October 21, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Officers Executing Warrant Acted in Objectively Reasonable Reliance

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Russian on Tuesday, February 21, 2017.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals had to determine if the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule was properly applied in the case where police searched two cell phones belonging to the appellant after his arrest without first obtaining a valid search warrant. At trial, Mr. Russian moved to have evidence obtained from the phones suppressed for lack of particularity. The district court denied the motion, and sentenced Mr. Russian to 137 months’ incarceration. Mr. Russian appealed, claiming that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress the phone evidence, and claiming that the 137-month sentence was above the maximum permitted by statute.

The case stems from an incident beginning in Missouri, where police received a 911 call concerning a man matching Mr. Russian’s description threatening two women with a machete and handgun. When police arrived, Russian fled, beginning a high-speed chase into Kansas. Upon Russian’s arrest, Deputy Wilson searched Russian, and found a red and black phone in his possession. Deputy Wilson then found a second phone in Russian’s vehicle, both of which he entered into evidence. Deputy Wilson later applied for a warrant to search Russian’s residence, as well as both the contents of both phones already in police possession, The state district court warrant authorized the search of cell phones that could be used to commit the crimes, and described the locations to be searched, but did not authorize the search of the phones already in police possession.

The Fourth Amendment provides that no citizen will be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure. However, the court added, that even these protections are subject to the harmless error rule, where a search may be upheld if the error is so unimportant and insignificant that they may be deemed harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, not requiring the automatic reversal of the conviction. The court stated that a search warrant must, in addition to probable cause, describe with particularity the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. In this case, the court said that there is little doubt that the search warrant was invalid for lack of particularity, as it did not identify the phones or the data on those phones to be searched.

Although the warrant was invalid, the court still upheld the denial of Mr. Russian’s motion to suppress under the good faith exception. The good faith exception applies to an otherwise invalid search warrant where the officer’s reliance on the warrant was objectively reasonable under the circumstances, and asks if a reasonably well-trained officer would have known the search was illegal despite the warrant’s authorization. However, the court noted that the government is not entitled to the exception when the warrant is “so facially deficient—i.e., in failing to particularize the place to be searched or the things to be seized—that the executing officer cannot reasonably presume it to be valid.” In analyzing Deputy Wilson’s search, the court determined that because his affidavit specifically described the phones, the warrant referenced the affidavit, and the exclusion of the evidence would not serve the purpose of the exclusionary rule (to prevent police misconduct) the good faith exception applied.

As to Russian’s second claim, the court agreed that district court erred in relying on a guidelines range that improperly took into account a fifteen year old felony conviction that was too old to be included in the sentencing range. The court also agreed with Russian that the court erred in imposing a 76-month sentence, as it is above the 60-month maximum imposed by statute.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed Russian’s convictions, but remanded for resentencing for three of the counts based on the improperly calculated guidelines range.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Speak Your Mind

*