Category Archives: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals

Drug-Sniffing Dogs

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In United States v. Gorman, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Fourth Amendment was violated when an officer unreasonably prolonged an initial traffic stop and radioed for a drug-sniffing dog after because he thought there were drugs in the car.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In January 2013, a police officer stopped Straughn Gorman on Interstate-80 outside Wells, Nevada for a minor traffic infraction. The officer thought Gorman might be carrying drug money. Acting on this concern, he unsuccessfully attempted to summon a drug-sniffing dog and then prolonged Gorman’s roadside detention, which lasted nearly half an hour, as he conducted a non-routine records check.

Unable to justify searching the vehicle, he questioned Gorman further and finally released him without a citation.

Undeterred, the officer then developed the bright idea of contacting the sheriff’s office in Elko, a city further along Gorman’s route, to request that one of their officers stop Gorman a second time. The first officer conveyed his suspicions that Gorman was carrying drug money, described Gorman’s vehicle and direction of travel, and reported that his traffic stop had provided no basis for a search. “You’re going to need a dog,” he said. A second officer, who had a dog with him, then made a special trip to the highway to intercept Gorman’s vehicle.

The second officer saw Gorman and eventually believed he had found a traffic reason to pull him over. Following the second stop, the second officer performed a series of redundant record checks and conducted a dog sniff. The dog signaled the odor of drugs or drug-tainted currency. On the basis of the dog’s alert, the second officer obtained a search warrant, searched the vehicle, and found $167,070 in cash in various interior compartments.

No criminal charges arising from this incident were ever brought against Gorman. Instead, the government attempted to appropriate the seized money through civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement officials to “seize . . . property without any predeprivation judicial process and to obtain forfeiture of the property even when the owner is personally innocent.” Leonard v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 847, 847 (2017).

Gorman contested the forfeiture by arguing that the coordinated stops violated the Fourth Amendment. He prevailed. The federal district court ordered that his money be returned and also awarded him attorneys’ fees. The Government appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals (1) affirmed the lower court’s order granting claimant’s motion to suppress evidence seized pursuant to a traffic stop; (2) affirmed the award of attorneys’ fees; and (3) held that the search of claimant’s vehicle following coordinated traffic stops violated the Constitution.

The Court of Appeals held that the first stop of claimant’s vehicle was unreasonably prolonged in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court reasoned that the Supreme Court has made clear that traffic stops can last only as long as is reasonably necessary to carry out the “mission” of the stop, unless police have an independent reason to detain the motorist longer. The “mission” of a stop includes “determining whether to issue a traffic ticket” and “checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.” Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609, 1615 (2015).

Additionally, the Court held that the dog sniff and search of claimant’s vehicle during the coordinated second vehicle stop followed directly in an unbroken causal chain of events from that constitutional violation; and consequently, the seized currency from the second stop was the “fruit of the poisonous tree” and was properly suppressed under the exclusionary rule.

Finally, the Court held that none of the exceptions to the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine – the “independent source” exception, the “inevitable discovery” exception, and the “attenuated basis” exception – applied to claimant’s case.

Good decision.

Ninth Circuit Strikes Nevada Statutory Scheme Allowing Pretextual Stops

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In United States v. Orozco, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a statute allowing Nevada law enforcement officers to stop and search commercial vehicles for no reason violates the Fourth Amendment as unlawfully pretextual.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2013, law enforcement received a tip that defendant Victor Orozco – a commercial truck driver – regularly transported illegal drugs across the border inside his semi truck. Unbeknownst to Orozco, Nevada had a statutory and administrative scheme  allowing its police officers to pull over and search commercial vehicles for contraband under the notion that these searched perform a public safety purpose.

On April 27, 2013, the tipster said Orozco would be driving through White Pine County,
Nevada. Trooper Zehr of the Nevada Highway Patrol was advised of the vehicle and its location. He was told he would have to develop his own probable cause to get the vehicle stopped because there could possibly be drugs in the vehicle, but there was nothing solid.

Troopers targeted Orozco’s truck and pulled it over. They discovered the truck had made several trips across the border. Eventually, a K-9 officer dog arrived and made a positive alert as to the presence of drugs. The troopers found a duffel bag containing twenty-six pounds of methamphetamine and six pounds of heroin in the sleeper compartment.

Prior to trial, Orozco moved to suppress the drug evidence on the ground that the inspection of his vehicle was an impermissible pretext “motivated by a desire to search for evidence of drug trafficking, rather than to conduct a commercial vehicle inspection.” However, because “safety inspections” were part of a facially valid administrative scheme, the district judge held that the stop of Orozco’s truck was lawful. Later, Orozco was convicted of two counts of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance for which he was sentenced to 192 months in prison.

