News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit addresses the best evidence rule – and says a lot of other interesting stuff along the way

We read this recent 111-page opinion so you don’t have to. This post is long – though not 111-pages long – and we think it’s worth it.

In United States v. Chavez, a divided panel of the Tenth Circuit issued an epic opinion addressing what is popularly known as the best evidence rule – but which is more accurately called “the original document rule.” That rule, codified in Fed. R. Evid. 1002, provides that “[a]n original writing, recording, or photograph is required in order to prove its content unless these rules or a federal statute provides otherwise.”

Chavez holds that the prosecution may not introduce an English-language transcript purporting to translate a foreign-language audio recording without also introducing the audio recording itself. And while that is straightforward enough, Chavez goes on to call into question a lot of problematic things that prosecutors sometimes do with transcripts of our clients’ alleged calls and conversations. For appellate lawyers, it also has interesting things to say about harmless-error review. Read on for an explanation of Chavez’s holding, along with takeaways for both trial and appellate lawyers.

Background

Randolfo Chavez was indicted for distributing methamphetamine. The prosecution’s case included three conversations that Mr. Chavez allegedly had with government cooperators, including conversations during two (alleged) controlled buys. The three conversations – which were mostly, but not entirely, in Spanish –  were recorded.

At trial, the prosecution offered into evidence what purported to be transcripts of the recordings, with Spanish and English versions side-by-side. The prosecution did not offer the recordings themselves. Defense counsel objected to the transcripts based on the best evidence rule, insisting that the recordings themselves needed to be offered into evidence. The district court overruled the objection, leaving the jury to rely on the transcripts without the underlying recording.

Chavez appealed, arguing the transcripts were inadmissible under Fed. R. Evid. 1002.

The Tenth Circuit’s Holding

A divided panel agreed with Mr. Chavez and reversed his convictions.

Judge Holmes’s opinion for the Court, joined by Judge Seymour, is characteristically comprehensive. It canvasses the history, purpose, and scope of the best evidence rule, and the opinion could be a good resource for those who need to brush up on the rule and how it is applied in the Tenth Circuit.

Ultimately, the majority opinion reasons:

  1. Under Rule 1002, “evidence offered to prove the contents of an original writing, recording, or photograph is not admissible, unless the original itself is also admitted.” Maj. Op. at 30.
  2. The bar on “secondary evidence of an original’s contents unless the original is in evidence . . . is absolute,” save for certain explicitly stated exceptions. Id. at 32.
  3. The list of exceptions does not include any exception for foreign-language recordings.” Id. at 32-33.
  4. Consequently, “under the plain meaning of Rule 1002, the best-evidence rule does not permit courts to admit English-translation transcripts of foreign-language recordings when the recordings themselves are not also in evidence.” Id. at 33.
  5. The prosecution “sought to prove the contents of the recordings” when it “sought to prove the words purportedly spoken by Mr. Chavez and others,” but it failed to introduce the recordings themselves. Id. at 44.
  6. Therefore, “[t]he district court’s decision to admit the transcripts [of the recordings] . . . plainly flies in the face of the best-evidence rule and was an abuse of the court’s discretion.” Id. at 46.

Although the majority opinion’s reasoning is largely formalistic, it is informed by the concerns underlying Rule 1002. The best evidence rule requires an original to ensure reliability and to guard against the “human error or outright fraud” that secondary evidence of an available original’s contents may involve. Id. at 30-32. And in Mr. Chavez’s case, there were grave concerns about the accuracy of the Government’s transcripts. Id. at 10-18, 62-64.

For example, the side-by-side Spanish-and-English transcript lists the following as equivalent phrases:

Spanish – “Ponte las pinches pilas (unintelligible) . . . .”

English – “I’m like the boss. I’m your boss. I can get you anything you want. I got everything for the next load. It’s for us. Keep doing a good job and instead of Mckleen I’ll be hooking you up.”

“It is unclear,” the Court says, “how four Spanish words plus and ‘unintelligible’ word or phrase translate into thirty-eight intelligible words in English.” Id. at 15-16.

