told him the plaintiff had previously spanked her with a belt, and that she had seen the plaintiff spank her brother, although not with a belt.  “These facts and circumstances . . . are sufficient to lead an objectively reasonable officer to believe the child was the victim of child abuse and that Mr. Gibson was the perpetrator.”


Huff v. Reeves

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Excessive force in shooting.  In this case, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a sufficient factual dispute about whether an officer used excessive force in shooting a woman existed where the officer shot the woman as she was raising her hands in surrender as she approached the officers, and did not act in a manner that could be interpreted as threatening to anyone or evading capture.


Lange v. California

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Warrantless entry.  Lange drove by a California highway patrol officer while playing loud music and honking his horn.  The officer followed Lange and activated his overhead lights, signaling for Lange to pull over.  Lange did not stop but continued driving, eventually into his attached garage.  The officer followed Lange into the garage and questioned him.  Noticing signs of intoxication, the officer had Lange perform various field sobriety tests.  A later blood test showed that Lange’s blood-alcohol content was three times the legal limit.

The State charged Lange with misdemeanor DUI.  He moved to suppress the evidence, arguing the officer’s warrantless entry into his garage violated the Fourth Amendment.  The state trial and appeals courts all rejected Lange’s claims, ultimately concluding Lange could not defeat an arrest begun in public by retreating into his home.

The Untied States Supreme Court reversed, holding the pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect does not always justify a warrantless entry into a home.  It confirmed an officer may make a warrantless entry in such circumstances when the exigencies of the specific situation show a compelling need for immediate action and no time to secure a warrant.  Such exigencies may exist to prevent imminent injury, the destruction of evidence, or a suspect’s escape.  But the Court ruled that the hot pursuit doctrine does not establish a flat rule permitting warrantless entry whenever a police officer pursues a fleeing misdemeanant.  It explained that misdemeanors, which tend to be less violent and less dangerous crimes, are often not serious, and not sufficiently serious to justify a categorical rule.  In some cases, flight creates a need for police to act swiftly, but no evidence suggests that every case of misdemeanor flight creates such a need.  The Court ruled that when the totality of circumstances shows an emergency—a need to act before it is possible to get a warrant—the police may act without waiting.  However, pursuit of a misdemeanant alone does not trigger a categorical rule allowing a warrantless home entry.


State v. Bui-Cornethan

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Unlawful seizure.  Officers stopped and questioned Bui and an acquaintance based on an informant’s tip of suspected drug activity.  The two men were separated and questioned for twelve minutes.  While Bui was a known gangster and had been involved in prior shootings, the officers found no evidence linking the men to illegal activity.  However, one of the officers asked Bui if he had any weapons on him.  Bui first denied he was carrying, but then admitted to having a handgun when the officer told Bui he was going to frisk him.  The State charged Bui with, among other things, possession of a firearm by a restricted person.

Bui moved to suppress the evidence, but the district court denied the motion, concluding it was a consensual encounter.  The Utah Court of Appeals reversed, concluding the encounter was a level two seizure, requiring reasonable suspicion, and that the officers unlawfully extended the stop when the officer inquired about the gun.

The court addressed the factors that lead them to conclude the encounter was not consensual:

  1. Four police officers in three squad cars arrived to question them about “suspicious activity.”
  2. While the officers maintained a respectful and casual tone, their questions were accusatory: “what was ‘going on,” and explaining the officers were “investigating” “suspicious activity in this area,” among others.
  3. They separated the two men while questioning them and instructed Bui to wait by the police car.

These factors would lead a reasonable person to conclude they were not free to walk away, requiring reasonable articulable suspicion for the stop.  Without deciding whether the informant’s tip justified the stop, the court analyzed the continued detention.  Once the officers determined after talking with the men for twelve minutes that there was no evidence of drug activity, they should have permitted them to leave.  Even detaining him for only ninety seconds more to ask about weapons unreasonably extended the stop for suspected drug activity, because it occurred after that suspicion had been dispelled and was not related to the investigation of it.


United States v. Cotto

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Good-faith exception to exclusionary rule.  In this case, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reminds us evidence obtained pursuant to a search based on a deficient warrant – one not based on probable cause – need not be suppressed if the officer executing the warrant acted in good-faith reliance on a judge’s approval.  Reliance on the warrant is not reasonable if the underlying affidavit supporting the warrant is devoid of factual support.  While the primary focus of the analysis is the text of the affidavit supporting the warrant, the court can also look at the process employed by officers in obtaining the warrant, including:

  1. Whether the officer who prepared the affidavit was the same one who executed the search; and
  2. Whether the officer tried to obtain approval of a warrant application from a superior and from an attorney.

