Case Law Update


SCENARIO: Donahue was convicted in federal court in Pennsylvania on several fraud charges. He was ordered to surrender at a certain time/place to begin serving his 10 year sentence. He didn’t show up. A warrant was issued for his arrest.

Two weeks later Marshals apprehended him in New Mexico after entering his son’s car outside a motel. Marshals seized the car and searched it without a warrant. Inside the car, the marshals found various maps and several closed bags, which were not opened. The next day an FBI agent drove the car to an FBI facility. Agents searched the car again without a warrant. Agents seized behind the driver’s seat a Glock .40 caliber magazine. Agents then seized the closed bags from the trunk of the car. FBI agents searched those five days after Donahue’s arrest and found a Glock pistol.

Donahue was indicted for weapons violations and failure to surrender. Donahue moved to suppress the warrantless search as a violation of his Fourth Amendment.

1. Was the search of this car, the day of, the day after, and five days after the impound, without a search warrant legal?

ANSWERS: The Federal Law Enforcement Informer (FLETC-Legal Training Division) September 2014 Third Circuit United States v. Donahue, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 16221 (3d Cir. Pa. Aug. 22, 2014)

1. YES. The court ruled that federal agents established probable cause to search the car without a warrant under the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

a. “The automobile exception allows police officers to conduct vehicle searches without a warrant if there is probable cause to believe the vehicle contains evidence of a crime. Once probable cause is established, officers are allowed to search every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search. In addition, officers are allowed to search an impounded vehicle, without a warrant, after the officers have secured the vehicle and the loss of evidence is not a concern, even if the officers had time to obtain a search warrant.”

2. In this case the court held that it was reasonable to believe the car contained items that Donahue knowingly failed to surrender to federal authorities.

a. Marshals testified that fugitives often keep false identification documents in places that are readily accessible, such as their cars.

b. “Once the marshals established probable cause to search the car, the Mustang, the court concluded the marshals were entitled to seize the closed bags located in the trunk, and the five-day delay between the seizure of the Mustang and the search of the closed bags was immaterial.”


SCENARIO: A lawful traffic stop was initiated on Iraheta. Iraheta was directed to exit the car and speak with the officer while Gonzalez and Meraz-Garcia were told to remain in the vehicle. During the stop the officer found the men were traveling from California to Miami. At some point during this stop the officer asked for permission to search the car for narcotics and Iraheta consented.

Gonzalez and Meraz-Garcia did not hear the exchange between the officer and Iraheta. When the officer opened the trunk he saw several duffel bags. None of the bags were marked in a way that identified the owner and none of the men objected to the search or claimed ownership of the bags. Cocaine and Methamphetamine were found in at least one of the bags.

Each defendant filed a motion to suppress the drugs found in the bag.

1. Was this consent search legal?

ANSWERS: The Federal Law Enforcement Informer (FLETC-Legal Training Division) September 2014 Fifth Circuit United States v. Iraheta, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 15960 (4th Cir. La. Aug. 19, 2014)

1. NO. Not for Gonzalez and Meraz-Garcia

a. The court denied Iraheta’s motion, but suppressed the evidence as to Gonzalez and Meraz-Garcia

b. The court held both Gonzalez and Meraz-Garcia had standing to object to the search of the duffel bag. The court also recognized that a person who abandons or disclaims ownership of property prior to the search does not have standing to challenge a search after his abandonment or disclaimer of that property.

c. In this case Gonzalez and Meraz-Garcia did not deny ownership of the bag (since no one asked them) before the officer searched it, consequently, neither man had abandoned the bag; therefore, both had standing to object to the search of the duffle bag.

d. Iraheta did not have actual authority to consent to the search of the multiple bags located in the trunk. The officer failed to establish that Iraheta had joint access or mutual use of the bags (the number of bags was consistent with three men traveling across the country). The officer should have inquired into the ownership of the many bags.

e. Neither Gonzalez nor Meraz-Garcia heard Iraheta grant consent to search and the officer never told them he had done so. The court said “The onus was on the officers to act reasonably.”


SCENARIO: Wade Miles, homeless with his shopping cart, tried to board a TRAX car. He was stopped by an employee saying he could not bring his shopping cart onto the train. Miles was also intoxicated and was told to leave or police would be called.

A TRAX supervisor showed up and asked Miles to leave after which Miles stated that if he had a knife or gun he would shoot and kill the supervisor.

Police arrived and after FST Miles was arrested for Intox and trespass. He was asked if he had any weapons and said he did not. Nothing was found on his person. A search of his personal belongings located a folding pocket knife in a pocket of one of Miles jackets. Miles said he purchased it at Wal-Mart and used it for camping. The knife blade is three and a half inches with a one inch serrated portion next to the handle. The blade also features a thumb stud.

Miles was arrested and tried for criminal trespass; threats against life or property; intoxication; and purchase, transfer, possession, or use of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person.

1. Was Miles in possession of a dangerous weapon?

ANSWER: Utah Supreme Court v. Miles 10/24/2014 NO.

a. The Utah Court of Appeals originally said Miles was in possession of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person.

b. In October 2014 the Utah Supreme Court overturned the Utah Court of Appeals and said Miles was NOT in possession of a dangerous weapon.

