June 16, 2019

Colorado Supreme Court: Search of Cell Phone Exceeded Scope of Warrant

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. Herrera on Monday, October 26, 2015.

Searches and Seizures—Criminal Law.

The Supreme Court held that neither the warrant permitting the police to search defendant Herrera’s cellphone for indicia of ownership nor the plain  exception to the warrant requirement authorized the police to seize evidence of text messages between Herrera and a juvenile girl named Faith W. The warrant did not permit the police to search every folder in the phone for indicia of ownership because if it did, it would qualify as a general warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement. The warrant authorizing a search for text messages between Herrera and “Stazi” (the name used by an officer posing as a juvenile girl) rendered the police’s initial intrusion into the text messaging application legitimate, and the incriminating nature of the particular folder they searched was immediately apparent under the circumstances. However, the third requirement of the plain view doctrine—that the police have lawful access to that folder’s contents—was not met because there was no objective basis for the police to believe that it would contain messages from “Stazi.” Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s suppression of the evidence seized from the folder.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: No Exigent Circumstances Existed to Justify Warrantless Entry

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in McInerney v. King on Tuesday, June 30, 2015.

Joan McInerney reportedly pushed her ex-husband’s girlfriend on the Colorado School of Mines campus in July 2009, and Officer Dennis King, a part-time officer with the Colorado School of Mines Police Department, was assigned to investigate the incident. Officer King obtained Ms. McInerney’s address from her ex-husband and went to her house at 7:40 a.m. on Sunday, July 26, 2009, to serve her with a summons for harassment. Upon arriving at her house, he found several windows and doors open and a general state of disarray in the open garage. He called the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office for backup without knocking or otherwise announcing his presence, and Deputy Brian McLaughlin, an officer with 23 years’ experience, responded. Deputy McLaughlin asked if Officer King had tried to call Ms. McInerney, and Officer King admitted he hadn’t. Deputy McLaughlin decided to perform a welfare check and entered the house. Officer King followed. Both men had guns drawn, despite later admissions that neither thought there was an ongoing emergency. They found Ms. McInerney in her bed, awakened from sleep and partially dressed. She asserted that she was not the victim of a crime, did not need any help, and was outraged by the intrusion. She refused to sign for the summons, which Officer King left on a table near the front door.

Ms. McInerney filed a motion to dismiss the criminal harassment complaint, citing outrageous police conduct. The municipal court heard testimony from both sides and dismissed the complaint with prejudice, concluding there was no need for Officer King to take action and finding a total lack of an observable reasonable basis for the violation of Ms. McInerney’s constitutional rights. In July 2011, Ms. McInerney filed a § 1983 action against both officers, alleging her Fourth Amendment rights were violated when the officers entered her residence.

The district court denied Officer King’s F.R.C.P. 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, which the court denied, noting the stated justification of an emergency requiring police assistance was inconsistent with the fact that Officer King waited 30 minutes for Deputy McLaughlin’s arrival. Ms. McInerney stipulated to the dismissal of the charges against Deputy McLaughlin in January 2012, and moved for summary judgment on her remaining claims against Officer King. The district court denied the summary judgment motion, noting that while there was no question Deputy McLaughlin’s conduct violated the Fourth Amendment, there was a legitimate question of whether Officer King was justified in following Deputy McLaughlin into the house. Officer King then moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, which the district court granted. Ms. McInerney appealed.

On appeal, Ms. McInerney contended the district court failed to view the facts in the light most favorable to her and that the evidence supported a finding that Officer King personally participated in the unlawful entry, his entry was not justified by exigent circumstances, and his entry violated her constitutional rights. Officer King countered that he did not personally participate in Deputy McLaughlin’s welfare check, and that the welfare check was based on reasonable grounds to protect the safety of individuals inside the residence. He also contended his entry was justified to protect Deputy McLaughlin and Ms. McInerney failed to show he violated a clearly established constitutional right.