LEGAL ISSUE ON APPEAL

Orozco appealed his conviction on the issue of whether the stop was justified under the administrative search doctrine, which permits stops and searches, initiated in furtherance of a valid administrative scheme, to be conducted in the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

In short, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s denial of Orozco’s motion to suppress, vacated his conviction for two counts of drug possession arising from the stop of his vehicle and remanded the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

“Nevada Highway Patrol troopers made the stop in order to investigate criminal activity, even though they lacked the quantum of evidence necessary to justify the stop,” reasoned the Court of Appeals. Based on that, the stop was not justified under the administrative search doctrine, which permits stops and searches, initiated in furtherance of a valid administrative scheme, to be conducted in the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

The Court of Appels further reasoned that although an administrative scheme allowing Nevada law enforcement officers to make stops of commercial vehicles and conduct limited inspections without reasonable suspicion was valid on its face because its purpose was to ensure the safe operation of commercial vehicles, the evidence in this case, however, established beyond doubt that the stop of the defendant’s vehicle was a pretext for a stop to investigate information of suspected criminal activity short of that necessary to give rise to reasonable suspicion.

“The stop would not have been made in the absence of a tip that the defendant was possibly carrying narcotics. Accordingly, the stop was a pretextual stop that violated the Fourth Amendment.”

The Court further emphasized that the presence of a criminal investigatory motive, by itself, does not render an administrative stop pretextual, and nor does a dual motive—one valid and one impermissible. “Rather, the defendant must show that the stop would not have occurred in the absence of an impermissible reason.”

With that, the Court reversed Orozco’s convictions.

My opinion? Good decision. Pretextual stops are often used by police officers as an excuse to initiate a stop and search of automobiles suspected of being involved in criminal activity. These stops involve police officers stopping drivers for traffic violations – minor or otherwise – to conduct investigations which are separate and unrelated to the original reasons substantiating the stop. Pretextual traffic stops give police officer a lot of discretion in who they choose to stop and for what reasons. Too much discretion. Again, good decision.

Shackled in Court

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In United States v. Sanchez-Gomez, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a lower federal court’s policy of routinely shackling all defendants in the courtroom was unconstitutional.

BACKGROUND FACTS

In 2013, the judges of the Southern District of California approached the U.S. Marshals Service and requested “a district-wide policy of allowing the Marshals Service to bring all in-custody defendants in full restraints for most non-jury proceedings.” “Full restraints” means that a defendant’s hands are closely handcuffed together, these handcuffs are connected by chain to another chain running around the defendant’s waist, and the defendant’s feet are shackled and chained together.

Starting on the first day of the policy’s implementation, the Federal Defenders of San Diego objected to the routine use of shackles and requested that each defendant’s shackles be removed. The judges routinely denied the requests, relying on the Marshals Service’s general security concerns. The judges also pointed to increasing security threats from what they viewed as changing demographics and increasing case loads in their district.

The shackling was the same regardless of a defendant’s individual characteristics. One defendant had a fractured wrist but appeared in court wearing full restraints. Nevertheless, the judge denied her motion to remove the restraints, Another defendant was vision-impaired. One of his hands was free of restraint so he could use his cane, but his other hand was shackled and secured to a chain around his waist and his legs were shackled together. His objection to the restraints was also denied.  And another defendant was shackled despite being brought into court in a wheelchair due to her “dire and deteriorating” health. The court “noted” her objection to the shackles and denied the defendant’s motion to remove the shackles.

Defendants appealed these denials to the district court and also filed motions challenging the constitutionality of the district-wide policy. The district courts denied all relief. All four cases were consolidated for review of the policy’s constitutionality.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

This 9th Circuit said that under the Fifth Amendment, no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” It reasoned that the U.S. Supreme Court has said time and again that “liberty from bodily restraint always has been recognized as the core of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause from arbitrary governmental action. Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 316 (1982).

Liberty from bodily restraint includes the right to be free from shackles in the courtroom, reasoned the court. Also, the right to be free from unwarranted shackles no matter the proceeding respects our founding principle that defendants are innocent until proven guilty.

“The principle isn’t limited to juries or trial proceedings,” said the Court. It also includes the perception of any person who may walk into a public courtroom, as well as those of the jury, the judge and court personnel:

“A presumptively innocent defendant has the right to be treated with respect and dignity in a public courtroom, not like a bear on a chain . . . The fact that the proceeding is non-jury does not diminish the degradation a prisoner suffers when needlessly paraded about a courtroom, like a dancing bear on a lead, wearing belly chains and manacles.”

The Court further reasoned that the most visible and public manifestation of our criminal justice system is the courtroom. “Courtrooms are palaces of justice, imbued with a majesty that reflects the gravity of proceedings designed to deprive a person of liberty or even life.” It reasoned that a member of the public who wanders into a criminal courtroom must immediately perceive that it is a place where justice is administered with due regard to individuals whom the law presumes to be innocent. That perception cannot prevail if defendants are marched in like convicts on a chain gang. “Both the defendant and the public have the right to a dignified, inspiring and open court process. Thus, innocent defendants may not be shackled at any point in the courtroom unless there is an individualized showing of need.”

