Government Entities – Case Law Update, March 2018

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.

Felders v. Barrett

The Tenth Circuit confirmed that offers of judgment are effective only after a person or entity becomes a party in litigation.  Becoming a party requires service of a summons or acceptance of service.  Offers of judgment made before that are premature and ineffective.

Sandberg v. Englewood Colorado

The plaintiff was wearing a Ruger 9-millimeter pistol in a holster on his hip while walking on a public street.  A business owner who saw him passing called 911, worried the plaintiff might have been involved in “some form of workplace violence . . . .”  Two Englewood police officers arrived in response to the 911 call.  They drew their weapons, confronted the plaintiff, searched him and, despite his refusal of consent, seized his pistol and 21 bullets.  They learned during their detention that the plaintiff had not been involved in any workplace violence and had the permission of an auto shop (where the detention occurred) to have his weapon.  The officers nevertheless continued to detain the plaintiff while continuing a criminal investigation.

The plaintiff filed a civil rights complaint alleging, among other claims, that the officers violated his Second and Fourth Amendment rights.  The Tenth Circuit concluded the initial stop and investigatory detention were proper under the Fourth Amendment.  It reasoned that the citizen’s 911 call about potential workplace violence provided the “particularized and objective basis” for stopping the plaintiff, removing his weapon, and detaining him during an investigation.  However, it found the continued detention was inappropriate under the Fourth Amendment because the officers lacked reasonable suspicion of workplace violence.  The court explained it was clear that after the officers spoke with the plaintiff, they realized he had not been involved in workplace violence.  Nonetheless, they continued to detain him while making multiple phone calls to determine whether any alternative charges applied.  That impermissibly exceeded the scope of the initial detention.  The court did conclude the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on the Fourth Amendment claim because the plaintiff failed to identify any case law that would have alerted the officers their actions violated the Fourth Amendment.  However, with the finding of a constitutional violation in this case, the law is now clearly established in the Tenth Circuit.

The court further concluded that the officers were immune from the plaintiff’s Second Amendment claim because the law governing their actions was not clearly established in the Tenth Circuit.  Importantly, they did so without determining whether the officers’ conduct violated the Second Amendment.  Therefore, it can be argued that the law is still not clearly established in the Tenth Circuit with respect to the Second Amendment claim as it applies to the facts of this case.

State v. Binks

The Utah Supreme Court affirmed the criminal defendant’s convictions of possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia, holding that the trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained during a Terry stop. Specifically, the Court held (1) when law enforcement officers stopped Defendant’s vehicle, they had reasonable suspicion to investigate two traffic violations and possible drug possession; (2) when the officers approached the vehicle they gained reasonable suspicion of driving under the influence; and (3) under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), the officers were entitled to detain the defendant for a reasonable time while they investigated these offenses.

United States v. Sanchez

A UHP trooper stopped the defendant for speeding.  When asked for his license, the defendant could not produce one.  However, he provided a United States passport and an expired rental contract between Enterprise Rent-A-Car and an individual who was not in the vehicle.  The rental contract stipulated, “NO OTHER DRIVERS PERMITTED.”  The trooper had dispatch contact Enterprise to alert it the vehicle was five days overdue and ask what Enterprise wanted the trooper to do about the vehicle.  Enterprise requested the vehicle be impounded.

The Utah Department of Public Safety Policy Manual (UDPSPM) requires an inventory search when a vehicle is impounded.  When the trooper began to inventory the contents of the rental car, he observed several plastic garbage bags filled with clothing.  He also located ten packages of methamphetamine in the trunk.  In the glove compartment, he found two $1 bills and a straw that appeared to have methamphetamine residue on them.  At no point did either the defendant or his passenger ask to remove personal property from the trunk or from the glove box.

The defendant was charged with possessing methamphetamine with intent to distribute.  He moved to suppress evidence of the drugs, claiming the DPS policy violated the Fourth Amendment.  The district court denied the motion, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed.  The court pointed out that the standard for impoundment is different than the standard for an inventory search.  The policy provided three purposes of an inventory search: 1) to protect the owner’s property while in police custody; 2) to protect the police against claims of lost or stolen property; and 3) to protect the police from potential danger.  It then explained, “The Fourth Amendment simply does not require an officer to proactively ask an unauthorized driver of a car who does not assert ownership of items within the car whether the driver would like to remove items from the car before conducting an inventory.  Such a rule would undermine the purposes that justify an inventory search.”  It continued, “By failing to assert ownership over the plastic bags in the
trunk, Defendant declined to take custody of his property, which was properly brought within custody of the police.”  Had he done so, the court infers the result may have been different.

Zimmerman v. University of Utah

A notice of termination may be an adverse employment action independent of an actual termination under the Utah Protection of Public Employees Act (UPPEA). Plaintiff filed suit against Employer, claiming infringement of her free speech rights under the Utah Constitution and under the UPPEA. Employer moved for summary judgment, arguing, inter alia, that the UPPEA claim was time-barred because Plaintiff suffered an “adverse employment action” triggering the 180-day filing requirement under the UPPEA. The United States District Court certified three questions for the Utah Supreme Court’s review. The Supreme Court declined to exercise its discretion to resolve the first two questions and instead answered only the third question. The court answered the question as set forth above and set forth an analytical framework for assessing whether such employment actions are independent of each other under the UPPEA.

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