The Tenth Circuit first evaluated Officer King’s argument that he was entitled to qualified immunity because he simply followed Deputy McLaughlin into the house. The Tenth Circuit rejected Officer King’s explanation, finding it undisputed that Officer King entered Ms. McInerney’s home without a warrant and his actions constituted a Fourth Amendment violation. The Tenth Circuit noted that if it justified every subsequent entry after the first officer’s Fourth Amendment violation, it would destroy the protections afforded by the Amendment.

Next, the Tenth Circuit turned to Officer King’s argument that he needed to assure the safety of Ms. McInerney’s 11-year-old daughter, because Dr. McInerney reported to Officer King that Ms. McInerney had a history of drug and alcohol abuse and the daughter lived with her part-time. The Tenth Circuit noted that Officer King did not mention the daughter or drug and alcohol abuse in Golden Municipal Court or when he filed his Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, and did not mention these facts until he filed his August 2013 motion to dismiss. The Circuit contrasted several cases where exigent circumstances justified officers’ warrantless entry and found that the facts of the instant case, viewed in the light most favorable to Ms. McInerney, did not justify the warrantless entry. The Tenth Circuit remarked, “if the nonspecific and dated information from Dr. McInerney plus a messy house and open doors and windows when the weather is warm could justify the entry on that morning, it could have justify entry on almost any occasion.” The Tenth Circuit declined to adopt such a lenient view of the Fourth Amendment’s protections.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit evaluated whether the law was clearly established at the time of the officers’ entry, and found that it was. Although it would be impossible to find an identical fact situation, the Tenth Circuit found that the officers should have known their conduct was unconstitutional.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for Officer King and remanded for further proceedings.

Tenth Circuit: Fourth Amendment Rights are Personal and Cannot be Asserted Vicariously to Benefit Defendant

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Paetsch on Wednesday, April 8, 2015.

On Saturday, June 2, 2012, a masked and armed man robbed a Wells Fargo bank in Aurora, Colorado. One of the stacks of money he grabbed contained a GPS tracking device. Seconds after the robber took the money from the teller’s drawer, it began sending a silent signal to the Aurora Police Department, which allowed the police to follow the device’s movement on a computer monitor to within a 60-foot radius. Soon after the robbery, police began dispatching field officers based on the tracking device. Following the signal’s movements, police determined the device was in a car in traffic and was stopped at a traffic signal. Police who arrived on the scene blocked the intersection so that 20 cars that were stopped at the light could not leave.

Because the responding officers did not know the robber’s physical appearance, they called an FBI task force to get a homing beacon that would narrow the range of the tracking device’s alert to 10 feet. Before the FBI agent arrived with the beacon, officers had removed the sole occupants from two of the cars near the back of the 20 because they were behaving suspiciously, including defendant Christian Paetsch. They removed the sole occupant from a third car for tactical reasons. It had been about 30 minutes since the intersection was blocked.

Approximately one hour after the intersection was blocked, the FBI agent arrived with the beacon, but he did not know how to operate it correctly. Nevertheless, it gave a weak signal at Paetsch’s vehicle. Officers then cleared every car of its occupants and did a “secondary search,” looking through car windows. This secondary search revealed a money band in Paetsch’s car. Shortly thereafter a state trooper who knew how to use the beacon arrived and quickly got a strong signal from inside Paetsch’s car. Officers searched Paetsch’s car and found $22,956 cash, two handguns, boxes of ammunition, a mask, a wig, a pair of gloves, an empty air horn package, two fake license plates, and the GPS tracking device.

Paetsch was indicted on two counts: armed bank robbery and brandishing a firearm in relation to a crime of violence. Paetsch moved to suppress statements made to police and the evidence seized from his car, arguing the initial stop was unconstitutional because police lacked individualized suspicion that any person at the intersection had committed a crime, and that the stop violated his Fourth Amendment rights because the intrusion on individuals’ interest outweighed the government’s interest. After a three-day hearing, the district court granted suppression of statements Paetsch made after invoking his right to an attorney but denied the motion to suppress evidence from Paetsch’s car. Paetsch conditionally pleaded guilty, reserving the right to appeal the denial of the suppression order.