Moreover, the Court reasoned that it has a long tradition of giving correctional officials a wide berth in maintaining security within their own facilities. “But we don’t have a tradition of deferring to correctional or law enforcement officers as to the treatment of individuals appearing in public courtrooms.”

Here, in the courtroom, law enforcement officers have no business proposing policies for the treatment of parties as a class. Insofar as they have information pertaining to particular defendants, they may, of course, bring it to the court’s attention. But a blanket policy applied to all defendants infuses the courtroom with a prison atmosphere. The Marshals Service should not have proposed it and the judges should not have paid heed.

“We must take seriously how we treat individuals who come into contact with our criminal justice system—from how our police interact with them on the street to how they appear in the courtroom. How the justice system treats people in these public settings matters for the public’s perception, including that of the defendant. Practices like routine shackling and “perp walks” are inconsistent with our constitutional presumption that people who have not been convicted of a crime are innocent until proven otherwise. We must treat people with respect and dignity even though they are suspected of a crime.”

Finally, the Court reasoned that the Constitution enshrines a fundamental right to be free of unwarranted restraints. “Thus, we hold that if the government seeks to shackle a defendant, it must first justify the infringement with specific security needs as to that particular defendant.” Courts must decide whether the stated need for security outweighs the infringement on a defendant’s right. This decision cannot be deferred to security providers or presumptively answered by routine policies, said the Court. “All of these requirements apply regardless of a jury’s presence or whether it’s a pretrial, trial or sentencing proceeding. Criminal defendants, like any other party appearing in court, are entitled to enter the courtroom with their heads held high.”

My Opinion? Excellent decision. Unless a defendant is particularly dangerous to themselves or others, there is simply no reason to parade them around the court like animals. It’s degrading, demoralizing and reduces respect for the criminal justice system; especially if defendants are not yet found guilty for crimes.

SCOTUS Eliminates the “Provocation Rule”

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In  County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment provides no basis to uphold the Ninth Circuit’s “provocation rule,” a doctrine which makes officers liable for injuries caused by their use of force.

BACKGROUND FACTS

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department received word from a confidential informant that a potentially armed and dangerous parolee-at-large had been seen at a certain residence. While other officers searched the main house, Deputies Conley and Pederson searched the back of the property where, unbeknownst to the deputies, respondents Mendez and Garcia were napping inside a shack where they lived.

Without a search warrant and without announcing their presence, the deputies opened the door of the shack. Mendez rose from the bed, holding a BB gun that he used to kill pests. Deputy Conley yelled, “Gun!” and the deputies immediately opened fire, shooting Mendez and Garcia multiple times.

Officers did not find the parolee in the shack or elsewhere on the property.

PLAINTIFF’S CIVIL RIGHTS CLAIMS

For those who don’t know, the “Provocation Rule” holds that if a police officer recklessly promotes a potentially violent confrontation with a Fourth Amendment violation, the officer is liable for any injury caused by a subsequent use of force that results from that confrontation, even if the use of force itself was reasonable.

Armed with the “Provocation Rule,” Mendez and Garcia sued the police deputies and the County under 42 U. S. C. §1983. They advanced three Fourth Amendment claims: a warrantless entry claim, a knock-and-announce claim, and an excessive force claim. On the first two claims, the Federal District Court awarded Mendez and Garcia nominal damages. On the excessive force claim, the court found that the deputies’ use of force was reasonable, but held them liable nonetheless under the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule, which makes an officer’s otherwise reasonable use of force unreasonable if (1) the officer “intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation” and (2) “the provocation is an independent Fourth Amendment violation,.

The Government appealed the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on the knock-and-announce claim and that the warrantless entry violated clearly established law. It also affirmed the District Court’s application of the provocation rule, and held, in the alternative, that basic notions of proximate cause would support liability even without the provocation rule.

The Government appealed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling to the U.S Supreme Court.

COURT’S ANALYSIS

In short, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment offers no basis for the Ninth Circuit’s “provocation rule.” It reasoned that the rule is incompatible with this Court’s excessive force jurisprudence, which sets forth a settled and exclusive framework for analyzing whether the force used in making a seizure complies with the Fourth Amendment. The Court reasoned that the legal issue is “whether the totality of the circumstances justifies a particular sort of search or seizure.” Tennessee v. Garner.

The Court reasoned that the provocation rule instructs courts to look back in time to see if a different Fourth Amendment violation was somehow tied to the eventual use of force. Problematically, this approach that mistakenly conflates distinct Fourth Amendment claims. To the extent that a plaintiff has other Fourth Amendment claims, they should be analyzed separately.

