Sunday, June 17, 2018

Palpably pretextual assertions can't cut it

As the First Circuit reminds us this last week, a valid exception to the warrant requirement better apply before law enforcement goes traipsing through someone’s home without a warrant; palpably pretextual assertions later lodged as an exception cannot withstand scrutiny, especially when it comes to warrantless searches of the home, the “first among equals” under the Fourth Amendment. Florida v. Jardines, __U.S.__, 133 S.Ct. 1409, 1414 (2013) (“At the Amendment’s very core stands the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable government intrusion.”) (cleaned up). 
 
In United States v. Diaz-Jimenez, law enforcement carried out a warrantless search of a suspect’s home more than eight hours after the completion of an armed bank robbery. The search also took place after the two suspects had already been arrested. The district court denied Mr. Diaz’s motion to suppress evidence seized from the warrantless intrusion, and he was convicted by a jury after a joint trial. 

But the First Circuit vacated Mr. Diaz’s conviction finding that the district court erred in not suppressing the evidence. Neither Buie’s protective-sweep exception nor voluntary consent—“the only even arguably relevant exceptions to the warrant requirement”—could salvage the evidence. The government did not present any evidence to support a reasonable inference that at the time of the intrusion, law enforcement believed there was someone armed in the home—let alone anyone at all—to pose an ongoing threat. And the government’s second bite of the apple as to an exception authorizing the warrantless search, too, was without merit; any consent to search obtained from Mr. Diaz as he stood handcuffed outside his home surrounded by a SWAT team that had already conducted a sweep and discovered incriminating evidence could not be deemed voluntary. (As the Second Circuit noted, “[t]he prosecution did not even attempt to make such a showing.”) 

The court’s error, the First Circuit concluded, “was certainly not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt” given that the evidence was “central” to the government’s case.

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