On appeal, Paetsch argued the barricade was unreasonable at its inception, unreasonable in its duration, and unreasonable in the means used to carry it out. The Tenth Circuit determined the stop was reasonable at its inception because it was appropriately tailored to catch a fleeing bank robber. Although police lacked individualized suspicion of a particular person, it was reasonable for law enforcement to barricade the intersection since they knew the stolen money was in a car idling at the intersection. The Tenth Circuit further found justification in the stop because police knew an armed bank robber was at the intersection and because the stop was effective in finding the bank robber. And, while the Tenth Circuit sympathized with the 29 innocent people detained before officers developed individualized suspicion of Paetsch, it determined that this intrusion on their liberty interests was reasonable and justified by the circumstances. The Tenth Circuit also declined to allow Paetsch to rely on the intrusion suffered by the 29 innocent car occupants, noting that to do so would “violate the principle that ‘Fourth Amendment rights are personal rights that cannot be asserted vicariously.'”

The Tenth Circuit similarly disagreed that the duration of the detention was unreasonable, finding the officers could only act on the information they had at the time. Because the officers knew the beacon would arrive “soon” and were concerned about the possibility of a high-speed chase should they allow all 20 cars to leave, it was not unreasonable for the officers to wait until the beacon and a suitable user arrived.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Paetsch’s motion to suppress. Chief Judge Briscoe concurred with the result but disagreed about how long it took police to develop individualized suspicion of Paetsch.

Colorado Supreme Court: Totality of Circumstances Instructive in Determining Voluntariness of Consent to Search

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. Munoz-Gutierrez on Monday, February 9, 2015.

Suppression of Evidence—Voluntariness and Coercion.

In this interlocutory appeal, the People sought review of the trial court’s order suppressing marijuana that the police discovered in a car registered to and driven by defendant. The trial court found that the People did not establish that defendant voluntarily consented to the search of his car. The Supreme Court determined that the trial court applied the wrong standard and held that defendant voluntarily consented to the search when he gave oral consent. Under the totality of the circumstances, the police’s conduct did not overbear defendant’s exercise of free will. Specifically, it was not sufficiently coercive or deceptive to a person with defendant’s characteristics in his circumstances. Accordingly, the Court reversed the trial court’s suppression order and remanded the matter to the trial court.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Court’s Exclusion of Evidence Not Prejudicial Because Defendant Had Opportunity to Raise Complete Defense

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Brown on Thursday, November 20, 2014.

Murder—Evidence—Hearsay—Residual Exception—Search Warrant.

The victim, defendant’s ex-wife, was murdered in her home in the middle of the night. Defendant was charged and found guilty of her murder.

On appeal, defendant argued that the trial court violated his rights by precluding him from presenting evidence that the police investigation into the case was deficient. Specifically, defendant contended that his cross-examination of the prosecution’s expert about the limitations of DNA testing and evidence of a suspicious vehicle in the area on the night of the murder, both of which were excluded by the court, were relevant to show that the police investigation was deficient. However, any error in these rulings was harmless because defendant was not prevented from presenting a complete defense.

Defendant also argued that the trial court erred by admitting, under the residual exception to the hearsay rule (CRE 807), statements the victim made to her sister, her mother, and two coworkers regarding the couple’s relationship. Defendant contended that the statements lacked particularized guarantees of trustworthiness. The trial court was in the best position to evaluate the proffered testimony of the witnesses and to consider the circumstances under which the declarant made the particular statements. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that the statements were sufficiently trustworthy as to satisfy CRE 807. Moreover, the court’s findings were sufficient to satisfy the Colorado Constitution’s Confrontation Clause.