“The Ninth Circuit attempts to cabin the provocation rule by defining a two-prong test: First, the separate constitutional violation must “create a situation which led to” the use of force; and second, the separate constitutional violation must be committed recklessly or intentionally,” said the Court.

The U.S. Supreme thought this approach was mistaken. First, the rule relies on a vague causal standard. Second, while the reasonableness of a search or seizure is almost always based on objective factors, the provocation rule looks to the subjective intent of the officers who carried out the seizure:

“There is no need to distort the excessive force inquiry in this way in order to hold law enforcement officers liable for the foreseeable consequences of all their constitutional torts.”

Plaintiffs can, subject to qualified immunity, generally recover damages that are proximately caused by any Fourth Amendment violation. Here, reasoned the Court, if respondents cannot recover on their excessive force claim, that will not stop them from recovering for injuries proximately caused by the warrantless entry.

“The Ninth Circuit’s proximate-cause holding is similarly tainted,” said the Court. Its focuses solely on the risks foreseeably associated with the failure to knock and announce—the claim on which the court concluded that the deputies had qualified immunity—rather than the warrantless entry.

My opinion? I concur with  blogger Radley Balko’s insights on this. He blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post, and says the following:

“The cops, on the other hand, engaged in some incredibly sloppy policing that nearly got someone killed. They violated the Mendezes’ Fourth Amendment rights not once, but twice. Then they filled the couple with bullets after they mistook Angel Mendez’s reach for his pellet gun as a threat. Angel Mendez was shot five times, and lost his right leg below the knee. Jennifer Mendez was shot in the back. That was 6½ years ago. They still haven’t seen a dime. And after Tuesday’s ruling, it seems unlikely that they ever will.”

Exactly.

Immigration Arrests Up 38 Percent Under Trump

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 of The Washington Times reports that under the Trump administration, arrests of criminal aliens has increased by 38 percent.
Unshackled from the restrictions under the Obama administration, immigration agents and officers are making far more arrests — but are still keeping their chief focus on criminals, authorities said as the released number detailing the first 100 days under President Trump.
Arrests of criminal aliens is up nearly 20 percent, reaching nearly 30,500, while arrests of those without criminal convictions is up 60 percent, reaching about 10,800. Combined, they show a rise of 38 percent in total arrests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for policing the interior of the country.
Dinan reports that perhaps most striking is surge in at-large arrests made out in the community. Those have risen by 50 percent compared to a year earlier, according to ICE.
While criminals are still the chief targets, ICE said it has reversed the Obama administration’s policy of carving out entire classes of illegal immigrants from any danger of deportation. That’s expanded the potential targets from just a couple million to potentially almost all of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the U.S.
“These statistics reflect President Trump’s commitment to enforce our immigration laws fairly and across the board,” said Thomas Homan, acting director of ICE.

Incomplete & Misleading Search Warrant

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In United States v. Perkins, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held police officers must submit copies of explicit images that the officer believes gives probable cause for a search warrant for child pornography to the judge who is considering the search warrant application so the judge can independently determine whether the nude photographs are sexually suggestive.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Canadian Investigation

On December 29, 2012, Charles Perkins, a then-52-year-old citizen of the United States, was traveling through Toronto International Airport on his way home to Washington State after taking a trip to Chile with his wife and mother-in-law. Canadian Border Services Agency(“CBSA”) officers stopped Perkins after learning that he was a registered sex offender. Perkins had a 1987 first-degree incest conviction and a 1990 first-degree child molestation conviction.

A CBSA officer searched the laptop that Perkins was carrying and, in a folder labeled “cperk,” found two images that he believed to be child pornography. A Peel Regional Police (“PRP”) officer also reviewed the images and, based on his review, arrested Perkins for possession of child pornography. CBSA authorities seized the laptop, along with a digital camera and a memory card.

The next day, Canadian police obtained a search warrant and searched Perkins’ luggage. Constable Ullock searched the laptop and found the two images that the CBSA officer had originally discovered.  After reviewing the images, Constable Ullock concluded that they did not constitute child pornography under Canadian law. In his report of the investigation, he describes the two images as follows:

IMAGE #1 Filename 997.jpg Description: This is a Caucasian female that I would estimate to be between the ages of 13 to 15 years of age. The image shows her only from the mid torso up, including her face. The girl appears to be nude and her breasts are clearly visible . . . . In spite of the fact that this girl is under the age of 18, her breasts are not the dominant feature of the image, and there is no obvious sexual purpose to the image. Therefore this image does not meet the Canadian Criminal Code definition of child pornography.