In another example, the transcript lists the following as Spanish-to-English equivalents:

Spanish – “Tenemos que pagarle al otro way . . .

English – “Fucking 19 grams, We have to pay the other guy. Is this your number?”

Id. at 63-64.

The Court cites numerous other inexplicable discrepancies.

The Court’s opinion goes on to reject the Government’s argument that introducing the recordings was not required. The Government had posited that the fact that the recordings were in Spanish altered the analysis because “recordings in a language that jurors do not understand is not the best evidence” of what was said. Id. at 46-47 (quotation marks omitted). Rather, said the Government “the ‘best evidence’ was the translated transcripts.” Id. at 47. The Court explained that this “evince[d] a fundamental misunderstanding of the legal import of the best-evidence rule.” Id. “Despite its somewhat misleading name, the best-evidence rule’s concern is not with the admission of the best evidence in a qualitative sense.” Id. at 48.

Accordingly, the majority opinion squarely holds that courts must admit the original audio of a recording in a foreign language if it is to admit a translated transcript of such a recording.

Or does it…?

Judge Hartz’s Dissent

Judge Hartz dissented, maintaining that “[t]he sin of the trial judge was to use his common sense.” Dissenting Op. at 1. The dissent maintains that (for reasons explored below) trial courts can still admit translated transcripts without also admitting the foreign-language recording itself, based on the dissent’s theory, notwithstanding the majority opinion. Id. at 6.

Judge Hartz’s merits analysis proceeds as follows:

  1. Rule 1002 requires that the original of a writing, recording, or photograph be admitted “‘unless these rules or a federal statute provides otherwise.” Id. at 9.
  2. Rule 703 allows for the admission of expert opinion testimony without the information underlying the expert opinion testimony also being admitted. Id. at 7.
  3. Consequently, expert testimony opinion addressing the contents of a writing, recording, or photograph need not be accompanied by the original of the writing, recording, or photograph, because “Rule 703 provides otherwise.” Id. at 9.
  4. A translation of a foreign-language recording is tantamount to expert opinion testimony. Id. at 6-7.
  5. Therefore, a transcript translating a foreign-language recording may be admitted even if the recording itself is not admitted. Id. at 9-10.

Although Judge Hartz acknowledges that there may be good reasons for admitting the recording itself in a particular case, id. at 18, he maintains that trial courts should have the discretion to exclude a foreign-language recording under Rule 402 or Rule 403 on the ground that it is irrelevant; would waste time; or would confuse or mislead the jury, id. at 10.

Why does Judge Hartz think that trial courts can follow this path despite the majority’s holding? The reason is that the majority opinion, in a footnote spanning three pages, explicitly declines to “engage with the merits of the Dissent’s arguments” on the ground that the Government never argued for anything like the dissent’s theory for admitting the transcripts without the recordings. Maj. Op. at 50-52 n.17. Therefore, Judge Hartz maintains, “trial courts in this circuit . . . are free to adopt [his rationale] if they find it persuasive.” Dissenting Op. at 6. Based on the majority opinion’s holding that exceptions to Rule 1002 are strictly limited, it is questionable whether a future panel of the Tenth Circuit would agree with Judge Hartz that his approach remains viable.

TAKEAWAYS

For Trial Lawyers: Challenging Problematic Transcripts and Other Nuggets

More than the Chavez’s holding regarding the best evidence rule, it’s criticisms of the transcripts the prosecution used in this case are likely to have broad applicability for trial lawyers dealing with such transcripts – even when the prosecution introduces the original.

The majority opinion deems the following aspects of the prosecution’s transcripts “problematic and potentially misleading.” Maj. Op. at 56-59, 61-64 (emphasis added).

  • That the transcripts purported to identify Mr. Chavez as a participant in the conversations, improperly treating Mr. Chavez’s participation “as an established (even stipulated) fact.”
  • That the transcripts identified themselves as transcripts of “controlled buys” of methamphetamine, which was improper “editorial commentary . . . not subject to cross-examination.”
  • That the transcripts purported to attribute incriminating statements to Mr. Chavez.
  • That the transcripts “offer[ed] no indication of who created them, when or how the respective transcribers did so, how much time elapsed between the making of each successive statement within the three transcripts, and whether these exhibits reflect a complete transcription of the underlying recordings,” all of which “make their integrity and soundness questionable.”