Defendant further argued that the trial court erred by failing to suppress evidence police obtained when they executed the warrant because the search exceeded the scope of the warrant. Specifically, defendant contended that the backpack that defendant placed in the vehicle just before police seized his vehicle should not have been included in the search. There is no dispute that the backpack was “within” the vehicle at the time it was seized; therefore, seizing it was not outside the scope of the warrant. The judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Warrantless Search of Cell Phone Violated Fourth Amendment

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Omwanda on Thursday, September 25, 2014.

Evidence Suppression of Information on Cell Phone—Theory of Defense Instruction.

Before trial, defendant sought to suppress evidence that police had recovered from his cell phone. At the suppression hearing, an officer testified that he stopped a car carrying six people, including defendant. With the driver’s permission, the officer searched inside the car, where he found electronic scales and a pill bottle containing cocaine. Two passengers said the pill bottle belonged to defendant.

The officer arrested and searched defendant. The search revealed another pill bottle and a cell phone. The second pill bottle contained a white residue. Defendant asked the officer to give the cell phone to another passenger, but the officer told him he would keep it as evidence. The officer read three text messages on the phone. All three indicated cocaine use and purchase.

The officer later applied for, and received, a warrant to search the phone. The warrant application quoted the text messages. The search of the phone pursuant to the warrant revealed additional communications and information indicative of drug dealing.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress because the search was incident to the arrest. The jury acquitted defendant of possession with intent to distribute but convicted him of possession of a controlled substance.

The Court of Appeals agreed with defendant that the initial search of the phone violated the Fourth Amendment as enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Riley v. CaliforniaRiley v. California, ___ U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 2473 (2014). In Riley, the Court held “that a warrant is generally required before . . . a search [of information on a cell phone], even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest.”

The People argued that even if the initial search was unlawful, the police independently discovered the information on the phone pursuant to the search warrant. A court may admit unconstitutionally obtained evidence “if the prosecution can establish that it was also discovered by means independent of the illegality.” The Court reviewed the officer’s warrant application and found probable cause to support the issuance of the warrant. The issue turns on whether the initial search of the three text messages affected the officer’s decision to seek the warrant. This required further factual findings. Accordingly, the case was remanded for further proceedings on this issue.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: No Fourth Amendment Violation where Officers had Reasonable Suspicion for Pat-Down

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Martin on Thursday, August 28, 2014.

Motion to Suppress—Investigatory Stop—Pat Down—Fourth Amendment—Search and Seizure—Right to Testify—Waiver.

After defendant refused to exit a restroom at a convenience store, police officers ordered him to face the wall and put his hands behind his back for a pat down search. During the pat down, defendant’s actions caused the officers to think he was attempting to flee. A struggle between defendant and the officers ensued, during which defendant and one of the officers were injured. A jury found defendant guilty of attempting to disarm a peace officer and resisting arrest.

On appeal, defendant asserted that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress evidence because the investigatory stop and subsequent pat down violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Court of Appeals disagreed. The officer had reasonable grounds to initiate contact with defendant, both on the basis of conducting an inquiry into defendant’s welfare and on reasonable suspicion that he was unlawfully trespassing on the property when defendant remained in the bathroom for more than twenty minutes and subsequently refused to exit the bathroom after the police arrived. Additionally, even if the pat down was unlawful, defendant’s conduct of pulling away from the officers, attacking them, and resisting arrest constituted new offenses justifying a pat down.

Defendant contended that the trial court erred by denying his request to testify. Defendant requested to testify after he had waived the right to do so and defense counsel had rested the case. Although a defendant’s constitutional right to testify is not absolute, a defendant is not prohibited from testifying after waiving the right to do so and resting his or her case. Therefore, the case was remanded for hearing to reconsider defendant’s request.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: No Probable Cause to Conduct Vehicle Search when Dog Jumped Into Vehicle Without Alerting

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Felders v. Malcom on Friday, June 20, 2014.