IMAGE #2 Filename 989.jpg Description: This is an image of a Caucasian female that I would estimate to be between the ages of 13 to 14 years of age. This girl is sitting and appears to be taking a picture of herself by holding out a camera with her right arm slightly above her head looking down on her. . . . This girl is completely nude and towards the bottom of the picture a small portion of her vagina can be seen. . . . However in this photo the view of the girls’ [sic] vagina makes it a minor aspect of the photo, and her hair drapes over much of her breasts, which decrease[s] their prominence. Again there is no clear and obvious sexual purpose to the picture, which means it does not meet the Criminal Code of Canada definition of child pornography.

Based on Constable Ullock’s recommendation, the charge against Perkins was dropped on January 10, 2013.

American Investigation

The case was forwarded to Special Agent Tim Ensley of the United States Department of Homeland Security. Agent Ensley received the two images for first-hand review on January 14, 2013. Ensley applied for a search warrant. In his affidavit, Ensley explained that Canadian officers stopped Perkins because of his prior convictions and arrested him after reviewing the images. Also, Ensley’s description of the second image was far different than the Canadian Constable’s:

IMAGE #2 Filename 989.jpg Description: This color image depicts a white female (hereinafter referred to as “child victim”) sitting on what appears to be a bed with one arm stretched out taking a picture of herself. The child victim is completely nude and can be seen in the image from her upper thigh area to the top of her forehead. The child victim’s breasts and genital area are clearly visible. . . . The child victim is young in appearance and appears to be between twelve and fourteen years of age.

Agent Ensley concluded that the second image (hereinafter referred to as the “989.jpg image”) met the federal definition of child pornography. However, his warrant application did not include copies of either image. Also, Ensley failed to state that the charge in Canada had been dropped pursuant to Constable Ullock’s determination that the images were not pornographic. On January 16, 2013, an American magistrate issued the warrant. Officers arrived at his home and confiscated his computers

The Search and Franks Hearing

The search pursuant to the warrant revealed several images of child pornography on Perkins’ computers, and he was charged with one count of receipt of child pornography and one count of possession of child pornography. Perkins moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the warrant lacked probable cause. Alternatively, Perkins argued that Agent Ensley deliberately or recklessly omitted material facts from the affidavit, entitling him to a Franks Hearing under Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154 (1978).

For those who don’t know, a Franks Hearing is a hearing to determine whether a police officer’s affidavit used to obtain a search warrant that yields incriminating evidence was based on false statements by the police officer. The district court denied the motion for a Franks Hearing in its entirety.

On June 6, 2013, Perkins conditionally pleaded guilty to one count of receipt of child pornography. The district court sentenced Perkins to an 180-month term of imprisonment. Perkins appealed.

THE APPEAL

The Court of Appeals examined whether the search warrant contained purposefully or recklessly false statements or omissions. To prevail on a Franks challenge, the defendant must establish two things by a preponderance of the evidence: first, that the officer intentionally or recklessly made false or misleading statements or omissions in support of the warrant, and second, that the false or misleading statement or omission was material, i.e., “necessary to finding probable cause. If both requirements are met, the search warrant must be voided and the fruits of the search excluded.

Here, the Court of Appeals held the lower court mistakenly denied Perkins’ motion to suppress. It reasoned that an officer presenting a search warrant application has a duty to provide, in good faith, all relevant information to the magistrate. Here, Agent Ensley omitted from the search warrant application: (1) the fact that Canadian authorities dropped the child pornography possession charge against Perkins because the images were not pornographic; (2) important portions of Constable Ullock’s description of the 989.jpg image; and (3) copies of the images.

“By providing an incomplete and misleading recitation of the facts and withholding the images, Agent Ensley effectively usurped the magistrate’s duty to conduct an independent evaluation of probable cause,” said the Ninth Circuit. Therefore, Agent Ensley omitted relevant information from the affidavit that resulted in the misleading impression that image 989.jpg was unequivocally child pornography.

Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit held the warrant application was unsupported by probable cause; and that his 20-year prior convictions failed to make it more likely that child pornography would be found on Perkins’ home computers.

Finally, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that the two images found in Perkins’ laptop computer did not establishe a fair probability that there was child pornography on Perkins’ home computer in Washington:

“Other than the fact that the subject is nude, the image lacks any traits that would make it sexually suggestive . . . The subject is not posed in a sexual position with, for example, “her open legs in the foreground . . . She is not pictured with any sexual items. She is sitting in an “ordinary way for her age.” Indeed, if the subject were clothed, this would be a completely unremarkable photo. Viewing the image as a whole, we conclude, under the Dost six-factor test, that it does not depict the ‘lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area.'”

With that, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of the motion to suppress evidence obtained pursuant to the search warrant, and vacated Perkins’ conviction. The case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Good decision.