The court quoted 501(6)(b) which sets out four factors that must be used to determine whether a knife, specifically, is a dangerous weapon:

c. The character of the instrument, object, or thing;

d. The character of the wound produced, if any;

e. The manner in which the instrument, object, or thing was used and

f. The other lawful purposes for which the instrument, object, or thing may be used.

“The purpose of this statutory factor is to distinguish ordinary knifes, those not commonly known as dangerous weapons, from knives that are in fact dangerous weapons.”


SCENARIO: Sheehan, a woman suffering from a mental illness, lived in a group home that accommodated such persons. Sheehan’s social worker became concerned about her deteriorating condition because Sheehan was not taking her medications. Upon entering Sheehan’s room he was told to get out, she had a knife and threatened to kill him. The group home was cleared of people; police were called to help transport Sheehan to a mental health facility for an involuntary commitment for evaluation and treatment.

Officers Reynolds and Holder arrived. The social worker apprised them of the evacuation of residents and staff and the only way out was through Sheehan’s door as the window was too high up and was not accessible without a ladder.

Officers entered Sheehan’s room without a warrant to confirm the social workers assessment, and to take Sheehan into custody. Upon seeing the officers Sheehan grabbed her knife and threatened to kill them. She did not want to go to a mental health facility. Officers backed out and called back up.Before back up arrived Reynolds and Holder drew their weapons and forced their way back into Sheehan’s room. Sheehan again threatened the officers with a knife and was shot 5-6 times.

She survived and sued the officers claiming the officers violated her Fourth Amendment rights by entering her room without a warrant and using excessive force.

1. Was the officers’ first entry into Sheehan’s room lawful?

2. Was the officers’ second entry into Sheehan’s room lawful?

ANSWERS: The Federal Law Enforcement Informer, December 2014 (FLETC) San Francisco v. Sheehan 743 F.3d 1211 (9th Cir. 2014) Case currently before the 2015 United States Supreme Court

1. YES. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held the officers first warrantless entry into Sheehan’s room was justified under the emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

a. “The court concluded that when the offices first entered Sheehan’s room, they had an objectively reasonable basis to believe Sheehan was in need of emergency medical assistance based on the information provided by Sheehan’s social worker.”

2. Possibly. The court held that the officers ‘may’ have been justified in entering Sheehan’s room the second time, the court found there were unresolved factual issues that had to be determined by a jury and not the court.

a. Sheehan produced evidence that officers deviated from the training received when dealing with people who are mentally ill. If this was true then the court could find officers had acted unreasonably by forcing their way into the room and provoking a near fatal confrontation.

b. Based on this probability the court found officers were NOT entitled to qualified immunity. “The court concluded prior case law would have placed any reasonable, competent officer on notice that it is unreasonable to forcibly enter the home of an armed, mentally ill subject who has been acting irrationally and threatening others, when there was no objective need for immediate entry.”

A side note: To answer the justification of the shooting the court held that the use of deadly force at the moment of the shooting was reasonable because Sheehan posed an immediate threat of danger to the officers’ safety. However the court held that officers may be held liable if they intentionally or recklessly provoke a violent confrontation. Those actions may rise to the level of a ‘separate’ Fourth Amendment issue.

The United States Supreme Court is heading this case in 2015. What they will be deciding is:

• Whether Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires law enforcement officers to provide accommodations to an armed, violent, and mentally ill suspect in the course of bringing the suspect into custody.

• Whether it was clearly established that even where an exception to the warrant requirement applied, an entry into a residence could be unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment by reason of the anticipated resistance of an armed and violent suspect within.


SCENARIO: Officers went to Denson’s house to serve an outstanding warrant for absconding probation. After developing information that Denson was inside the house the officers entered and arrested Denson. While conducting a protective sweep, officers saw several firearms in a closet and seized them. Denson was indicted for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Denson argued the firearms should be suppressed as there was no reasonable suspicion to believe Denson was in the house. Secondly Denson argued the finding of the weapons was the result of an unlawful protective sweep.

1. The court cited a number of reasons the entry to arrest Denson was lawful without a search warrant. Several of these are listed below in answer #1.

2. Was the protective sweep of the home lawful?

3. Was the seizure of the firearms lawful?

ANSWERS: United States Supreme Court v. Denson, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 24616 (10th Cir. Kan. Dec. 30, 2014) 1. First the court ruled on the information law enforcement had to enter the home without a warrant to arrest Denson. The court cited:

a. “An arrest warrant implicitly carries with it the limited authority to enter a dwelling in which the suspect lives when there is reason to believe the suspect is inside.”

b. Denson had recently opened a utility account in his name at this house.

c. Denson had no other residence known to law enforcement d. Denson had not reported any earning which suggested he may be at home at 0830 when officers arrived at his residence e. Denson had absconded and was hiding from law enforcement f. The electric meter appeared to be running very fast, an indication that someone might be inside using electrical devices.

