September 1, 2014

Tenth Circuit: Unlawful Search of Petitioner’s Vehicle Conducted in Good-Faith Reliance on Later-Overturned Circuit Precedent; Evidence Need Not Be Suppressed

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Soza on Thursday, July 7, 2011.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. Petitioner was stopped by an officer for speeding. When the officer ran a check on Petitioner and the vehicle, a criminal database revealed that he had a revoked driver’s license and an outstanding felony warrant with an “arrest clause.” The officer arrested Petitioner and called for backup. When a second officer arrived, Petitioner was handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car. After securing Petitioner, the officer conducted a search of his vehicle incident to arrest. On the driver’s side floorboard, he discovered a handgun and a plastic bag containing a “crystal-like” substance consistent with methamphetamine.

Petitioner was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He moved to suppress the evidence seized from his vehicle, relying on Arizona v. Gant, 129 S. Ct. 1710 (2009), which held that law enforcement may not search a vehicle “incident to a recent occupant’s arrest after the arrestee has been secured and cannot access the interior of the vehicle.” The government responded that the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied because Gant had not been decided at the time of the search. The district court concluded that the good-faith exception was applicable and denied the motion to suppress. Petitioner then entered into a conditional plea agreement, reserving his right to appeal the suppression determination, and he now appeals that issue. However, the Court agreed with the district court, finding that because the unlawful search of Petitioner’s vehicle was conducted in good-faith reliance on later-overturned circuit precedent, the evidence need not have been suppressed.

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