Jail Mail

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In Mangiaracina v. Penzone, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that prisoners have a Sixth Amendment right to be present when legal mail related to a criminal matter is inspected.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Nick Mangiaracina was jailed as a pre-trial detainee in Maricopa County’s Fourth Avenue Jail in Phoenix, Arizona. The jail’s stated policy is to open legal mail addressed to a prisoner only in the presence of that prisoner. Mangiaracina alleged, however, that his mail was repeatedly opened outside his presence in contravention of this policy. His complaint included descriptions of nine specific instances of the jail improperly opening his mail to/from his attorney.

In describing his injury resulting from the improper opening of his legal mail, Mangiaracina alleged that he and his two attorneys “are afraid to communicate by mail which is hard as I have so many cases and so much paperwork to go back and forth.” He further explained that his “right to confidentiality and privacy was violated” and that his “defense strategy and his rights in general were just shredded.”

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Mangiaracina initially filed suit in Arizona superior court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his First and Sixth Amendment rights by a number of jail employees and John Doe defendants. The case was moved to federal court. Unfortunately, the U.S. district court ultimately dismissed Mangiaracina’s complaint with prejudice. it noted that Mangiaracina had failed to specifically allege that the pieces of mail were marked as “legal mail” and that, for most of the instances, he failed to explain how he knew the mail was opened outside his presence. He appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Ninth Circuit reasoned that under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Wolff v. McDonnell  and the Ninth Circuit’s Nordstrom v. Ryan, that prisoners have a Sixth Amendment right to confer privately with counsel and that the practice of opening legal mail in the prisoner’s presence is specifically designed to protect that right.

Furthermore, other circuit courts have similarly recognized the importance of this practice. In Jones v. Brown, the Third Circuit recognized, in the context of a First Amendment challenge, that opening legal mail outside the addressee’s presence was unlawful.

The Ninth Circuit further reasoned that the jail failed to identify any legitimate penological interest that would be served by opening legal mail outside Mangiaracina’s presence: “As we have emphasized in the past, a criminal defendant’s ability to communicate candidly and confidentially with his lawyer is essential to his defense.”  By necessity, reasoned the court, prisoners and pre-trial detainees rely heavily on the mail for communication with their attorneys. Unfortunately, the Maricopa County jail system does not allow incoming phone calls or provide access to e-mail, and outgoing phone calls can only be placed as collect calls.

With that, the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court’s dismissal of Mangiaracina’s Sixth Amendment and First Amendment claims with respect to some mail-opening incidents and affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the remaining counts of alleged improper mail opening.

My opinion? Excellent decision. It’s extremely difficult to communicate with jailed clients. Some jails offer limited hours of visitation and/or phone calls. Reading a defendant’s jail mail deprives the expression of confidentiality and chills the inmates’ protected expression. This is wrong, and violates a defendant’s First Amendment rights.

With respect to phone calls, I don’t discuss important details over the jail phones because the conversations are recorded. Although recorded phone calls with my clients are inadmissible at trial, these conversations are still surveillance which can “tip off” prosecutors to the strategies and tactics I develop with my clients.

Kudos to the Ninth Circuit for a very well-reasoned and substantial decision.

No Motion to Suppress?

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In Mahrt v. Beard, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a defendant may bring a pre-plea ineffective assistance of counsel claim when counsel’s failure to argue a motion to suppress the fruits of a search prevents the defendant from making an informed choice whether to plead guilty.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On September 3, 2012, Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to a residence in Petaluma, California. A neighbor had reported that a male and female subject were arguing over a gun. The Defendant Gregory Mahrt was living in a garage on the property that had been converted into a room. As the deputies approached the property, Mahrt walked out and met them at the front gate. The deputies detained Mahrt and asked about the argument, the gun and whether anyone else was inside the residence.

Mr. Mahrt was “uncooperative.” The deputies conducted a “protective sweep” of Mahrt’s room in the garage. As the deputies approached the garage, Mahrt began yelling that he did not want the officers to enter his room. According to the report, the deputies observed ammunition cans, ammunition, and what appeared to be an AR-15 Rifle (later determined to be a replica).

The deputies subsequently learned that Mahrt had a prior felony conviction and arrested him for being a felon in possession of ammunition. The deputies then asked Mahrt for permission to search his room.

This is where the facts differ: according to police reports, Mr. Mahrt consented. The deputies conducted a second search of the room. They found additional ammunition, rifle magazines, and two firearms. According to Mahrt, however, he did not consent to the search.

On September 5, 2012, the State of California charged Mahrt with having been a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition in violation of California Penal Code § 29800(a)(1) and § 30305(a)(1). Mahrt believed that the warrantless search (or searches) of the garage was (or were) illegal. However, neither of the two public defenders who represented him at the trial court level moved to suppress the firearms and ammunition recovered from his room.

