SCM NEWS & OPINIONS

Government Entities, Case Law Update – Law Enforcement, May/June 2020

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

U.S. v. Morales 

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Julian Morales’ motion to suppress 4 kg of methamphetamine was denied after the court held the police stop in which the drugs were discovered was not unreasonably prolonged.

A local police officer pulled over Morales and a fellow passenger for using fog lamps in violation of state statute. During the stop, the officer ran a search through the state’s electronic criminal database. In questioning, Morales and his passenger both admitted to prior criminal convictions, including drug-related offenses. The men gave the officer inconsistent and contradicting answers to basic inquiries about where they were going and whether they had recently crossed the U.S.-Mexican border. Suspecting illegal conduct, the officer prolonged the stop by 15 minutes to run an additional search through a different database. While this search provided no new information, the officer, still with heightened suspicions, asked for and obtained permission to search the men’s vehicle. The search subsequently revealed a cache of methamphetamine.

10th Circuit precedent requires that “once an officer returns the driver’s license and registration, the traffic stop has ended and the questioning must cease; at that point, the driver must be free to leave.” However, the 10th Circuit held that further detention was warranted here because the officer had “an objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion that the driver is engaged in some illegal activity”. Among the justifications for the officer’s reasonable suspicion was the men’s admission and the database’s confirmation that they had recently crossed the U.S.-Mexican border as well as their inconsistent answers to his questions. The additional database search “lasted no longer than necessary to effectuate the purpose of either dispelling or confirming [the officer’s] reasonable suspicion of drug trafficking”. In short, the court sanctioned the officer’s conduct, finding “the length of a continued detention is not unreasonable when the police act diligently.”

 

Jones v. Manriquez 

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Deon Jones unsuccessfully sued two Denver police officers for violating his Fourth Amendment rights when they questioned, arrested, and searched him. Finding the conduct constitutional, the court also found the even if the officers had violated Jones’ rights, the officers would still be entitled to a qualified immunity defense because Jones had not met his burden of defeating their defense.

Jones was sitting in his parked car in a private parking garage at 1:30 AM. Police officers noticed Jones, searched his license plate, and determined his address was not registered to the adjacent residential building. Suspecting Jones of trespass, the officers approached and questioned Jones. After replying that he was waiting for a friend, Jones attempted to start his car and drive away. The officers asked Jones to exit the vehicle, but he did not immediately comply. Eventually, he stepped out and was arrested for failing to comply with the officers’ lawful orders. His person and vehicle were subsequently searched.

When analyzing the reasonableness of an officer’s decision to initiate an investigative detention, courts will consider two elements: (1) “the assessment must be based upon all the circumstances” and (2) that assessment “must raise a suspicion that the particular individual being stopped is engaged in wrongdoing.” “[T]his level of suspicion is not high—all reasonable suspicion requires is some minimal level of objective justification.” When all factors were considered, the officers easily met the burden of reasonable suspicion to justify their engagement with Jones: “Considering the totality of the circumstances—the time of day, the high-crime area with a specific history of trespassing, the reserved parking spot, the no-trespassing signs, and the address registered to Jones’s car—we determine that the officers reasonably suspected that Jones was trespassing”. Because the stop was justified, the officers were not precluded from engaging Jones and eventually arresting him after he failed to comply with their lawful order to exit the vehicle. Having been lawfully arrested, the subsequent search was also justified because “a lawful arrest, standing alone, authorizes a search”.

Finally, to overcome a qualified immunity defense, the court explained that a plaintiff must (1) “identify a factually similar Supreme Court or published Tenth Circuit decision, (2) show that the clearly established weight of authority from other courts has found the law to be as he maintains, or (3) show that the unlawfulness of the officers’ conduct is sufficiently clear even though existing precedent does not address similar circumstances”. Because Jones failed to carry this high burden, the officers’ defense remained in force.

 

United States v. Neugin

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Jack Neugin successfully appealed and suppressed evidence that was discovered during an unconstitutional search of his covered truck bed.