“When the search is of a home, the good-faith exception applies if the affidavit supporting the warrant establishes a ‘minimally sufficient nexus between the illegal activity and the place to be searched,’” a standard less than probable cause.


United States v. Gaines

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Reasonable suspicion for warrantless stop.

In this case, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded officers had reasonable suspicion to detain the defendant to investigate drug distribution based on a tip from an anonymous source.  It counseled that an anonymous tip can but rarely provides reasonable suspicion.  Courts look at several factors in making that determination:

  1. Eyewitness knowledge;
  2. Contemporaneous report;
  3. Reported by means of a 911 call;
  4. The ability to discover the identity of the caller;
  5. The detail provided;
  6. The tipster’s motivation in reporting;
  7. Corroboration of the information provided; and
  8. Predictive information about the suspect’s future conduct.

Finding all but the last present, the court concluded the officers had reasonable suspicion to detain the defendant.


United States v. Guillen

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Warrantless entry and search, Miranda.  A woman found a pressure cooker bomb hidden under her bed and called police.  She told them the only person she thought might want to harm her was her ex-boyfriend, Ethan Guillen.  The officers entered Ethan’s home with his consent, questioned him, and obtained consent from his father to search the residence.  During the search, the agents found evidence in Ethan’s bedroom indicating Ethan’s guilt.  One of the agents confronted Ethan with the information and evidence prior to Mirandizing him, and he confessed.  The agent read Ethan his Miranda rights at that point, and Ethan made more incriminating statements.

Ethan claimed the district court should have suppressed the physical evidence found in his home because the agents’ warrantless entry and search of his bedroom violated his Fourth Amendment rights.  He also contends the district court should have suppressed the incriminating statements he made after receiving Miranda warnings because the agents elicited them through coercion and used an impermissible two-step interrogation technique to end-run around Miranda.  The Tenth Circuit – rejected his arguments in full.

Addressing the illegal entry claim, the court noted Ethan initially objected to the officers’ entry, but subsequently consented, saying “sure” in response to their second request to come inside, and stepped aside for them to do so.  That conclusion was based on body camera video and credible agent testimony that Ethan, not his brother, was the one who said “sure.”  They concluded the consent was voluntary, despite the presence of multiple officers, because there was evidence of coercive tactics such as physical mistreatment, use of violence, threats, promises, inducements, deception, or trickery.  Moreover, Ethan was 18 years old and knew enough about his rights to ask the agents if they had a warrant.

Addressing the illegal search claim, the court concluded Ethan’s father had apparent authority to consent to the search of Ethan’s room.  The presumption is a parent has authority to consent to a search of the entire home, even an adult child’s room.  That can be rebutted, but was not here.  Although the door to Ethan’s bedroom had a lock on it, the door was wide open when the agents arrived neither Ethan, his brother or father objected to the search, and no one limited where in the house the agents could look.  Moreover, Ethan took no special steps to protect the backpack or nightstand in his room where the agents found incriminating evidence.  The backpack was lying on the floor, and neither it nor the nightstand was locked or otherwise secured.

Addressing the alleged Miranda violation, the court concluded Ethan was in custody when one of the agents elicited the confession he made the bomb with the following statements:

We know that you purchased a pressure cooker and it’s gone. We know

that a soldering iron was used in this device, and your dad’s soldering

iron is missing. White tape, like was found on the device, is found in the

backpack. And there’s a table that looks like it has black powder burns,

and there’s burns and fuses on that table.

However, the agent immediately Mirandized him, and Ethan waived his right to remain silent and provided details about, among other things, how he created the device and planted it under the bed of his ex-girlfriend.  The court concluded that this mid-stream Miranda warning was sufficient based on complicated Supreme Court precedent.  In a nutshell, the court applied the following standard:

  1. Was the initial self-incriminating statement, though voluntary, obtained in violation of the defendant’s Miranda rights? If not, there is no need to go further.
  2. If it was, has the government shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the questioning officer(s) did not engage in a deliberate two-step interrogation calculated to undermine Miranda? If so, the defendant’s post-warning statement is admissible so long as it, too, was voluntary.
  3. If not, the post-warning statement is inadmissible unless the objective circumstances show that a reasonable person in the defendant’s shoes would understand the import and effect of the midstream Miranda

It concluded the answer to question two was no, as there was no evidence the agents intentionally withheld Miranda warnings, and once Ethan made an incriminating statement, he was immediately Mirandized.