Sherida Felders and her two young passengers were traveling through Utah on her way from California to Colorado when she was stopped by Officer Bairett for speeding. Bairett observed that Felders appeared nervous, she had an air freshener in her car, and she had a religious license plate holder, which made him suspicious that she was transporting drugs. He called for a K-9 unit to conduct a dog sniff, and Officer Malcom and dog Duke responded. Felders did not consent to a search of her vehicle, but the dog was allowed legally to sniff the outside of the vehicle without consent. As Felders and her passengers exited the vehicle, Bairett held the doors open and did not close them prior to the sniff. Duke immediately jumped inside the car without alerting and began to sniff the inside of the vehicle. After a two-hour search, no drugs were found in the vehicle. Felders and the two passengers subsequently brought this action, alleging violations of Fourth Amendment violations under 28 U.S.C. § 1983. Officer Malcom moved for summary judgment on the unlawful search claim on qualified immunity grounds. The district court denied summary judgment and this interlocutory appeal followed.

The district court found as a matter of law that Malcom could not establish probable cause to search the car prior to conducting the dog sniff and that material facts were in dispute regarding (1) whether Malcom’s canine, Duke, alerted prior to jumping into the vehicle; and (2) whether Malcom facilitated Duke’s entry into the vehicle prior to establishing probable cause. The Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court that Malcom did not have probable cause to search the vehicle prior to conducting the sniff. The facts provided by Bairett provided, at most, reasonable suspicion justifying the detention, and Malcom did not independently find any further evidence of wrongdoing.

As to whether Malcom facilitated Duke’s entry into the vehicle, the Tenth Circuit found that genuine issues of material fact existed as, precluding a grant of summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds as a matter of law. The Tenth Circuit noted that clearly established precedent prevented the officers from searching the inside of the vehicle until the dog alerted on the exterior sniff. Because the dog jumped into the car and it was not clear whether Malcom’s actions led the dog to enter the vehicle, summary judgment was inappropriate. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of summary judgment to Malcom on qualified immunity grounds.

SB 14-193: Requiring Governmental Entity to Obtain a Warrant Before Obtaining Location Information from an Electronic Device

On April 14, 2014, Sen. Morgan Carroll introduced SB 14-193 – Concerning Conforming Colorado Law on Location Information with the Fourth Amendment as Interpreted by the United States Supreme Court in United States v. Jones. This summary is published here courtesy of the Colorado Bar Association’s e-Legislative Report.

A United States supreme court decision held that the use of a GPS device to monitor a vehicle’s movement constituted a search requiring the government to obtain a search warrant. With certain specified exceptions, the bill prohibits a governmental entity from obtaining location information from an electronic device without first obtaining a search warrant.

If location information or evidence derived from location information is used in a court proceeding, all parties must receive a copy of the search warrant and application at least 10 days prior to the proceeding. A judge may waive the 10-day requirement in certain circumstances.

The bill is assigned to the Judiciary Committee.

Since this summary, the Judiciary Committee referred the bill, amended, to the Senate Committee of the Whole.

Tenth Circuit: Defendants’ Convictions in Methamphetamine Trafficking Conspiracy Affirmed

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in United States v. Serrato on Friday, February 7, 2014.

Eddie Serrato and Sotero Negrete are drug dealers. In this case, they both were found guilty of multiple counts related to their involvement in a methamphetamine trafficking conspiracy centered in Casper, Wyoming. On appeal, Mr. Serrato raised four challenges to his conviction and sentence: (1) the prosecutor engaged in misconduct that violated his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights; (2) there was an unconstitutional variance between the crime charged (a single conspiracy) and the evidence presented at trial (two separate conspiracies); (3) the district court abused its discretion in its calculation of his offense level under the federal sentencing guidelines;  and (4) the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence obtained from a traffic stop that constituted an unconstitutional seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

Mr. Negrete raised arguments one and two above and added that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction of using or carrying a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

