The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Stonecipher v. Special Agents on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.
Anthony and Melissa Stonecipher were targets of an investigation into their purchases and sales of firearms and explosives. Mrs. Stonecipher had purchased 14 handguns over a period of 10 months, including 12 on a single day, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms began investigating her. The ATF also learned that Mr. Stonecipher was attempting to sell firearms and explosives out of his home. Two special agents went undercover to the Stoneciphers’ home and purchased a firearm and two explosives from Mr. Stonecipher. The ATF determined that Mr. Stonecipher’s sale of the explosives violated 18 U.S.C. § 842(a)(1) because he did not have a federal firearms or explosives license and investigated further into his activity.
In the course of their investigation into Mr. Stonecipher’s activity, Officer Carlos Valles obtained a certified court document showing that Mr. Stonecipher had been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence in 2007 in Missouri. Valles also obtained a report from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) that indicated Mr. Stonecipher had been denied the right to purchase a handgun because of the conviction, and a report from the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC) noting Mr. Stonecipher’s domestic violence charge. Valles sought legal advice from Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Jennings regarding whether Mr. Stonecipher was prohibited from possessing firearms due to his domestic violence conviction. After reviewing all the documents, Jennings advised Valles that Mr. Stonecipher was prohibited from possessing firearms. Valles prepared an application and supporting affidavit for a search warrant to search the Stoneciphers’ house. The warrant was signed by a magistrate judge, and the search was executed. Mr. Stonecipher was placed under arrest during the search, after which he repeatedly proclaimed that his First and Second Amendment rights were being violated. Mr. Stonecipher requested to retrieve some papers from his house, one of which was a letter from his Missouri criminal defense attorney that advised Stonecipher that his conviction would not count after he completed his probation. The agents continued their search, and the next day Valles informed Jennings of the letter produced by Mr. Stonecipher. Jennings advised Valles to proceed with the case. Valles prepared a criminal complaint, which Jennings approved, and Valles filed the complaint in federal district court. Five days later, the prosecuting U.S. Attorney moved to dismiss the case upon discovering that the domestic violence charge was not a qualifying conviction.
The Stoneciphers brought a civil rights action against Valles and five other ATF agents involved in the search. The defendants moved to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds, and the district court granted the motion, finding that the agents reasonably concluded on facts available that they had probable cause to search the house and arrest Mr. Stonecipher. The Stoneciphers contended that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity because they lacked probable cause. The Stoneciphers also alleged that Valles’ warrant application was a reckless disregard of the truth, contending that he knew or should have known that the Missouri suspended sentence was not a conviction for purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). The Tenth Circuit disagreed, noting that the documents on which Officer Valles relied were confusing and could be interpreted by an objectively reasonable officer as supportive of the warrant and complaint. The Tenth Circuit also examined the conduct of Officer Valles, particularly that he independently consulted AUSA Jennings, and determined that Officer Valles’ conduct was reasonable and supported dismissal on qualified immunity grounds.
The Stoneciphers also alleged that once they produced the letter from the Missouri criminal defense attorney, the officers should have stopped their search. However, the Tenth Circuit noted that the officers had no duty to credit the suspect’s explanation if they independently believed they still had reasonable probable cause to conduct the search. There was no way for the officers to verify the authenticity of the letter in the middle of the search, and Valles informed Jennings of the letter and its contents the next day. Upon evaluation of the Stoneciphers’ malicious prosecution claims, the Tenth Circuit similarly upheld the actions of Officer Valles, noting that nothing supported that his behavior was malicious. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal because the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity.