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?

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.