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: Tenth Circuit reaffirms constructive possession requires intent to exercise control over an object, in a published decision involving 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)

The Tenth Circuit just decided United States v. Giannukos, reaffirming that constructive possession requires intent to exercise control over an object, and not just knowledge and ability to exercise control over the object.

Recall, the Supreme Court recently held that “[c]onstructive possession is established when a person, though lacking such physical custody, still has the power and intent to exercise control over the object.” Henderson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1780, 1784 (2015). In United States v Little, the Tenth Circuit adopted this holding, and explained that both the power and intent to exercise dominion or control over the object are essential to establish constructive possession. In Giannukos, the Tenth Circuit held that the post-Little definition of constructive possession must apply to a 924(c) charge for possession in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

The defendant in Giannukos went to trial on drug and gun charges. The government alleged he was distributing drugs out of his residence, and that he possessed two firearms in furtherance of that crime. The two firearms were found in a house he shared with a friend and his girlfriend.  One gun was found in a hutch in a common area of the house, and the other was found next to a pink bag in the bedroom that the defendant and his girlfriend shared.  DNA testing of the first gun turned up DNA from three unspecified people, at least one of them male. The major DNA contributor to the second gun was female.  A holster fitting the second gun was found inside the pink bag.

The government’s theory of the case was the defendant possessed the guns in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime and charged him with a 924(c) offense. The judge instructed the jury that it could find constructive possession of the guns if it determined the defendant “knowingly had the power” to “exercise dominion and control over” them.  Op. at 6.  As the Tenth Circuit would later hold in Little, this instruction misstates the law.  The jury convicted on all counts, including the 924(c) count, which meant the jury found Mr. Giannukos possessed the firearms “in furtherance of” his drug trafficking crimes. Op. at 14.  The jury had been instructed that “in furtherance of” means “for the purpose of assisting in” the drug crimes.  The government argued that if the jury found (as it did) that Mr. Giannukos intended the guns to further his drug dealing, it necessarily – or at least quite likely – thought he also intended to exercise control over the guns, so the Little error was harmless.

The Tenth Circuit disagreed. It first held that the constructive possession instruction was erroneous and that the error was plain, satisfying the first and second prong of the plain error analysis. The Tenth Circuit also held that the error was prejudicial, even as to the 924(c) count. It reasoned the defendant could have known the guns were in the house and believed they would help fend off robberies to protect his stash (possession in furtherance) without intending to exercise control over the guns himself. In other words, the Tenth Circuit held that, under the third prong, there was a “reasonable probability” that a properly instructed jury (one that had been given the post-Little instruction) would not have convicted Mr. Giannukos of constructively possessing firearms. There is also some good fourth-prong plain error law in the opinion.  The Circuit holds that any prejudicial error in a jury instruction on the elements will meet the fourth prong in light of the “revered status of the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard in our criminal jurisprudence.”  Op. at 17.


TAKEAWAYS:

  1. There is a relatively new Tenth Circuit Pattern Jury Instruction that adopts the post-Little definition of constructive possession.
  2. The post-Little constructive possession instruction applies to any crime where possession is an element: constructive possession requires both the power and the intent to exercise dominion and control over an object
  3. Where there is prejudicial error in a jury instruction that affects one of the elements of the crime charged, the fourth prong of the plain error test will almost always be satisfied.