Monday, November 25, 2013
Federal Appeals Court Tosses Drug Evidence After Unlawful Search
By JUSTIN LEVINE, Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that evidence seized from a residence in a drug case should have been suppressed following a warrantless search from DEA agents who asked a visiting house guest if they could enter the premises.
The panel reversed a Riverside man’s conviction for possession of a controlled substance.
Agents had approached the home of Omar Arreguin to conduct a “knock and talk” investigation where law enforcement officials approach the front door of a residence and seek to speak to an occupant for the purpose of gathering evidence.
Arreguin lived in the house with his wife and child, along with Elias Valencia who was described as a houseguest.
Valencia opened the front door to the agents after they had knocked several times around 11 a.m. He allowed agents in after they informed him that they were familiar with the house due to previous drug-related activity and asked to enter. Arreguin and his wife were present in the room, but did not voice any objections.
Before entering, agents peered through the doorway and saw Arreguin carrying a shoebox which left his possession after “disappearing and reappearing from view” numerous times.
After Arreguin began walking to his bedroom out of sight, agents followed him to a hallway and asked that he return to the entrance area. At that point, they headed further into the residence to conduct what was described as a “cursory safety sweep.”
Their search led them into the bedroom and master bathroom where they found and seized the shoebox which contained a “white powdery substance.”
Agents continued in to Arreguin’s garage through a doorway attached to his bedroom. There they found a Gucci bag containing $176,990.
After seizing the items, they informed Arreguin that they would not refer his wife to immigration authorities if he cooperated. Arreguin then signed a written consent-to-search form and led the agents to a stash of methamphetamine in his garage.
A district judge denied Arreguin’s motion to suppress evidence based on a warrantless search, prompting him to enter a conditional guilty plea and appeal.
The Ninth Circuit unanimously reversed and remanded the case, holding that the seized shoebox and Gucci bag of cash violated Arreguin’s Fourth Amendment rights.
Writing for the court, Senior Judge Alfred Goodwin said that agents could not rely on consent doctrines to enter the home because they “knew far too little to hold an objectively reasonable belief that Valencia could consent to a search” of the house.
“When the Agents obtained Valencia’s consent to ‘look around’ the Residence,” Goodwin said, “they knew virtually nothing about: (1) him; (2) the various separate rooms and areas inside the Residence; or (3) the nature and extent of Valencia’s connection to those separate areas.”
He said that agents chose not to ask Valencia any additional questions about his relationship to the house and could not conduct searches under the theory that “ignorance is bliss.”
Goodwin also dismissed the government’s arguments that the search was lawful under the “protective sweep” doctrine, holding that the issue was never raised in the initial district court proceedings or appellant briefs and was therefore waived. He also rejected the argument that the “plain view” exception to warrantless searches applied in this instance since the initial entry into the residence was unlawful to begin with in light of Valencia’s lack of authority to provide consent.
Goodwin directed the district court to enter an order granting Arreguin’s motion to suppress the shoe box, the white substance, the Gucci bag, and the cash. He also ordered the lower court to consider if all other evidence gathered subsequently to Arreguin’s written consent form should be suppressed as part of the “fruits of the poisonous tree” doctrine.
The case is United States v. Arreguin, 12-50484.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company