The Court was sharply critical of these features of the transcripts, and this section of the opinion provides strong grounds for precluding prosecutors from introducing transcripts with such features under Rule 403, under the hearsay rule, under the Confrontation Clause, or for lack of foundation.

Judge Hartz’s dissent suggests another trial-practice tactic. In a point not addressed by the majority opinion, and for reasons we won’t go into here, Judge Hartz argues at length that it is improper for trial judges to declare in front of a jury that a witness is qualified to give expert testimony. Dissenting Op. at 31-35. He provides extensive persuasive authority for the point. And he states that, although the Tenth Circuit “has not prohibited trial judges from declaring in open court that a witness is an expert,” “perhaps we should.” Id. at 35.

Even if telling the jury that a witness is an expert would not be reversible error, Judge Hartz’s opinion is a good resource for arguments that a trial court should refrain from doing so as a matter of discretion.

For Appellate Lawyers: Rebutting Harmless-error Arguments  

Several aspects of the majority’s harmless-error analysis (it finds the error not harmless) should be useful in other appeals:

  • The majority emphatically distinguishes harmless-error analysis from sufficiency-of-the-evidence analysis and emphasizes that the credibility of witnesses is up for grabs when harmless error, rather than sufficiency, is at issue. Maj. Op. at 69-71.
  • It analyzes prejudice by assuming that neither the transcripts nor the underlying recordings would have been admitted, rather than assuming that both the transcripts and the underlying recordings would have been admitted. Id. at 65.
  • It posits that, in assessing harmless error, it is appropriate to think about “the evidence that [the prosecution] did not produce” – in this case, evidence like photographs of Mr. Chavez participating in the controlled buys. Id. at 66-69.
  • It says that a prosecution case is “not strong” when it rests primarily on the testimony of government cooperators who expected benefits. Id. at 66, 69-70.

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit reverses imposition of terrorism sentencing enhancement-U.S.S.G. § 3A1.4

In United States v. Ansberry, the Tenth Circuit, in a case of first impression, reversed the imposition of the terrorism sentencing enhancement—U.S.S.G. § 3A1.4—that added a whopping 12 levels to the defendant’s offense level and boosted his criminal history category from I to VI.

The background facts

              In 1971, David Ansberry, then 19 years old, moved to Nederland, Colorado and fell in with a group of “hippies.”  One of the group members, Guy Goughnor, got rowdy in a bar one night and was escorted out by Town Marshal Renner Forbes.  Mr. Goughnor was never again seen alive and his body was later found in a remote canyon.  He had been shot in the head.  The Boulder County Sherriff’s Department suspected Forbes but was unable to build a case and never brought charges.  But 25 years later, Forbes confessed and was convicted of manslaughter.  He was sentenced to probation.

              By then, Mr. Ansberry had long since moved on from Nederland. But in 2016 he returned to avenge his friend’s death.  At around 5 am one morning, Mr. Ansberry placed a would-be homemade bomb – consisting of (among other things) a light bulb, a cell phone, and an explosive powder called HMTD – outside the police department.  The bomb was supposed to go off when Mr. Ansberry called the phone, but it didn’t work.  After trying unsuccessfully to detonate the device, Mr. Ansberry skipped town, leaving the defective bomb in front of the police department.  Officers found it hours later.  Using a robot, they swung it around and dropped it on the pavement, but the bomb wouldn’t go off.  They finally got it to detonate by firing a steel slug at it.   

The federal prosecution and the sentencing objections

              The government charged Mr. Ansberry with one count of using or attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction against a person or property.  Mr. Ansberry pleaded guilty without a plea agreement.  He admitted only to attempting to use a destructive device against property, not a person, when he attempted to set off the bomb early in the morning.

