April 21, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Officers Had Ample Evidence of Defendant’s Presence When Executing Arrest Warrant

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Denson on Tuesday, December 30, 2014.

Steven Denson was convicted of armed robbery and served prison time. After being released from prison, though, he did not report to his probation officer as required. Eventually, authorities found his name on a residential Wichita utility account and secured an arrest warrant. Officers used a hand-held Doppler device and other evidence to determine that the residence had one occupant, and, when no one answered the door, forced their way into the residence, where they found Denson and a stash of guns. Denson pled guilty to possession of firearms but reserved the right to appeal the district court’s denial of his Fourth Amendment motion to suppress. He sought reversal from the Tenth Circuit on three grounds. He contended (1) officers entered his home without reason to believe he was present, (2) officers lacked a lawful basis to search his home after arresting him, and (3) officers had no right to seize his guns.

The Tenth Circuit found that the officers had probable cause to infer that Denson was home before entering the residence. Denson had opened a residential utility account in his name on only the one residence; he hadn’t reported any recent earnings, leading officers to suspect he was unemployed; he was hiding from law enforcement, making it unlikely he was out and about; and the house’s electric meter was especially active, leading officers to infer someone in the house was using electricity. Although the Tenth Circuit found the Doppler evidence to verge on an unlawful intrusion into Denson’s privacy, they found ample other evidence  to infer that someone was home when officers executed the arrest warrant.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed Denson’s argument that the search was unlawful. The Tenth Circuit relied on well-settled law to find that the officers were allowed to conduct a “quick and limited search of the premises” in order to ensure their safety. Because the officers knew Denson was a fugitive, had a history of violent crime, was a gang member, and had violent associations, they had ample reason to conduct a cursory search of the residence.

Denson’s final argument was that the officers lacked probable cause to seize the weapons. However, Denson had a prior felony conviction, and he was not allowed to possess the firearms. Addressing his contention that the weapons belonged to his roommate, the Tenth Circuit found that the possession standard is met when a felon has knowledge of and access to the weapons in question. The guns in Denson’s house were not locked and were available in a closet to anyone who wished to enter the closet. The officers were well within their rights to seize the weapons.

The district court’s judgment was affirmed.

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