First, both defendants challenged as prosecutorial misconduct two separate remarks made by government counsel during trial—one in the course of making an objection during the defendant’s cross-examination of DEA Special Agent Ryan Cox, and the other in counsel’s rebuttal closing argument. They contended that the misconduct violated their constitutional rights under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

During cross-examination of Special Agent Cox, defense counsel asked whether the government had intercepted phone calls involving Mr. Serrato other than recordings from jail calls. Special Agent Cox responded that he believed they did have other such recordings. When defense counsel asked whether Agent Cox would play the recording, Agent Cox responded “I didn’t prepare it today.” Government counsel objected: “Your Honor,  I’m going to object now. Counsel has every bit of discovery. If counsel wants to play a recording, he can play it. It’s not Mr. Cox’s responsibility to bring the recordings for Mr. Pretty [Defendant Serrato’s attorney]. He’s got them in discovery.”

Mr. Serrato’s attorney then asked for a sidebar and moved for a mistrial on the basis that any insinuation that Mr. Serrato needed to put on evidence violated his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Mr. Negrete’s attorney joined in the motion. The district court denied the motion.

The second challenged remark occurred during the government’s rebuttal closing argument. The defense called into question the veracity of the testimony of a confidential informant. Government counsel stated: “If you remember, these defense counsel had an opportunity to ask Agent Malone whatever they wanted. They never asked him.” Counsel for Mr. Serrato objected. Mr. Negrete’s counsel immediately joined the objection, stating, “That’s prosecutorial—as instructed, no defendant has any obligation to present a single piece of evidence or a single question.” The district court overruled the objection.

The Tenth Circuit assumed without deciding that the government  counsel’s comments were improper. Nevertheless, despite the impropriety, the court did not view the comments in a vacuum. The district court immediately and specifically gave the jury a curative instruction. As for the prosecutor’s comment during his rebuttal argument that the defendants could have asked Agent Malone questions if they had wanted to, the court found that sustaining the objection would have been the better course. However, the Tenth Circuit did not view that manner of responding to the objection as an error of constitutional significance.

Second, Defendants argued that the government failed to prove at trial the existence of one single conspiracy as charged in the indictment, resulting in a fatal variance between the charge and the evidence. A variance arises when an indictment charges a single conspiracy but the evidence presented at trial proves only the existence of multiple conspiracies. A variance is reversible error only if it affects the substantial rights of the accused.

The court concluded that the defendants’ actions, particularly providing assistance to Mr. Negrete in selling methamphetamine provided by Mr. Serrato, were acts in furtherance of the shared objective of distributing drugs received from a common source. The evidence before the jury was substantial enough to allow it to draw the conclusion that there existed an ongoing, facilitative relationship between parties who were aware of the scope of one another’s activities. The Tenth Circuit held that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury’s conviction on the single conspiracy as charged.

Third, Mr. Serrato appealed the district court’s calculation of his offense level under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, arguing that a two-level increase for offenses involving the importation of methamphetamine should not have been applied. The court concluded that even if the district court erroneously included the importation enhancement in its calculation of the offense level—which the court neither reached nor decided—the error would be harmless.

Fourth, Mr. Serrato challenged the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence obtained from a stop of his vehicle on April 6, 2011. Mr. Serrato argued that the stop was an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The district court found that law enforcement knew from surveillance that cars, particularly out-of-state cars, would come to Mr. Negrete’s house for the purpose of delivering methamphetamine and would park in the garage; and that a delivery of methamphetamine to be later transported to Iowa was scheduled to occur on approximately April 6, 2011. On that date, law enforcement observed a Utah vehicle and an Iowa vehicle at Negrete’s house. They stopped the vehicle with the Utah plates after it left Mr. Negrete’s house to identify the driver whom they suspected of distributing methamphetamine to Mr. Negrete. The stop lasted approximately 10 minutes, and the only information that was obtained was the driver’s (Serrato’s) identification. The district court concluded that these facts established that law enforcement had a reasonable suspicion of Defendant Serrato’s involvement with illegal activity when they stopped him. The Tenth Circuit concluded that these facts gave rise to reasonable and articulable suspicion that Mr. Serrato’s vehicle was involved in drug activity and justified a traffic stop.

