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Posts Tagged ‘suppression’

Fourth Amendment cases sometimes raise questions that (one hopes) would otherwise never need to be asked or answered. A Fourth Circuit panel’s split decision in United States v. Edwards appears to turn on the answer to just such a question.

In the course of (what the Fourth Circuit appears to treat as) a permissible search, a Baltimore City police officer located a plastic sandwich baggie containing several packets of cocaine tied around a man’s penis. The officer proceeded to cut the baggie off with a knife. According to a Fourth Circuit panel majority consisting of Judge Keenan and Judge Motz, this action violated the Fourth Amendment and required suppression. According to Judge Keenan’s majority opinion, “in the absence of exigent circumstances, the right of the police to seize contraband from inside Edwards’ underwear did not give the officers license to employ a method creating a significant and unnecessary risk of injury.”

As Judge Diaz points out in dissent, however, the record evidence does not support the majority’s assertion about the nature of the risk posed by the police’s actions. The majority suggests that the police could have requested and used blunt-edged scissors, but the knife may have been no riskier: “the record of the suppression hearing offers little information about the knife, the manner in which it was used to remove the contraband, or how long it took to accomplish the task. The district court, moreover, made no mention of the knife in its ruling. This omission was not an oversight, but rather reflected the fact that the knife was not the focus of the parties’ evidentiary presentations.”

At points, Judge Keenan’s opinion hints at another possible rationale for the majority’s ruling–that the use of a knife in this circumstance “could only cause fear and humiliation.” But the majority does not rest on this rationale, and never undertakes a comparative assessment of the fear and humiliation involved in alternative methods of removing a baggie from this sensitive location. As Judge Diaz points out, the alternatives of untying, removing, or tearing the baggie, “would require that officers physically touch Edwards’ penis. . . . [And] a rule that directs officers to place their hands on a defendant’s genitals as a first option for seizing contraband in a baggie that the defendant has chosen to strap to his penis seems no more attractive than the careful use of a knife.”

Judge Diaz argues not only that the police did not violate the Fourth Amendment, but also that, if they did so, suppression was not the appropriate remedy.In responding to this point, the majority contends that suppression here serves the goal of deterrence. According to Judge Keenan, “Baltimore City police officers conduct searches inside the underwear of about 50 percent of arrestees, in the same general manner as the strip search performed on Edwards.” But the majority does not seek to deter such searches, only the use of a knife to remove what some of those searches reveal. And this poses a more significant problem: If the behavior to be deterred is routine, and if it poses a significant and unnecessary risk of harm, then wouldn’t the police have made a stray cut before now?

This question, and others, are raised by the panel opinion. It will be interesting to see whether, and if so, how, the case is revisited in en banc proceedings.

For those who track such things, all three judges on the panel were appointed by Democrats. Two were appointed by President Obama (Judge Keenan and Judge Diaz) and one by President Clinton (Judge Motz). Two judges are female (Judge Keenan and Judge Motz) and one judge is male (Judge Diaz).

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Today’s split decision in United States v. Powell bristles with strong language on both sides. Writing for a panel majority consisting of himself and Judge Floyd, Judge Shedd upbraids the government and places this case among a trio of recent cases in which the government failed to justify a Terry stop and frisk:

In a case such as this, where law enforcement officers briefly pat down a person for safety reasons, reasonable suspicion that the person is armed and dangerous is necessary in order for the patdown to be lawful under the Fourth Amendment. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). Earlier this year, in United States v. Foster, 634 F.3d 243, 248 (4th Cir. 2011), we noted “our concern about the inclination of the Government toward using whatever facts are present, no matter how innocent, as indicia of suspicious activity.” Twice in the past few months, we reiterated this concern. See United States v. Massenburg, 654 F.3d 480, 482 (4th Cir. 2011); United States v. Digiovanni, 650 F.3d 498, 512 (4th Cir. 2011). In all three cases, we held that the Government failed to meet its minimal burden of articulating facts sufficient to support a finding of reasonable suspicion. Today, we once again are presented with a case in which the Government has attempted to meet its burden under Terry by cobbling together a set of facts that falls far short of establishing reasonable suspicion. For this reason, we vacate the judgment.

