Friday, November 2, 2007
Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Rules:
Officers May Enter Residences to Execute Bench Warrants
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Police officers who possess a valid bench warrant for the arrest of a person who has failed to appear at a court hearing, do not violate the Fourth Amendment by entering into a person’s residence to execute the warrant, a panel of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled.
Affirming the conviction of Kenneth Dale Gooch based on evidence ultimately obtained as a result of police officers’ entry into his residence to execute a bench warrant against his roommate, the panel held yesterday that a properly issued bench warrant issued by a neutral magistrate judge carries the limited authority to enter a residence to the extent necessary to effectuate an arrest.
Writing for the panel, Judge Betty B. Fletcher agreed with U.S. District Judge William F. Nielsen of the Eastern District of Washington that Payton v. New York (1980) 445 U.S. 573 permits entry into a residence to effectuate a valid arrest warrant, regardless of the precise nature of the underlying warrant.
In doing so, Fletcher rejected Gooch’s argument that the bench warrant was not supported by probable cause as required by the Fourth Amendment because failure to appear for a court hearing was not actually a crime under Washington law.
The matter arose after Officer Alan Edwards of the Spokane Police Department approached a stopped car on March 20, 2004. The car contained Michael A. Conn, whom Edwards said he knew to reside nearby from a prior arrest.
While Edwards ran a warrant check, according to testimony at the suppression hearing, Conn jumped from the car and fled in the direction of his residence, and Edwards pursued on foot.
Edwards did not see Conn enter the residence, but as he approached he heard a commotion at the back door, the only useable entrance. While waiting for backup to arrive, he also received radio confirmation that Conn was the subject of an outstanding arrest warrant.
Edwards had no specific information regarding the warrant other than that it was related to a misdemeanor charge, and identified the residence as being Conn’s address. The government later introduced records during the appellate phase indicating that the warrant was a bench warrant issued for Conn’s failure to appear at a hearing to revoke his probation.
Once backup arrived, Edwards and another officer entered the residence without consent, and immediately went to Conn’s bedroom. Not finding Conn, they continued to search the rest of the residence, including a bedroom rented by Gooch.
During the course of the search, the officers saw several residue coated spoons and other paraphernalia in both Conn and Gooch’s bedrooms, suggesting heroin use. However, Conn, who was later discovered to have been hiding in the attic, was not found or arrested during the search.
Based on his observations in the residence, Edwards later prepared an affidavit for a search warrant for the residence, which issued and was executed on March 28, 2004.
When officers executing the search warrant entered Gooch’s bedroom, he was lying asleep on his bed. The officers announced their presence, told Gooch to lie on his stomach, and ordered him to keep his hands visible.
Gooch initially complied, but as the officers approached he moved his hands towards pillows at the head of the bed so the officers drew their weapons and ordered Gooch to stop moving. Once Gooch was handcuffed, they discovered three loaded firearms underneath the pillows.
Gooch was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.
At trial, he moved to suppress the evidence obtained under the search warrant, arguing that the bench warrant for Conn’s arrest did not permit the earlier entry into the residence. Without that entry, he contended, the police had no basis to seek the search warrant that led to his arrest.
Nielsen denied Gooch’s motion, concluding that the officers had authority to enter the residence in order to effectuate the arrest warrant under Payton, which holds that an arrest warrant founded on probable cause implicitly carries limited authority to enter a suspect’s dwelling when there is reason to believe the suspect is inside.
As a result, Gooch was convicted as charged.
On appeal Gooch renewed his challenge to officer’s reliance on the arrest warrant. His attorney, Bryan P. Whitaker, argued that failure to appear for a court hearing was not actually a crime under Washington law, meaning that the warrant was therefore not supported by probable cause that Conn had committed a crime, and violated the Fourth Amendment.
However, Fletcher adopted reasoning set forth by the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in United States v. Spencer (1982) 684 F.2d 220, and reasoned that Payton permits entry into a residence to effectuate a valid arrest warrant, regardless of underlying warrant’s nature.
Pointing out that the Second Circuit had rejected an identical argument, Fletcher wrote:
“The Fourth Amendment presumption against warrantless entries into the home is designed to protect privacy interests against uncabined police discretion… Those interests are sufficiently safeguarded when an entry is premised on the execution of a valid arrest warrant issued by a judge or magistrate, regardless of whether that warrant is for a felony, a misdemeanor, or simply a bench warrant for failure to appear.”
“Here, the police held a valid warrant for Conn’s arrest, a warrant that bore the confirmed address of the residence police entered after following Conn. The entry and subsequent search for Conn were reasonable and permissible under Payton and the Fourth Amendment.”
Fletcher noted that the decision was consistent with the court’s prior decision in United States v. Albrektsen (1998) 151 F.3d 951, where it held that police were not permitted to pass beyond the doorway and enter a suspect’s hotel room in order to execute a misdemeanor arrest warrant.
“The outcome in Albrektsen,” she said, “…was based on the fact that entry into the arrestee’s room was unnecessary because the police had already apprehended him in the doorway, and so our decision there did not turn on the nature of the underlying warrant.”
Fletcher wrote that, because officers had not been able to arrest Conn at the threshold of the residence, or even in his bedroom, Albrektsen did not place restrictions on entry based on the character of the warrant at issue, and the decision’s limitations on the scope of entry were not implicated.
Sweeping aside Gooch’s remaining arguments related to claimed errors at trial as “without merit” and “easily resolved,” Fletcher upheld the conviction.
She was joined in her opinion by Judge Ronald M. Gould, and U.S. District Judge Stephen G. Larson of the Central District of California, sitting by designation.
A spokesperson for the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington indicated that the office was pleased and satisfied that the court had upheld the right of police officers to rely on judicial orders and warrants.
However Whitaker maintained his contention that such warrants were not supported by probable cause, and he told the MetNews that he expected that his client would either move for reconsideration or appeal the decision.
The case is United States v. Gooch, No. 06-30645.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company