Police were dispatched to a restaurant parking lot during a verbal altercation between Neugin and a woman who was with him after their truck broke down. As officers helped the woman arrange a ride home, she indicated that she needed to collect her belongings out of the truck. Without asking, the officer, who was standing in between Neugin and the woman so as to physically separate them from one another, lifted the hard-shell cover on the bed of the truck to allow the woman to grab her things. As he did so, the officer spotted a bucket of ammunition, which raised the officer’s suspicions. The officer then asked Neugin about the ammunition, ran a criminal history check on Neugin (thereby discovering he was a felon), obtained the woman’s consent to search the truck, and ultimately found a shotgun. Neugin was subsequently arrested for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

The 10th Circuit found that the officer’s intrusion into the truck bed was an unconstitutional search, and the evidence discovered as a result was inadmissible. The government argued that the officer’s action of lifting the bed cover to help the woman retrieve her belongings was carried out in his capacity as a community-caretaker, and not as a police officer conducting a search. Such an action would qualify for an exception to the exclusionary rule of the Fourth Amendment. However, the court disagreed, finding that the community-caretaker exception to the exclusionary rule applies only as long as “such activities are warranted in terms of state law or sound police procedure, and are justified by concern for the safety of the general public”. Because there was no legal justification, police procedure, or concern for safety in opening the truck bed to help the woman retrieve her belongings, the officer’s opening of the bed was found to be an unconstitutional search. Further, the court found the inevitability of finding the incriminating evidence—another exception to the exclusionary rule—was not proven at court. Even if the officer hadn’t been the one to open the bed, Neugin or the woman might have retrieved the belongings in a manner so as to prevent the ammunition’s detection by the officers. Mere speculation that the evidence would have been inevitably discovered is insufficient to overcome the exclusionary rule.

 

United States v. Orozco-Rivas 

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Shasel Orozco-Rivas unsuccessfully appealed the admissibility of evidence after being arrested for possession with intent to distribute approximately eight pounds of methamphetamine.

An Oklahoma State Trooper noticed Orozco and her passenger driving a pickup truck too closely behind the car in front of her. As Orozco passed the trooper, she put her hand in front of her face and appeared “shocked”. After the trooper pulled over Orozco, he questioned her and the passenger. Suspecting illegal activity, he asked for permission to search the vehicle, which they denied. The trooper detained the two and called in the closest drug-sniffing dog, which arrived 51 minutes later. A cache of methamphetamine was located shortly after inside of a spare tire in the back of the truck.

The 10th Circuit found the totality of the circumstances justified the trooper’s reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Among other things, the court found the following specific factors supportive of the officer’s actions: (1) Orozco did not immediately pull over after the trooper turned on his lights, taking in all one minute and 48 seconds to signal she was attempting to stop; (2) the passenger was sweating profusely and otherwise extremely nervous during the traffic stop; (3) Orozco could not specifically identify her destination; (4) Orozco did not know the name of her uncle she was supposedly going to visit; (5) inconsistencies existed between Orozco and the passenger’s stories. In sum, because the trooper “pointed to specific, articulable facts that in light of common sense and ordinary human experience would lead a reasonable officer to suspect criminal activity”, the court found that he had reasonable suspicion in conducting a search of the truck.

Finally, the court found the detention was not unreasonably prolonged because the trooper “diligently pursued a means of investigation that was likely to confirm or dispel [his] suspicions quickly.” The officer called for the nearest dog handler available, who promptly arrived on scene despite a 45-mile journey.

 

Corona v. Aguilar 

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Police Officer Brent Aguilar unsuccessfully raised a qualified immunity defense against a civil rights claim brought against him. The claim arose out of an alleged unconstitutional arrest during a traffic stop.

Officer Aguilar stopped a car for running a red light. During the traffic stop, Aguilar asked the driver to roll down the back passenger window. Sitting in the back seat, the plaintiff, Jorge Corona, asked Officer Aguilar why he had stopped the vehicle. Officer Aguilar initially ignored Corona, but after Corona asked again, Aguilar requested that Corona produce ID. The two argued for a few moments, but at no point did either man raise his voice or become belligerent. Aguilar eventually ordered Corona out of the car and placed him under arrest for failing to produce ID.

The 10th Circuit found that Aguilar did not have probable cause to arrest Corona and that there was clear 10th Circuit precedent indicating as much. Therefore, Aguilar was not entitled to qualified immunity.

New Mexico statute requires individuals to produce ID when requested by an officer. Further, the 10th Circuit has previously held that police officers may “ask for identification from passengers in a lawfully stopped vehicle even when there is no particularized suspicion the passenger has engaged in or is engaging in criminal activity.” However, under the Fourth Amendment, an officer may not arrest someone for failing to produce identification “without reasonable suspicion of some predicate, underlying crime.” As the court stated, “Aguilar’s initial request for ID may have been lawful, but he could not—in the absence of reasonable suspicion of some predicate, underlying crime—lawfully arrest Plaintiff for concealing identity-based solely on his failure or refusal to identify himself.” Aguilar was subsequently prohibited from using the qualified immunity.

 

Alvarado-Escobedo v. United States 

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Personal representatives of Edgar Camacho-Alvarado unsuccessfully brought a wrongful death claim after he was shot and killed by a police officer.