Responding in dissent, Judge King distinguishes between the justification for a Terry stop and the justification for a patdown, finding that the latter was present:

When a police officer’s life is on the line, common sense tells us that he should sooner be reasonable in his suspicion that a suspect may be armed and dangerous than in suspecting that a passerby is up to no good. The risk of dismissing a suspicion that a suspect may be armed is inherently perilous to arresting officers. As a result, the officers in this case were entitled to take reasonable steps to protect themselves and others after they received confirmation that Powell may be armed, even if that evidence might not have been sufficient for an initial Terry stop.

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit heard arguments this morning in the second of two pirate prosecutions in federal court in Norfolk, Virginia. The first appeal, which the court heard in the spring, has been held up on a procedural issue and is being stayed pending the decision of today’s consolidated appeals. This second appeal–United States v. Abdi Dire (the lead case, together for argument with four other appeals)–was the second argued this morning in the Red Courtroom on the fourth floor of the Lewis F. Powell, Jr. Courthouse in Richmond. These appeals arise out of the convictions, after trial, of five Somali pirates for their attack on the U.S.S. Nicholas (preview post here). (UPDATE: For an AP write-up of the argument, see here.)

The panel that heard arguments was the same panel that heard arguments in the appeal arising out of the U.S.S. Ashland prosecution: Judge King, Judge Davis, and Judge Keenan.

Appellants divided their argument among three lawyers, each of whom addressed a distinct issue: whether the facts proven amounted to piracy under the law of nations; whether certain statements made by the captured pirates should be suppressed; and whether three 924(c) counts should be merged for sentencing.

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In a published opinion authored by Judge Davis in United States v. Massenburg, the Fourth Circuit says no. Judge Motz and Judge Wynn joined the opinion.The decision orders suppression of evidence seized during a non-consensual patdown in Richmond, Virginia.

The facts, as summarized at the beginning of the opinion:

Responding one night to an anonymous tip that shots were fired in a high-crime neighborhood, Richmond police encountered four young men, including appellant Tyerail Massenburg, four blocks from the reported gunfire. When an officer approached them in a marked police car, the men were not evasive; they continued walking forward, toward the car, and voluntarily paused to speak with the officer upon the officer’s request. In fact, they were cooperative: one of the men reported that he had heard shots fired from a passing car two blocks away and handed over his identification when asked; and at least two of the men consented to voluntary pat-downs. Appellant Massenburg stopped with his friends, but he refused to consent to a frisk. As the officer interacting with Massenburg testified, he first thought Massenburg nervous when he began asking him to consent to a pat-down and Massenburg was “real reluctant to give consent.” J.A. 48. Based on the fact that appellant stood a foot or two away from the other men, who were shoulder-to-shoulder, and did not make eye contact as the officer renewed his requests for aconsensual search, the officer undertook a nonconsensual search. The search produced a firearm and some marijuana,the subjects of the suppression motion at issue here.

The introductory portion of the opinion concludes:

We recently warned against the Government’s proffering “whatever facts are present, no matter how innocent, as indicia of suspicious activity” and noted that we were”deeply troubled by the way in which the Government attempts to spin . . . mundane acts into a web of deception.” United States v. Foster, 634 F.3d 243, 248 (4th Cir. 2011) [Gregory, J., joined by Motz, J., and Wynn, J.].This concern is only heightened when the “mundane acts”emerge from the refusal to consent to a voluntary search. If the important limitations on the “stop and frisk” regime crafted by Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), are not to become dead letters, refusing to consent to a search cannot itself justify a nonconsensual search.

The opinion also contains an extensive discussion of the collective knowledge doctrine, rejecting the Government’s attempt to defend the patdown on the basis of another officer’s uncommunicated pre-patdown observation of a “bulge” under Massenburg’s clothing.

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The Fourth Circuit has affirmed the suppression of drugs seized during a traffic stop on I-95 in Maryland. Senior Judge Hamilton wrote the opinion in United States v. Digiovanni, which Judges Motz and Diaz joined.

A few tidbits from the opinion are after the jump below. From the non-specialist point of view, there seem to be a few take-aways for civilian motorists and law enforcement alike. For civilian motorists: (1) pack your shirts in a garment bag, or you might be suspected of being a drug trafficker; (2) don’t keep your car too clean, or you might be suspected of being a drug trafficker; (3) never off-handedly say “oh boy” while answering an officer’s question; (4) when asked if you use marijuana, don’t say “I never smoked marijuana in my life. It makes me sleepy.” Most important, don’t agree to transport over 34,000 oxycodone pills from Miami to Boston. The take-away for law enforcement is to get consent faster, running through questions after plugging in license information.

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