              Mr. Ansberry raised numerous objections at sentencing. Among other things, counsel objected to a three-level, official-victim enhancement (U.S.S.G. § 3A1.2) and also to a terrorism enhancement (U.S.S.G. § 3A1.4).  Together, these two enhancements dramatically increased his guidelines range from 41-51 months, to 324-405 months. The district court overruled the objections and sentenced Mr. Ansberry to 324 months—or 27 years—imprisonment.

The appeal

Mr. Ansberry appealed, and the Tenth Circuit vacated the sentence.  Judge McHugh, writing for a panel that included Circuit Judges Lucero and Eid, found the district court made two reversible mistakes.

              First, the Tenth Circuit held the official-victim enhancement should not have been applied. The district court had applied the enhancement on the theory that Mr. Ansberry had victimized the officers who discovered the defective bomb hours after he had tried to detonate it. But although leaving the bomb for others to find may have constituted relevant conduct within the meaning of the guidelines, the official-victim enhancement – unlike nearly all others – requires that an official be victimized by the conduct comprising the “offense of conviction,” that is, the conduct that satisfies the elements of the offense.  And here, Mr. Ansberry had pleaded guilty only to attempting to damage property, which occurred only during the several minutes he tried unsuccessfully to set off the bomb.

              Second, the Tenth Circuit found that the district court erred in imposing the terrorism enhancement that so drastically increased Mr. Ansberry’s guideline range. The district court had found that the enhancement applied because Mr. Ansberry’s offense was, in the words of the guideline, “calculated to retaliate against government conduct.”  Counsel below had argued that, whatever Mr. Ansberry thought he was doing, he wasn’t retaliating against government conduct because Town Marshal Forbes had not been acting as a government official when he murdered Mr. Ansberry’s friend.  The district court refused to make a finding one way or another on this because, in her view, all that mattered was Mr. Ansberry’s subjective belief that he was retaliating against government conduct.  Mr. Ansberry argued that this was wrong – that the enhancement could only be applied if the conduct Mr. Ansberry was retaliating against was objectively governmental in nature.  Again, the circuit agreed.

Takeaways

  1. Preserve, preserve, preserve! Mr. Ansberry’s lawyers meticulously raised and preserved each of the challenges to his guidelines calculations.  Thanks to this careful lawyering, Mr. Ansberry didn’t face the hurdle of overcoming the plain-error standard on appeal.  Even if the district court isn’t persuaded by your arguments, the Tenth Circuit may be.
  2. Pay attention to the plain language of the guidelines.  Ultimately, both successful arguments came down to the plain language of the guidelines—what is the “offense of conviction,” and what does it mean to “retaliate against government conduct”? Especially when you are dealing with less-common guideline provisions, consider whether the plain language really applies to your client’s case.

Resources: Some new COVID-19-related materials to help you advance the cause

Congressional Letter to USMS. Every district is grappling in its own ways with the conditions of our clients in pretrial custody. Hopefully some answers will come today. Check out the letter from Senators Warren and Booker and Congressman Deutch to the United States Marshals Service calling out its lack of testing, lack of transparency and general lack of containment efforts. The letter states unequivocally that, “USMS is failing to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 in prisons and communities all across the U.S., and in fact is actively making matters worse.” The letter sets out detailed questions and requests a response by today’s date.

It also contains some clear facts (and citations) describing how dire the situation really is for our clients in custody: “The spread of COVID-19 in U.S. prisons and jails is out of control, with over 125,692 confirmed cases and at least 1,066 prisoner deaths to date. All 15 of the largest “clusters” of COVID-19 in the U.S. are correctional facilities, and in some facilities the overwhelming majority of the detained individuals have been infected with coronavirus.”

