Just how far does the fourth amendment to the United States Constitution go to protect against a warrantless search of an apartment? That question was again considered this week by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in US v. Yoga Almonte-Baez, a case in which the petitioner was convicted of drug trafficking crimes and sentenced to 156 months in prison. On appeal, Almonte-Baez claimed that the warrantless search of an apartment violated his right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
Almonte-Baez was inside an apartment that was rented by another man – Jose Medina – who was the subject of an ongoing investigation by DEA. That investigation revealed a plot by two persons thought to be part of a drug-trafficking ring to rob Medina, whose apartment turned out to be a stash house for drugs and money. Investigators decided to act when they found out details of the attempted robbery plan, and located Medina’s car at the apartment complex. Medina was observed caring a trash bag so heavy that it required both hands to lift. He hoisted the trash bag into his car and they followed. The usual “traffic infraction stop” ensued, and an obviously nervous Medina ultimately consented to a search of his car after giving false information to officers. As he exited the car officers observed a large wad of cash sticking out of his pants pocket. In the trash bag they found $370,000 in cash, and there was more cash within the car in a box and other bags. The went back to the apartment building he had just come from, where the landlord identified the second story apartment he rented.
Inside the apartment, Almonte-Baez started running when agents identified themselves through the closed front door. They believed that he was trying to escape out the back door, and broke in through a side door to prevent his escape and / or destruction of drugs. They had no warrant. Inside that apartment they found the appellant trying to take down a barricade to make a hasty exit out the back door, and immediately took him into custody. They also found heroin and drug paraphernalia in plain view, records and notes of heroin sales, scales and packing materials. All of this, of course, without a warrant.
Investigators might have simply waited for a warrant before entering, but they did not. Instead, their actions were argued by the Government as a basis for an exception to the warrant requirement – exigent circumstances.
So – good search or bad search? The Court said that the search was reasonable in view of the circumstances. Investigators had seen Medina leave that building and drive away after hoisting a trash bag of money into his car. They found 20 kilograms of heroin and assorted drug processing tools within the apartment after first knocking on the door and hearing someone running toward a likely escape. Those circumstances amounted to exigent circumstances, justifying an immediate apprehension of the defendant and search of the residence. The test for the “exigent circumstances” exception is whether the Government can identify an objectively reasonable basis for concluding that absent some immediate action, the loss or destruction of evidence is likely. Here, the circumstances included the fact that Medina lied to investigators when he was stopped, and the fact that investigators knew from wiretaps that drug shipments were received weekly by Medina. Those facts led to the conclusion that there were likely drugs in the apartment and the person inside was running away or destroying the evidence. They also noticed the door was sealed shut – perhaps to further hide the presence of illegal drugs.
Here’s the takeaway for criminal practice: probable cause does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It requires proof adequate to ground an objectively reasonable belief that evidence of a crime is likely to be found on the premises to be entered. If the proof rises to that level, and there are exigent circumstances, the exception applies and the search is good.
The Court also noted that the “protective sweep” of the apartment after capturing Almonte-Baez was justified to make sure the location was safe in view of the petitioner’s actions. And it decided the case assuming that the petitioner had standing – that is – a protected interest in the place to be searched. The lower court had not addressed that issue, but it did not need to in view of the facts presented. There are cases that hold a person present at a stash house would not have standing to contest the search, although an overnight guest would. That wrinkle was not addressed.
Search and seizure cases are always challenging for attorneys representing persons accused of crimes. This case, decided May 12, 2017 by the First Circuit is a good example of the levels of complexity to be considered by the courts. A similar decision would almost certainly occur in the Ninth Circuit.
One additional consideration here – the case reminds me of the need to develop the facts underlying any such claim at the district court. The appellate courts generally will not substitute their view of the facts if the lower court’s version is supported by facts contained within the pleadings or presented at the hearing.