June 18, 2019

Tenth Circuit: DEA Agent’s Removal of Luggage from Common Storage Area Constituted Illegal Seizure

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Hill on Monday, November 9, 2015.

Kelvin Hill boarded an eastbound Amtrak train in Los Angeles. When it made a regularly scheduled stop in Albuquerque, DEA Agent Kevin Small boarded the train and entered the common luggage area. He found a small black and white “Coogi” brand bag with no tag. He took the suitcase into the passenger area and asked each passenger whose bag it was. No one responded, including Hill, so Agent Small deemed the bag abandoned. He searched the suitcase, finding a large quantity of cocaine as well as clothing linking the bag to Hill.

A grand jury indicted Hill of possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine. He moved to suppress the cocaine, asserting Small’s actions in taking the bag from the common luggage area and moving it about the coach amounted to an illegal seizure, rendering Hill’s abandonment of the bag invalid. The district court denied Hill’s motion, instead concluding Small did not seize the bag at any time before Hill abandoned it. Hill entered a conditional guilty plea, reserving the right to appeal the district court’s denial of his suppression motion.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit analyzed the following question: “Did Small’s actions in removing Hill’s bag from the train’s common luggage area and carrying it through the coach as he questioned passengers constitute a seizure of the bag?” The Tenth Circuit concluded that it did. The Tenth Circuit found that Small’s actions interfered with Hill’s possessory interest in the bag, because by taking the bag for his own purposes, Small interfered with Hill’s right to access the bag for his own purposes, on his own time, and at the place where unchecked baggage is properly stowed. The Tenth Circuit noted that the more difficult question was whether Small’s interference was meaningful for Fourth Amendment purposes.

The Tenth Circuit could not find any case law dealing with a fact scenario similar to the one at hand. Instead, most cases dealing with luggage presented two situations: when luggage is seized directly from a person, or when it is seized while checked at an airport. The Tenth Circuit found that the owner’s possessory interest was greatest when the bag was in his or her direct control and least when the bag was checked. Because the scenario at hand was somewhere in-between those two points, the Tenth Circuit analyzed the facts independently, finding that Hill would have reasonably expected other passengers to perhaps shift his bag’s position but would not have expected anyone to carry the bag through the coach. The Tenth Circuit therefore concluded that Agent Smart’s actions constituted a seizure.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision and remanded for further proceedings.

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