Report by The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. This newly released report contains a set of urgent, far-reaching recommendations that call on leaders in law enforcement, the courts, and corrections to expand their efforts to reduce harm caused by the coronavirus. In its first report, Recommendations for Response and Future Readiness, the independent, nonpartisan Commission said a lack of clear guidance and reliable data had led to a patchwork of responses among states and localities, creating wide variance in infection and mortality rates for their incarcerated populations, among other consequences. Led by former U.S. Attorneys General Loretta Lynch and Alberto Gonzales, the Commission urged justice system leaders to follow the facts, data, and science in their pandemic responses. Key recommendations include mandating mask wearing across all sectors of the system, conducting mass testing to detect outbreaks quickly, and reducing populations in correctional facilities to limit virus spread while remaining mindful of public safety concerns. https://counciloncj.foleon.com/covid19/report/welcome/

The executive summary is available here: https://counciloncj.foleon.com/covid19/report/executive-summary/

Interactive Dashboards about COVID-19 within BOP. The OIG released an Interactive Dashboards Relating to COVID-19 Within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It’s more user friendly than the BOP website. https://oig.justice.gov/news/multimedia/video/message-inspector-general-interactive-dashboards-relating-covid-19-within

The dashboards are available here: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=a3e98be1aab94eadaaeaa96ed176f418

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit Will Hear Argument Today (at 2 p.m.) In A Noteworthy Compassionate Release Appeal

The Tenth Circuit will hear oral argument today September 22, 2020 at 2 p.m., in United States v. Maumau, No. 20-4056, a government appeal out of the District of Utah with potential implications for compassionate release litigation throughout the circuit. The issue is whether the district court has authority to determine for itself what constitutes an “extraordinary and compelling reason” that would justify compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), notwithstanding the BOP and the Sentencing Commission have promulgated definitions.  The case concerns both the language of Section 3582(c) and the validity of USSG 1B1.13, as well as its commentary. Former federal district court judge John Gleeson represent Mr. Maumau.  You can learn more about Judge Gleeson here: https://www.debevoise.com/johngleeson                   You can listen to the argument in real time on the circuit’s YouTube channel by clicking here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaR1ZYqvC4A                                  Audio recordings of the arguments can be found on the circuit’s website – with a time lag of about two days – by clicking here: https://www.ca10.uscourts.gov/oralargument/search/recent

The appellate briefs and district court order are available here:

Resource: The COVID-19 Crisis in Federal Detention | Fact Sheet

The Sentencing Resource Counsel has prepared a detailed fact sheet about the ongoing COVID-19 crisis within the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The up-to-date information and resources linked will be particularly helpful in our compassionate release efforts.

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit reverses denial of motion to suppress, finds involuntary confession induced by lies and false promises of leniency

This week, in United States v. Young, the Tenth Circuit held the district court erred in refusing to suppress defendant’s confession, finding the confession was involuntary because it was induced by a federal agent’s misrepresentations about the law and false promises of leniency, including a false promise about the agent’s access to the federal judiciary.

Facts

In an interview with local agents, Mr. Young admitted that a small amount of drugs found the morning of his arrest were his, but denied that a much larger quantity found later that day were his. He then revoked his consent to speak. When an FBI Special Agent later questioned Mr. Young, he told Mr. Young he had spoken to the judge, and that Mr. Young faced either a five-year or ten-year charge. The agent then told him that, with each truthful statement he made, he could “physically buy down” his sentence. Within moments, and in response to the agent’s first question, Mr. Young admitted the larger quantity of drugs were his as well.

Mr. Young moved to suppress his confession as involuntary.  At the suppression hearing, the agent claimed he misspoke – he meant to say not judge but “prosecutor.”  The agent also said he did not know the actual sentencing ranges for Mr. Young’s offenses and was just providing a tangible number to help make his case that “cooperation can pay dividends.” Although the court found the agent made false representations and improper promises of leniency, the judge concluded that Mr. Young’s confession was not involuntary and denied his motion to suppress.

Mr. Young appealed.  He argued that, although the district court was correct to find as a factual matter that there was improper coercion, it was wrong in its legal conclusion that Mr. Young’s confession was voluntary.

The Tenth Circuit’s decision

The government did not challenge on appeal the district court’s factual findings.  So the Tenth Circuit reviewed (de novo) only the trial court’s legal conclusion that Mr. Young’s confession was voluntary.  The Court of Appeals recited the law applicable to determining whether a confession has been coerced, emphasizing the inquiry is based on a totality of the circumstances and requires consideration of “both the characteristics of the accused and the details of the interrogation.” (Opinion at 7).

