News You Can Use: Tenth Circuit Limits Officers’ Authority to Search Incident to Arrest

In United States v. Knapp, the Tenth Circuit reversed the denial of a motion to suppress and held a warrantless search of an arrestee’s purse could not be sustained as a search incident to arrest.

Defendant Stacy Knapp was arrested on an outstanding warrant. Police officers seized the purse she was carrying and handcuffed her behind her back. The police walked Ms. Knapp to the police car while they carried her purse.  An officer then put Ms. Knapp’s purse on the hood of the car, about three to four feet away from Ms. Knapp (who was still handcuffed). One officer stood next to Ms. Knapp and two other officers were nearby. After Ms. Knapp admitted there was a gun inside her purse, an officer searched the purse and recovered a pistol.

The Government argued the warrantless search was permissible as a search incident to Ms. Knapp’s arrest. The Tenth Circuit disagreed and held that the search violated the Fourth Amendment.

First, the Court rejected the Government’s argument that the search of Ms. Knapp’s purse amounted to a “search of the person,” which is allowed automatically under United States v. Robinson. The Court held that Robinson should be limited to searches of an arrestee’s clothing — explicitly rejecting authority from other courts that had extended Robinson to apply to searches of handheld containers. The Court explained that searches incident to arrest are justified by the possibility that an arrestee might have a weapon and by the officers’ need to disarm her. In this light, automatic searches of an arrestee’s clothing make sense because separating an arrestee from her clothing to deny her access to any weapon “would be impractical (not to mention demeaning).” But that rationale doesn’t apply to handheld containers like purses, the Court held, because such items are “easily capable of separation from [the] person.”

Second, the Court rejected the district court’s holding that the search of Ms. Knapp’s purse was justified on the ground that she could have accessed it at the time of the search. The Court recognized that, under Chimel v. California, police can search not only an arrestee’s person but also anything else they reasonably believe the arrestee might access to get a weapon or destroy evidence. However, the Court held that, unlike Robinson searches, Chimel searches are not automatic and “must be justified on a case-by-case basis by the need to disarm or to preserve evidence.” Further, the Court held that Arizona v. Gant, which arose in the context of an automobile search, was not limited to that context and required the Court to evaluate “the arrestee’s ability to access weapons or destroy evidence at the time of the search, rather than the time of the arrest, regardless of whether the search involved a vehicle.” Applying Gant and Chimel, the Court held that “it was unreasonable to believe Ms. Knapp could have gained possession of a weapon or destructible evidence within her purse at the time of the search.” Ms. Knapp could not have accessed the contents of her purse, the Court explained, because “not only were Ms. Knapp’s hands cuffed behind her back, [an officer] was next to her, and two other officers were nearby. Moreover, the purse was closed and three to four feet behind her, and officers had maintained exclusive possession of it since placing her in handcuffs.”

Takeaways

  • Preservation matters. This awesome appellate win was born in the district court.  The trial lawyers made a great record, filing a motion to suppress on Fourth Amendment grounds (and later, a reply in support of the motion) and emphasizing the government’s burden to prove that the search and seizure was reasonable.  Because the issue was raised and ruled upon below, the Tenth Circuit applied de novo review on appeal. This favorable standard of review is the result of preservation; and it was the first step on the path to victory.
  • A purse is not a pocket! Searches “of the person” incident to an arrest are allowed automatically, but such searches are limited to searches of the arrestee’s clothing and cannot extend to a search of a handheld container, like a purse.
  • A search of the “grab area” must be justified.  A search of the area within the arrestee’s immediate control (the “grab area”) is not a search “of the person” and must be “justified on a case-by-case basis by the need to disarm or to preserve evidence.”
  • Justification depends on what’s happening at the time of the search, not the time of the arrest.  If, at the time of the search, it isn’t reasonable to believe that an arrestee could access a place or item to destroy evidence or get a weapon, the search of that place or item cannot be justified as a search incident to arrest.

 

 

News You Can Use: SCOTUS considers eliminating the “separate sovereigns” double jeopardy exception

This week, the Supreme Court hears argument in Gamble v. United States, a case asking whether the Court should overrule the “separate sovereigns” exception to the double jeopardy clause. Gamble has significant practical implications, but also raises interesting issues of constitutional interpretation, historical practice, and adherence to precedent.

Following a 2015 traffic stop in which police found a gun, the state of Alabama prosecuted Mr. Gamble for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in prison. But the federal government then pursued its own case against him for the same crime (being a felon in possession of a firearm), and based on the same conduct (possessing the firearm found during the traffic stop).

While the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits any person from being tried twice for the same offense, the Supreme Court has long recognized an exception to that principle. Prosecution in federal and state court for the same conduct does not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause because the state and federal governments are considered separate sovereigns. See Abbate v. United States, 359 U.S. 187, 195 (1959).

This “separate sovereigns” exception (also called the “dual sovereignty” exception) would seem to countenance both prosecutions of Mr. Gamble. That’s what the Southern District of Alabama and the Eleventh Circuit both held below. As the circuit court put it, “unless and until the Supreme Court overturns Abbate, [this type of] double jeopardy claim must fail based on the dual sovereignty doctrine.” 694 F. App’x at 750-51.

But Mr. Gamble had an opening to argue for that very overruling. Two terms ago, in Puerto Rico v Sanchez Valle, the Supreme Court held that Puerto Rico was not a separate sovereign from the United States because it derived its authority from Congress. So, Puerto Rico and the United States could not both prosecute a person for the same conduct under equivalent criminal laws.

Notable here, however, was Justice Ginsburg’s concurrence, joined by Justice Thomas, in which she wrote to “flag a larger question that bears fresh examination in an appropriate case”—that is, whether the Court’s separate sovereigns doctrine served the Double Jeopardy Clause’s goal “to shield individuals from the harassment of multiple prosecutions for the same misconduct.” 136 S. Ct. 1877. The concurrence suggested it did not, and that the issue warranted the Court’s attention. 

The Court decided Sanchez-Valle on June 9, 2016.  About a week later, Mr. Gamble moved to dismiss the indictment, the motion predicated on Justice Ginsburg’s concurrence and call to revisit the separate sovereigns doctrine. Two years later, the Supreme Court granted granted certiorari.

SCOTUSblog has an excellent argument preview here: http://www.scotusblog.com/2018/11/argument-preview-justices-to-reconsider-potentially-far-reaching-double-jeopardy-exception/

For a fascinating historical perspective on the question, check out the amicus brief filed by law professors contending that dual sovereignty is a historical accident, and not part of the constitutional design.

 

Takeaways:

  • Be on the lookout for any dual-sovereignty issues in current cases, and preserve that challenge by filing a motion to dismiss the indictment.
  • Remember to pay attention to concurrences and dissents (including dissents from the denial of certiorari). Gamble finds its roots in Justice Ginsburg’s Sanchez-Valle concurrence. Shortly after that concurrence, Mr. Gamble moved to preserve the issue, and two years later the Court granted certiorari on the question.
  • Stare decisis is not always decisive. Even long-standing legal doctrines may be reconsidered, and Mr. Gamble argued persuasively in his petition for certiorari that both the doctrinal and factual premises supporting the separate sovereigns exception have eroded significantly since its adoption. (See Petition at 7-17.)