United States v. Nolan

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Facially defective warrant.  Nolan was convicted of several drug-related crimes and possession of a firearm during and in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense.  He claimed the trial court should have suppressed evidence seized during a search of his home because the exhibit that listed the items to be seized was no longer physically attached to the warrant when it was executed.  He conceded it was included as part of the warrant application and that the search did not exceed the scope of the warrant.  He simply claimed the warrant did not meet the particularity requirement when executed because it was no longer physically attached to Exhibit B.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his argument, noting the exhibit was attached to the warrant when presented to and approved by the judge, and, before executing the warrant, the detective briefed the executing officers about the scope of the search and showed the officers a copy of the exhibit showing what to search for.


United States v. Suggs

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Warrant failed to meet particularity requirement.  The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unlawful a warrant with the catch-all phrase authorizing the search and seizure of “[a]ny item identified as being involved in crime” as failing to meet the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement where the warrant did not incorporate the supporting affidavit.


United States v. Venezia

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Warrantless inventory search.  Two officers saw an Audi pull into a motel parking lot in a high crime area, and then drive to a gas station across the street, failing to activate its turn signal.  They also noticed that the front and rear license plates were not properly affixed but improperly displayed in the passenger compartment.  The officers ran the license plate number revealing the registered owner was a person named Luis Cuello.  The Audi legally parked in the motel’s private lot, was not obstructing traffic, and did not pose an imminent threat to public safety.  The officers approached the vehicle based on the illegal turn and asked the driver, Venezia, for his license, registration, and insurance.  He did not have a driver’s license, registration, car insurance, title to the vehicle, or a bill of sale. He told the officers his license was suspended, and the officers confirmed it had been revoked. Venezia gave the officers his Colorado identification card, and the officers determined he had an outstanding misdemeanor warrant for failure to appear on a traffic ticket.  When asked about Cuello—i.e., the vehicle’s registered owner—Venezia stated he did not recognize the name.  He told the officers he had recently purchased the vehicle from a person named Dustin Estep but had been unable to insure or register it due to the holidays.  The officers contacted their communication center in an attempt to reach Cuello by telephone, but the attempt was unsuccessful.  The officers arrested Venezia on the outstanding warrant and impounded the car.  Although he was not a guest at the motel, he claimed that his brother was staying there. The officers did not inquire whether the brother could take possession of the vehicle. The officers also did not ask anyone working at the motel for permission to leave the vehicle in the motel parking lot.  During an inventory search of the vehicle, conducted as part of the impoundment, officers found drugs, drug distribution paraphernalia, a gun holster, and ammunition.

Venezia was charged with one count of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, among other counts. He moved to suppress the evidence recovered during the search, which the district court denied, and he appealed.  He argued that the impoundment of his car, and therefore the attendant search, were illegal.

A police-ordered impoundment on private property when a vehicle is not impeding traffic or impairing public safety, is constitutional only if done 1) pursuant to standardized criteria; and 2) pursuant to a legitimate community-caretaking rationale.  The first prong is limited to whether standardized criteria restrict the discretion of officers conducting impoundments, and about whether the law enforcement officers followed them, not whether the criteria were lawful.  The second prong requires impoundments to be justified by a reasonable, non-pretextual community-caretaking rationale, such as protecting public safety and promoting the efficient movement of traffic.  Courts are to consider five non-exclusive factors in determining whether an impoundment is justified by such a reasonable, non-pretextual community-caretaking rationale:

  1. Whether the vehicle is on public or private property;
  2. If on private property, whether the property owner has been consulted;
  3. Whether an alternative to impoundment exists (especially another person capable of driving the vehicle);
  4. Whether the vehicle is implicated in a crime; and
  5. Whether the vehicle’s owner and/or driver have consented to the impoundment.

Here, the car was legally parked on private property, did not impede traffic, and did not pose a safety hazard.  The private property owner did not object to the vehicle’s presence, and the car was not at unnecessary risk of theft or vandalism.  The court, therefore, concluded the officers lacked a reasonable community-caretaking rationale.  Moreover, the officers could not reasonably conclude that the vehicle would be unattended for a prolonged period of time based on their unsuccessful 9:00 p.m. attempt to call the vehicle’s registered owner, and the vehicle’s presence in the motel parking lot was no different than any other vehicle in the lot.  For these two reasons, Court concluded the officers’ decision to impound the vehicle was not guided by a reasonable community-caretaking rationale and was, therefore, unconstitutional.


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