Nevertheless, despite his defense counsel’s failure to move to suppress, Mahrt pleaded guilty to both charges and received a six-year sentence. He appealed. On appeal, Mahrt’s appointed counsel did not raise any issues. Instead, his counsel filed a Wende brief, the California analogue to an Anders brief. A Wende brief is filed when a California appellate attorney concludes that an appeal would be frivolous.  On November 27, 2013, the California Court of Appeal affirmed Mahrt’s conviction.

On April 11, 2014, Mahrt filed a federal habeas petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). The petition alleged that Mahrt’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel was violated by his trial counsels’ failure to move to suppress the firearms and ammunition found in his room. A magistrate judge, sitting by consent, granted Mahrt’s petition. The State timely appealed.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

  1. The Defendant May Proceed With a Pre-Plea Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim.

The 9th Circuit  reasoned that Mahrt’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim, premised upon a failure to file a motion to suppress, is squarely within this line of case discussing pre-plea ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to file a motion to suppress:

“The State’s entire case against Mahrt depended on its ability to introduce into evidence the firearms and ammunition found in his room. If the deputies unconstitutionally searched Mahrt’s home, counsel’s failure to move to suppress the fruits of that search prevented Mahrt from making the informed choice to which he was entitled.”

    2. Mahrt’s Counsel Was Ineffective.

The Court held that Mahrt’s counsel was ineffective in failing to move to suppress the firearms and ammunition. It reasoned that there was at least a chance that such a motion would have succeeded. First, there was a clear conflict in the available evidence. Second, a police officer’s report mischaracterized the first search as a “protective sweep.”

The Court reasoned that a warrantless protective search is permitted under Maryland v. Buie, based on the “interest of the officers in taking steps to assure themselves that the house in which a suspect is being, or has just been, arrested is not harboring other persons who are dangerous and who could unexpectedly launch an attack.” Here, Mahrt was being detained by the deputies, and they had no reason to suspect that there was some other person inside the residence who could pose a danger to themselves or to others. Consequently, the Court reasoned that defense counsel should have filed and argued a motion to suppress the search of Maert’s premises.

My opinion? It’s very importnant to retain qualified defense counsel in search and seizure cases such as this. Here, the defendant accepted a plea bargain on the advice of defense counsel who, according to the court, failed to argue motions to suppress. Pretrial motions are essential. It’s imperative to hire defense counsel who know the law and argue it effectively. Contact my office if you, a friend or family matter face criminal charges where a search was involved.

Brady v. Maryland to the Rescue

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In United States v. Yepiz, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the convictions for numerous defendants so that it may engage in the necessary fact-finding to ascertain whether a government’s witness received benefits that were undisclosed to the defendants at the time of trial.

The defendants are all alleged to be members or associates of the Vineland Boys (“VBS”), a gang located in Southern California. On November 30, 2005, a grand jury returned a 78-count first superseding indictment charging appellants and approximately forty other individuals with crimes arising out of their membership or association with VBS.

Seven of the nine defendants were charged with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), and with RICO conspiracy, and all appellants were charged with federal distribution of narcotics. Other charged counts included violent crimes in aid of racketeering (“VICAR”), attempted murder, and possession with intent to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana.

Trial commenced on August 9, 2006. On October 26, 2008, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty as to five counts, a mistrial as to one count, and a verdict of guilty as to the remaining counts. The defendants timely appealed their convictions and sentences. This case was vigorously litigated over the course of two-and-a-half months. It presented the federal district court with a gauntlet of complex legal questions, and required it to grapple with unique concerns to courtroom safety and logistics.

At trial, one of the government’s cooperating witnesses was Victor Bulgarian. In September of 2006, on direct examination, Bulgarian testified that he was previously arrested for possession and sale of methamphetamine in an unrelated case, and agreed to cooperate with law enforcement in exchange for a lesser sentence, and a grant of immunity for his testimony as a government witness.

Bulgarian testified to having received no benefits from the government in exchange for his testimony. However, on cross-examination, Bulgarian testified to having received $5,000 in cash from the government after he testified to the grand jury in this case. Defendants noted that this testimony directly contravened a letter the government sent to them asserting that no witnesses received any benefits from the government in exchange for their testimony. The government acknowledged that it was “a glaring mistake,” but argued that the error was cured because defendants had ample opportunity to cross examine Bulgarian on the subject of the $5,000 payment. Defendants did not raise the issue again either at trial or in a post-trial motion.

Approximately three years later, on August 20, 2009, Bulgarian testified in the trial of defendant Horacio Yepiz. On direct examination, Bulgarian once again testified to having received no benefit from the government in return for his testimony. On cross examination, however, Bulgarian testified that since his arrest for drug-related crimes in 2004, he had received roughly $100,000 to $200,000 in cash from five different law enforcement agencies, although he was unable to give an exact figure. He explained that he was able to solicit paid work from these agencies whenever he wanted (“I decide when I want to work, and when I work, I get paid.”). Indeed, he testified to having received $800 for three hours of work the week prior.