The night of Camacho’s death, an undercover detective entered a trailer park to confirm the whereabouts of a wanted murder suspect. Shortly thereafter, Camacho spotted and approached the detective. The detective did not recognize Camacho but knew he was not the murder suspect he was looking for. Hoping to maintain his hidden identity, the officer tried to avoid Camacho, but Camacho continued towards him. After a brief conversation, Camacho attempted to pull a gun out of his hoodie. In response, the detective identified himself as a police officer, drew his own firearm, and ordered Camacho to freeze. Camacho took flight and the detective pursued. After going in and out of the detective’s view, Camacho appeared near the door of a trailer with his gun pointed at the officer. The detective subsequently shot and killed Camacho.

Plaintiffs disputed the veracity of the officer’s story (who was the only living witness to the incident) and also challenged the justification for the officer’s actions. They argued the officer couldn’t have been sure (1) Camacho was the same man who had fled on foot only moments before Camacho’s death and (2) Camacho possessed or pointed a gun at the officer. The court found the brief departure from the detective’s view was not enough to create a question as to whether that person could have been anyone else besides Camacho. The plaintiffs produced no evidence to suggest there was anyone else present outside in the trailer park that night. Further, the police recovered a stolen gun next to Camacho’s body. The gun had Camacho’s DNA on it, as well as spray paint on the handle that matched paint Camacho owned. When the gun was reported stolen, it did not have paint on it. The court found this evidence settled any dispute of material facts.

Finally, the court determined the correct question to ask in justifying the officer’s conduct was whether he “reasonably perceived that Camacho posed a threat of serious physical harm to himself or others.” Because the circumstances clearly produced a reasonable perception of harm, the detective was justified in shooting Camacho.

 

United States v. Ravenell

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Leroy Ravenell unsuccessfully appealed a drug conviction after arguing his confession was involuntary.

Ravenell and his friend were arrested at a New Mexico Border Patrol checkpoint when DEA agents discovered a pound of cocaine in their vehicle. After his arrest, the agents read Ravenell his Miranda rights, which he subsequently waived by signing a form. Throughout the six-hours Ravenell was in DEA custody, he was regularly checked on by agents; given food, water, and blankets; and told that he could ask agents if he needed anything. An interrogation specialist, over the phone, told Ravenell and his friend that “one of you two dumb motherf***ers is going to jail tonight. One or both of you . . . I’ve been working all day, I’m tired, and I expect you-all to tell me the truth”. Ravenell and his friend were subsequently placed in the same room for five minutes so they could determine the ownership of the cocaine.  When the specialist arrived, Ravenell was again Mirandized. During interrogation, Ravenell admitted to owning the cocaine and told agents that he intended to sell it.

Ravenell argued the agent’s use of foul language and the agents’ action of placing the men together in the same cell contributed to the involuntariness of his confession. However, the 10th Circuit found this confession was not involuntary based the following factors: (1) Ravenell was educated (high school diploma and some college courses), mature (27-years old), and not otherwise susceptible to coercion; (2) his detention was only six-hours long and the conditions of his detainment were not harsh; (3) while the interrogator used foul language, the questioning was not threatening, long, or otherwise intense. The agent’s statement that one of the men was going to jail was true, and was therefore not necessarily coercive; (4) Ravenell was “advised, repeatedly, of his constitutional rights”; and (5) Ravenell was not subject to physical punishment.

 

United States v. Young 

Shane Young successfully appealed his drug charges after arguing his confession was involuntary.

After swerving his vehicle on a roadway and then evading police on foot, Young was arrested and confessed to owning a small quantity of methamphetamine. A subsequent search of the area revealed a much larger quantity of methamphetamine, of which Young denied ownership. During an interrogation, an FBI agent attempted to persuade Young to admit ownership of the larger quantity of methamphetamine. After Mirandizing Young, the agent told him he had spoken with the prosecutor as well as the federal judge who would oversee his case. The agent had in fact spoken with the prosecutor and a federal magistrate judge, but the conversation with the judge only related to Young’s arrest warrant. The agent inaccurately told Young the judge was willing to charge “anywhere from five to ten years” for his alleged crimes. The agent also told Young he needed to trust him and that he would tell the judge about Young’s cooperation if he provided honest answers. Specifically, the agent told Young he could “buy down the amount of time you see in a federal prison” and that “every time you answer a question truthfully, it ticks time off that record, . . . that’s the way it works.”

The 10th Circuit found that Young’s confession was coercive and involuntarily given based on the following factors: (1) in telling Young he could “buy down” his prison time by confessing, the agent promised leniency when he had no authority to do so; (2) the agent misrepresented the sentencing guidelines for Young’s charges (suggesting 5-10 years when the sentencing could actually be as high as 40 years); and (3) the agent repeatedly emphasized he would directly communicate to the judge whether Young had cooperated with investigators.