Finally, Mr. Negrete was convicted of knowingly using and carrying a firearm during the commission of a drug trafficking crime (namely, conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distribution of methamphetamine). Mr. Negrete challenged the sufficiency of evidence, arguing that the government did not place a specific firearm into evidence at trial. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, the court held that there was substantial evidence of Mr. Negrete’s guilt. The court did not know why a firearm was not placed in evidence, but the charge was proved by other means. The court was not persuaded that the jury’s determination should be overturned.


Tenth Circuit: Traffic Stop and Search Did Not Violate Fourth Amendment

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in United States v. Harmon on Tuesday, January 21, 2014.

Mr. Harmon, the appellant in this case, was driving a car across New Mexico with drugs in his spare tire. After weaving within his lane and crossing the fog line, Officer Lucero decided to stop the car on suspicion of violating a New Mexico statute that requires a driver to stay in his or her lane. During the traffic stop, the officer discovered the drugs, and Mr. Harmon was arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine and possession with intent to distribute 50 kilograms of marijuana.

He moved to suppress the evidence before trial, but the district court denied that motion. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit was asked to decide, among other things, whether the stop was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

On appeal, Mr. Harmon made the following arguments: (1) that Officer Lucero lacked sufficient reasonable suspicion to make the initial traffic stop; (2) that the scope of the search exceeded the initial justification for the stop; (3) that his motion to reopen ought to have been granted in light of Officer Lucero’s behavior in another case the Officer was involved in; and (4) that he received ineffective assistance of counsel in entering into his plea agreement.

First, the Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court that Officer Lucero had reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle on suspicion of impairment under New Mexico law. A traffic stop is a seizure for purposes of Fourth Amendment analysis, and the “reasonable suspicion” standard from Terry v. Ohio applies. An investigatory stop is justified at its inception if the specific and articulable facts and rational inferences drawn from those facts give rise to a reasonable suspicion a person has or is committing a crime. The court looks to the totality of circumstances to determine whether reasonable suspicion exists.

The Tenth Circuit held that Officer Lucero had reasonable suspicion that Mr. Harmon violated the New Mexico statute of driving while impaired when the tires of Mr. Harmon’s car crossed the white fog line that separates the right lane of the interstate from the shoulder. The statute states in part that “a vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from such lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety.” Under these facts, Officer Lucero could have had a reasonable suspicion of impairment.

Mr. Harmon also argued that Officer Lucero’s investigatory stop exceeded the scope of the initial justification, thereby violating the Fourth Amendment and entitling him to suppression of the drugs discovered in the car. Not only must the initial stop be justified, but the scope of the resulting detention must remain reasonably related to the initial justification. Once the officer has satisfied his initial reasonable suspicions, unless the officer obtains a new and independent basis for suspecting the detained individual of criminal activity, his investigation must end. However, counsel conceded during oral argument that the search was consensual.

Mr. Harmon also contended that the district court improperly denied his motion to reopen and reconsider the previous denial of the motion to suppress. In that motion, he also claimed that evidence regarding Officer Lucero’s omission in a report in an unrelated case constituted impeachment material that should have been disclosed prior to the suppression hearing. The Tenth Circuit found this argument unavailing for several reasons. First, Officer Lucero did not violate the Fourth Amendment in the other case. Second, there was no obligation that the report be exhaustive. Third, law enforcement may at times have legitimate reasons to keep certain information confidential. The court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in deciding that the evidence from the other case did not possess impeachment value and was unlikely to change the outcome of the suppression hearing.

The court rejected Mr. Harmon’s argument that he received ineffective assistance of counsel.