The Court first addressed the agent’s conduct–his misrepresentations and promises of leniency.  It was significant that the agent misrepresented the law to Mr. Young, “a factor that weighs in favor of concluding his actions were coercive.” (Opinion at 9). In addition, the agent did not merely inform Mr. Young the cooperation would be viewed favorably by a prosecutor, but said he had spoken with a federal judge who would reward him for his cooperation. “But that is not the way the federal system works,” the Court of Appeals held.  Although the Court of Appeals acknowledged that some of aspects of the interrogation were not coercive, these factors were not dispositive.

Finally, the Court of Appeals did not agree with the trial judge that Mr. Young’s prior experience with the state criminal justice system would render him less susceptible to believing promises of leniency and misrepresentations by a federal law enforcement officer explaining his access to a federal judge.

The district court’s decision was reversed and the judgment against Mr. Young was vacated.

Takeaways

  • Use this decision for its helpful recitation of the well-settled law governing involuntary confessions.
  • Note the Court’s repeated emphasis of the totality of the circumstances test (mentioned at least 6 times in the opinion) as the operative framework for assessing voluntariness, making clear no single factor is determinative.
  • But take care to view the holding in its factual context.  Consider whether the nature of this particular agent’s misrepresentation–that he had personal access to a federal judge–significantly impacted the Court’s view of the ultimate merits.

 

 

Resource: Senate Judiciary Committee Testimony on Best Practices for Incarceration and Detention During COVID-19

The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing today, June 2, to examine best practices for incarceration and detention in the time of COVID-19.

Particularly noteworthy is the Joint Testimony of two BOP officials: Michael D. Carvajal, Director of BOP, and Dr. Jeffery Allen, the BOP’s Medical Director.  Much of the testimony addresses the criticism of BOP’s pandemic response, which Carvajal and Allen claim has “been based on misinformation” about how BOP is actually handling things.

Take a close look at the last section, addressing how the BOP is handling home confinement:

“As the pandemic grew more widespread, the Bureau began aggressively screening the inmate population for inmates who were appropriate for transfer to RRC or Home Confinement for service of the remainder of their sentences. On March 26, 2020 and April 3, 2020, Attorney General Barr issued memoranda to the Bureau directing us to increase the use of Home Confinement, particularly at institutions that were markedly affected by COVID-19, for vulnerable inmates. The CARES Act, signed by President Trump on March 27, 2020, further expanded our ability to place inmates on Home Confinement by lifting the statutory limitations contained in Title 18 U.S.C. § 3624(c)(2) during the course of the pandemic. I am pleased to note that we currently have 6,120 inmates in RRC and 6,398 on Home Confinement. This is an 124% increase in HC from March 26, 2020. There are an additional 985 who are scheduled to transfer to Home Confinement in the coming weeks. While we continue to make robust strides in these placements to reduce risk of spread to the inmate population and staff, public health and safety must remain our highest priority. The Attorney General has issued guidance as to which inmates should be considered for home confinement. Staff are conducting individualized assessments to ensure inmates are appropriate for community placement both from a public safety perspective and given their own specific needs and circumstances. Additionally, we must ensure inmates who release to Home Confinement have a viable residence in which to reside.

It should go without saying that while we are dedicated to the protection of our inmates’ health and safety, we also have to consider—as the Attorney General’s guidance emphasized—that inmates who presented a risk of public safety because of their criminal acts or other factors cannot be released. Neither can we release inmates who would be worse off outside Bureau facilities than inside, such as those whose medical conditions could not be adequately cared for by health systems that are themselves overwhelmed by the response to COVID infections in the general community. Nor can we release inmates who do not have safe housing for themselves or housing that is not subject to appropriate safeguards for home confinement, which is still, after all, a form of incarceration for persons convicted of crimes whereby such persons are still serving a federal sentence.”

 

 

 

 

News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit limits use of community caretaking exception and inevitable discovery doctrine in Fourth Amendment case

In United States v Neugin, __F.3d__, 2020 WL 2091842 (10th Cir. May 1, 2020) (published), the Tenth Circuit limited the use of the community caretaking exception and refused to apply the inevitable discovery doctrine to a search of an automobile. Judge Matheson authored, joined by Judge Ebel. Judge Hartz dissented.