Appellants now argue that the government violated Brady v. Maryland by failing to disclose the full extent of the benefits Bulgarian received at trial. For those who don’t know, Brady v. Maryland was a landmark United States Supreme Court case that established that the prosecution must turn over all evidence that might exonerate the defendant (exculpatory evidence) to the defense.

On Appeal, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that, under Brady, the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.

The Ninth Circuit further reasoned that in order to prevail on a Brady claim, the defendant must show that the evidence was material. Materiality is satisfied when “there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A ‘reasonable probability’ is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.”

Here, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the government’s attempts to minimize the significance of Bulgarian’s testimony are not persuasive in light of the record:

“While some of Bulgarian’s testimony was independently corroborated, it nonetheless played a substantial role in the government’s case-in-chief. In particular, Bulgarian’s testimony was relied upon heavily by the government to show that VBS was a ‘criminal enterprise’ under RICO. Therefore, had the alleged Brady materials been made available to appellants at trial, there is a “reasonable probability” that the result of the proceeding would have been altered.”

With that, and In light of the disputed facts surrounding defendants’ Brady claim, the Ninth Circuit remanded the convictions to the district court so that it may engage in the necessary fact-finding to ascertain whether Mr. Bulgarian received benefits that were undisclosed to appellants at the time of trial, and if so, whether Brady was violated as to each convicted count.

My opinion? Good decision. Since Brady was decided in 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court has required that prosecutors and police officers disclose evidence that impeaches the credibility of any state witness, including police officers. Examples of impeachment evidence include false testimony, misrepresentations made in court documents, false information in police reports and internal police disciplinary proceedings.

Unfortunately, that is not being done.  There is no uniform system compiling Brady data; each county’s prosecuting attorney has different methods for assembling Brady information and different perspectives on when disclosure is constitutionally required. Naturally, this creates problems for defense counsel seeking exculpatory information from prosecutors and law enforcement agencies. Fortunately, competent defense counsel has ways of overcoming these challenges, as demonstrated by the excellent representation given to the defendants in this case.

Deadly Force Not Justified.

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In A.K.H. v. City of Tustin, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held the government could not justify a police officer’s use of deadly force during the officer’s attempted investigatory stop of Mr. Herrera.

FACTS & PROCEDURAL HISTORY.

Defendant Osvaldo Villarreal, a police officer in Tustin, California, fatally shot Benny Herrera during an attempted investigatory stop. Herrera was on foot. Officer Villarreal was in his patrol car and had just driven up beside Herrera. Herrera was in the middle of the roadway, moving in the direction of traffic. His left hand was free and visible; his right hand was in his sweatshirt pocket. Villarreal commanded Herrera to take his hand out of his pocket. Less than a second later, just as Herrera’s hand came out of his pocket, Villarreal shot him twice, killing him. Herrera was unarmed. Villarreal does not claim that he saw, or thought he saw, a weapon in Herrera’s hand.

Relatives of Herrera (“Plaintiffs”) filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Officer Villarreal and the City of Tustin alleging that Villarreal used excessive force against Herrera in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Villarreal moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, which would have effectively dismissed the lawsuit against him. However, the federal district court denied the Officer’s motion.

Officer Villarreal brought an interlocutory appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He argued that, even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, his actions did not violate the Fourth Amendment and that the district court therefore erred in denying him qualified immunity.

THE ISSUES.

The Ninth Circuit reasoned it must ask two questions to determine whether Officer Villarreal is entitled to summary judgment based on qualified immunity. First, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, did Villarreal use excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment? Second, if Villarreal used excessive force, did he violate a clearly established right?

THE COURT’S ANALYSIS.

Quoting Tennessee v. Garner, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that Deadly Force is permissible only if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm.

Here, the Ninth Circuit found Officer Herrera used excessive force in violation of Mr. Herrera’s Fourth Amendment rights. The Court reasoned that (1) the crime at issue was a domestic dispute that had ended before the police became involved; (2) the deceased did not pose an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, as the officer did not believe the deceased was armed and the officer did not see a weapon; (3) although the deceased did not comply with the officer’s commands to remove his hand from his sweatshirt pocket, he did not attempt to flee; and (4) the officer escalated to deadly force approximately 1 second after issuing the command to the deceased to remove his hand from his pocket. “Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, we conclude that Villarreal violated clearly established Fourth Amendment law when he shot and killed Herrera.”

CONCLUSION.

In its conclusion, the Ninth Circuit said the following:

“It has long been clear that a police officer may not seize an unarmed, non-dangerous suspect by shooting him dead. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, that is precisely what Officer Villarreal did here.”

My opinion? Great decision. Straightforward, direct, constitutionally sound and accurate. I’m happy the Ninth Circuit saw this case for what it was.