 

United States v. Goebel 

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Jeffrey Goebel unsuccessfully challenged the legality of his detention as well as the admissibility of his statements made before he was Mirandized. Goebel was arrested for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

At 2:45 AM, a police officer spotted Goebel driving erratically. The officer had previously received a report of a reckless driver in the area. The officer followed Goebel to a home in a high-crime neighborhood, where he monitored the situation. Goebel exited the parked vehicle in the driveway and proceeded to enter the backyard of the home through a side gate. The officer noticed there were no lights on in the home and that a parked van in the driveway had its sliding door open.  After Goebel exited his vehicle, the officer pulled behind it for approximately 10 seconds to run the license plate. He then backed up and parked so that he was no longer blocking the driveway.

Soon after, a passenger exited the vehicle and began to engage the officer in what the officer understood to be an effort to distract him. Once Goebel returned, the officer ordered both individuals to stand on the sidewalk. The two claimed they were there to pick up a friend, but did not know the last name of the friend and could not identify the address of the home they were at. When asked, a third passenger in the vehicle did not know why she was there or who the other two passengers in the vehicle were. At this point, the officer learned that Goebel was on probation and had prior felony convictions. The occupants of the home were awoken and stated they did not know any of the three individuals in front of the home. Goebel was then handcuffed and told he was being detained but was not Mirandized during a brief one-minute conversation where he continued to deny any wrongdoing. After obtaining the home owner’s permission, the officer searched and found a gun in the backyard. Goebel was then arrested and charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Goebel made numerous unsuccessful arguments that his arrest and the collection of evidence was unconstitutional. The 10th Circuit found Goebel’s detention did not begin until the officer ordered him to stand on the sidewalk, not when the officer pulled his cruiser behind Goebel’s parked vehicle since Goebel wasn’t in the vehicle at the time. Further, the officer had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Among other factors supporting the officer’s suspicion, the court noted: (1) the lateness of the hour; (2) Goebel’s unusual activity in the backyard (he did not attempt to go through the front door); (3) the prevalence of crime in the neighborhood; (4) the passenger’s apparent attempt to distract the officer; (5) there were no lights on in the home and the door to the van was left open; and (6) Goebel had been observed driving evasively. Goebel also argued the officer unreasonably prolonged his detention, but the court held the opposite, noting the officer “accomplished a great deal in a relatively short time”, questioning the suspects, interviewing the occupants of the home, searching the vehicles and premises, etc. Finally, the court held that, even if Goebel hadn’t been properly Mirandized during his one-minute interrogation, Goebel made no incriminating statements at any point throughout the night, and any potential error committed by the officer was harmless.

 

Thompson v. Platt 

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Anthony Thompson unsuccessfully appealed the admissibility of evidence gained under a narrow-scope wiretap order.

As part of a federal grand jury indictment, a wiretap order was issued to surveil Thompson’s wire communications. Under the law, the term “wire communications” typically refers to phone calls. The term’s legal scope does not encompass other electronic communications such as text messages or emails. Here, law enforcement incorrectly understood that the order authorized surveillance of text messages. Thompson’s text messages were subsequently intercepted and used as evidence against him in criminal proceedings.

The 10th Circuit found the evidence to be admissible because the officers acted in good faith in their understanding of the order’s breadth. When determining the applicability of the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule—which would otherwise exclude evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment—courts will ask “‘whether a reasonably well-trained officer would have known that the search was illegal despite the magistrate’s authorization.” In this case, the officers reasonably believed surveilling Thompson’s text messages under a wire communications wiretap was legal. Therefore, the evidence they collected under this standard was admissible in court.

 

Banks v. Opat 

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Albert Banks unsuccessfully appealed the admissibility of evidence gained under a narrow-scope wiretap order.

As part of a federal grand jury indictment, a wiretap order was issued to surveil Banks’ wire communications. Under the law, the term “wire communications” typically refers to phone calls. The term’s scope does not encompass other electronic communications such as text messages or emails. Here, law enforcement incorrectly understood the order authorized surveillance of text messages. Banks’ text messages were subsequently intercepted and used as evidence against him in criminal proceedings.

The 10th Circuit found the evidence to be admissible because the officers acted in good faith in their understanding of the order’s breadth. When determining the applicability of the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule—which would otherwise exclude evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment—courts will ask “‘whether a reasonably well-trained officer would have known that the search was illegal despite the magistrate’s authorization.” In this case, the officers reasonably believed surveilling Bank’s text messages under a wire communications wiretap was legal. Therefore, the evidence they collected under this standard was admissible in court.

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