Facts: An officer spotted ammunition while lifting the lid of a truck’s camper; he ran a background check and the driver was a felon.

Officers responded to a domestic dispute between Mr. Neugin and his girlfriend, Ms. Parrish, that was taking place at a restaurant. While mediating the dispute, one officer, without permission, opened the lid of the truck’s camper to get Ms. Parrish’s belongings. In doing so, he looked inside the camper and saw a large bucket containing several rounds of ammunition. Officers ran a background check on Mr. Neugin, which showed that he was a felon. An officer asked Ms. Parrish whether Mr. Neugin had a firearm. She said he had a shotgun in the truck and had threatened her with it the evening before. Ms. Parrish consented to the search of the vehicle, and one officer saw the stock of a firearm protruding from the truck. It turned out to be a shotgun, and Mr. Neugin was arrested. Mr. Neugin pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, but preserved the suppression issues for appeal.

The community caretaking exception did not excuse the warrantless search.

The community caretaking exception applies only when an officer’s actions are warranted by (1) state law or sound police procedure, and are (2) justified by concern for the safety of the general public. The officer’s actions must also outweigh the individual’s privacy interests. Here, opening the camper wasn’t necessary to protect anyone, even Ms. Parrish. While the search was intended to facilitate the retrieval of Ms. Parrish’s belongings from the scene of the dispute, an officer’s “benign motive” is not enough, and the search was not “de minimis.”

The inevitable discovery doctrine didn’t apply because there would have been no reason to impound the car absent the warrantless search that led to Mr. Neugin’s arrest.

The government argued that even if opening the camper was unconstitutional, the evidence should not have been suppressed because the truck inevitably would have been impounded and searched. The Tenth Circuit disagreed. Instead, the Court reasoned that, if officers had not opened the camper, they wouldn’t have necessarily seen the ammunition, run a criminal history check, or found the gun. Without the violation, therefore, Mr. Neugin would not inevitably have been arrested. And without the arrest, the truck would not inevitably have been impounded and searched. Even though the truck was broken down, Mr. Neugin could have called his own towing company or a mechanic.

Notes from the notes.

Some other key points appear in footnotes, but are worth noting.

  • The plain-view exception did not apply because the officer was not lawfully positioned when he found the ammunition.
  • The officer could not rely on Ms. Parrish’s consent to search because any consent came after the warrantless search that uncovered the ammunition.
  • The automobile exception didn’t apply because the officer did not have probable cause to believe that contraband would be found inside. 

Hartz dissents.

Judge Hartz would have affirmed the district court’s decision that the community caretaking exception applied. He reasoned that the community caretaking exception extended to the officers’ attempts to keep the disputing couple under control and keep an eye on Ms. Parrish while she retrieved her belongings from the truck. He thus thought it was proper for the officer to lift the lid of the camper shell, so as to mediate any further argument.

Key Takeaways

The community caretaking exception is limited. Non-investigatory searches of automobiles under the community caretaking function are only justified if warranted by state law or sound police procedure, and are justified by concern for the safety of the general public.

Use this case for its good language on inevitable discovery. The Court reaffirms that “the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule cannot be invoked because of [a] highly speculative assumption of ‘inevitability.’” United States v. Owens, 782 F.2d 146, 153 (10th Cir. 1986).

Resource: US Sentencing Commission Releases Statistics for Fiscal Year 2019

The United States Sentencing Commission has just released a number of reports on federal sentencing practices in fiscal year 2019.

Particularly useful are the data reports compiling federal sentencing statistics from each judicial district, the districts within each judicial circuit, and the districts within each state. Each report compares the statistics from the respective district, circuit, or state to the nation as a whole.  You can find all of the reports here.

Data specific to the Tenth Circuit is available here, see USSC Data for Fiscal Year 2019.

And, a short Overview of Federal Criminal Cases for Fiscal Year 2019 is also worth your time.