2. YES. The protective sweep was lawful for a number of reasons including:

a. Law enforcement knew Denson was a fugitive with a history of violent crime

b. Officers at the scene knew a second person was living with Denson who also had arrest warrants outstanding

c. These facts alone gave officers reasonable suspicion that someone else may be inside and could be dangerous to officers

3. YES. The seizure of the firearms was lawful. As a convicted felon Denson violates federal law by actually or constructively possessing firearms. “A felon constructively possesses a firearm if he ‘knowingly holds the power to exercise or control over them.’” Here Denson listed himself as the primary account holder with the utility company. The firearms were found in an unlocked closet that could easily be accessed by either Denson or another resident. Therefore Denson ‘constructively’ possessed the weapons.

Here you can see the ‘details’ listed in the officers police reports held great sway over the court in their ruling. The smallest details add up support reasonable suspicion and probable cause.


SCENARIO: Officers suspected Milton was involved in a string of burglaries. Responding to his apartment complex, in a high-crime area of the city they learned Milton lived in apartment 108. After knocking and identifying themselves they heard noises inside the apartment but no one answered. After a few minutes officers went to the parking lot to inspect Milton’s car. While in the parking lot a resident called to them that someone was running from apartment 108. Two officers ran back to the complex and encountered Hood who was facing a corner of the building with his back toward the officers. Although it was an unseasonably warm day, Hood was wearing a winter jacket and making motions as if he was trying to remove something from his inside jacket pocket. Believing that Hood might be reaching for a weapon, the officers drew their firearms and ordered Hood to the ground. On the ground Hood still appeared to be grasping for something inside his jacket. One of the officers asked Hood if he had a firearm underneath him. Hood replied, “I don’t know.” Officers handcuffed and frisked Hood removing a pistol from his right inside pocket of his jacket.

Hood filed a motion to suppress saying there was no reasonable suspicion to stop and frisk him.

1. Was there enough reasonable suspicion to stop, detain, and frisk Hood for weapons?

ANSWERS: United States Supreme Court v. Hood, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 24239 (10th Cir. Okla. Dec. 17, 2014)

1. YES. The court listed the following as reasons to deny the motion to suppress:

a. Officers were investigating a burglary in a high-crime area

b. A resident of the apartment complex alerted officers that a person was running from the apartment where their suspect lived

c. When confronting Hood he was wearing a winter jacket, despite the warm day

d. Officers saw Hood fumbling in his jacket pockets which they believed might indicate he was attempting to remove a weapon e. Once Hood failed to fully comply with the officers’ commands, and told the officers he did not know whether he had a firearm in his jacket, the officers were justified in handcuffing and frisking him to determine whether he was armed.


SCENARIO: While driving between Nephi & Mona, Utah a motorist (informant) pulled behind an older white motorhome. the motorhome weaved in and out of its lane and varied its speed anywhere from 15 to 40 miles per hour. When given the chance the motorist passed the motorhome and observed a “little redheaded boy” behind the wheel.

Once in front of the motorhome the motorist (informant) called a Juab County deputy he knew and informed him about the motorhome on Old Highway 91 with a “kid” who was perhaps eight to ten years old at the helm “weaving around and going slow and fast.”

The deputy who was home at the time jumped into his patrol truck and within minutes was at an intersection with Old Highway 91 to observe. Shortly after arriving his informant drove by and about three blocks back an older white motorhome drove by. The driver was NOT a red-haired boy but an adult male with a goatee and dark bandana on his head. The deputy saw no traffic violation but stopped the motorhome anyway.

Dennis Rose was driving with his wife and children one of which was red headed. Rose was arrested for DUI after failing FST and a PBT.

The Defense appealed saying there was no reasonable suspicion to stop the motorhome.

1. Was there enough reasonable suspicion to stop the motor home?

ANSWERS: Utah Court of Appeals Utah v. Dennis Gordon Rose February 26, 2015)

1. YES. This is where, once again, the court brings up the ‘Totality of Circumstances.’ The defense attacked that the motorhome committed no traffic violation, there was no redheaded kid behind the wheel and the informants tip lacked specific information such as a license plate. The court spelled it out as to why they affirmed the decision:

a. “To be lawful at its inception, the traffic stop must be supported by a reasonable suspicion that a person has been, is, or is about to be, engaged in criminal activity. State v. Roybal, 2010 Utah.

b. “In reviewing a suppression ruling, we do not look at the information the officer possessed at the time of the stop in isolation, (emphasis added) but ‘look to the totality of the circumstances to determine whether, taken together, the facts warranted further investigation by the police officer.’” State v. Alverez, 2006 Utah.

c. “The reasonable suspicion standard does not require that the officer actually observe the violation. Morris, 2011 Utah.

d. “An informant’s tip creates reasonable suspicion if the information (1) is reliable, (2) provides sufficient detail of the criminal activity, and (3) is confirmed by the investigating officer.” State v. Prows, 2007 Utah.

2. The court said the defenses contention totally disregarded the ‘totality of circumstances’ of the appeal. They cited: Old Highway 91 was mere minutes away from where the deputy lived, while at the intersection his informant passed by, followed immediately by a motorhome. The deputy observed no other traffic on the highway. Based on those facts it was reasonable for the deputy to stop this motorhome.