News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit Vacates Denial of Suppression Motion in a Published Decision (With Photos!)

In US v. Gaines, the Tenth Circuit vacated the denial of a motion to suppress in a published opinion, ruling: (1) the defendant was seized when police officers confronted him about reported drug sales in a parking lot; and (2) the subsequent discovery of an arrest warrant did not attenuate the connection between the seizure and the evidence. And they did so with style, buttressing their points with actual photographs of the alleged seizure in question. The opinion doesn’t break new legal ground, but it provides a nice review of some basic Fourth Amendment principles—and is a great example of creative appellate advocacy.

Background

Kansas City police received a 911 call reporting a man dressed in red had sold drugs in a local parking lot. Based on that call, uniformed officers driving two separate police cars pulled into the parking lot and parked behind a car occupied by a man wearing red clothing—Mr. Gaines. Police turned on their flashing roof lights and gestured for Mr. Gaines to get out of his car. To help established the scene, Mr. Gaines included the following image the Opening Brief:

Photo1

After Mr. Gaines got out of his car, one officer confronted him about the reported drug sale, observed an open container of alcohol, and smelled PCP. Officers told Mr. Gaines he would be detained. Mr. Gaines then grabbed a pouch from his car and fled the scene. He was soon captured. Meanwhile, police discovered cocaine, marijuana, PCP, drug paraphernalia, cash, and a handgun in his car.  Mr. Gaines unsuccessfully moved to suppress this evidence, and was convicted after trial. He appealed the denial of his motion to suppress.

Tenth Circuit Decision

The Tenth Circuit vacated the denial of the suppression motion in a published opinion, focusing on two issues: (1) whether there was a seizure; and (2) whether the relationship between the seizure and the evidence was attenuated.

  • There was a seizure

The Tenth Circuit found Mr. Gaines was seized because a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave the scene, and Mr. Gaines in fact yielded to the police’s show of authority. The opinion goes into a lot of detail about what specifically made the encounter a seizure, including that it involved uniformed police officers in marked police cars with flashing lights, where state law requires motorists to stop for flashing lights. The Court also emphasized one of the officers had gestured for Mr. Gaines to get out of his car before asking him an accusatory question.

  • There was no attenuation

The Tenth Circuit also rejected the government’s attempt to salvage the case through the attenuation doctrine. Under that doctrine, evidence does not need to be excluded if the Government can meet its heavy burden of showing that there is only a weak or attenuated connection to the asserted Fourth Amendment violation. When applying the attenuation doctrine, the court considers: (1) the temporal proximity between the alleged Fourth Amendment violation and the discovery of the evidence; (2) the presence or absence of intervening circumstances; and (3) the purpose and flagrancy of the police wrongdoing.

Specifically, the Tenth Circuit rejected the government’s arguments that either an outstanding arrest warrant or the subsequent development of probable cause established attenuation in this case. With respect to the warrant, the Tenth Circuit noted that executing the warrant and arresting Mr. Gaines would not automatically have allowed the search of his vehicle—citing the Court’s recent decision limiting officer authority to conduct warrantless searches of arrestees in US v. Knapp. The Court also observed that neither the warrant nor the observations arguably amounting to probable cause were discovered until after the challenged seizure. The Court therefore reasoned both the close temporal proximity and the absence of intervening circumstances weighed against application of the attenuation doctrine in this case.

Takeaways

  • Preservation matters. The standard of review is important, and this is another appellate win born of  preservation. Mr. Gaines moved before trial for an order suppressing all evidence derived from law enforcement’s initial seizure of him. The court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion, ultimately denying it. Mr. Gaines reasserted his motion towards the end of trial.  Notably, this belt and suspenders approach is commendable, but the issue was already preserved for appeal. Under  Federal Rule of Evidence 103(b):“[o]nce the court rules definitively on the record—either before or at trial—a party need not renew an objection or offer of proof to preserve a claim of error for appeal.” 
  • Detail matters. Suppression motions often require fact-intensive inquiries, and as this case demonstrates, it’s useful to do everything you can to marshal the facts in your favor. Explain in detail exactly what happened: How many police officers were there? What were they wearing? What were they driving? And what exactly did they do when they encountered the defendant? And then those details to the relevant legal standard.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words. Check out the Opening Brief  in this appeal(filed by the Kansas FPD). Sometimes, it’s useful not only to tell the court why your motion should be granted, but also show them. If there’s an image that really captures the essence of your argument, consider including it in your brief so your point doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. Nobody’s suggesting you file a comic book, but when done right, this technique shakes up legal writing and can be quite effective.
  • Arrest authority is not the end of the story. As the Tenth Circuit’s in-depth attenuation analysis demonstrates, the fact that police could have lawfully arrested your client doesn’t necessarily excuse any Fourth Amendment violations. Pick apart any attenuation argument to see if the Government’s claim holds up: Would an arrest really have led to the discovery of the evidence, independent of the Fourth Amendment violation? And can the warrant really be considered an “intervening event” that weakens the causal connection between the Fourth Amendment violation and the evidence sought to be excluded?

Author: COFPD

Federal Public Defender's Office for the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming