The United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case of United States v. Andino on September 16, 2014. The case centered around the warrantless entry by law enforcement into a home based upon the belief by officers that exigent circumstances existed – the destruction of evidence. The subsequent seizure of evidence in plain view once inside the residence was challenged by the defense.
The 2nd Circuit encompasses New York, Connecticut, and Vermont, and decisions directly influence that Federal district. However, a decision at the Federal Appeals Court level has a high level of precedence that bears weight in all of the Federal Court Districts when reviewing similar cases.
In United States v. Andino agents from a DEA task force in Buffalo, New York had conducted a series of controlled buys of cocaine and arrested two people involved in the sales, Montanez and Artis. Both had been observed during surveillance traveling to various locations to pick up or deliver cocaine, before returning to their common residence. After their arrest, cocaine was located in one of Montanez’s pockets.
When questioned at the DEA office, Montanez confessed that he had “a couple” of ounces of cocaine inside of a book bag at his house. A girlfriend of Montanez, Andino, was at the residence and Montanez was concerned she would be arrested as well. The DEA agents explained that they wanted to confiscate the cocaine, and Montanez signed a written consent to search his residence. Montanez also told them that Andino would know where the cocaine was located.
With the information and consent in hand, federal and local law enforcement responded to Montanez’s residence. Some of the agents went to the front door while others went to the side of the house where a side entrance and window were located off of the driveway. The DEA agents were wearing wind breakers with “DEA” logos, and local officers were uniformed.
After knocking at the front door and ringing the doorbell, Andino opened the inner front door. A DEA agent identified himself, and explained that Montanez had been arrested. The agent then advised Andino that Montanez had confessed to cocaine being in the residence, and had signed a consent to search form for the residence to recover the evidence.
Andino requested to see a copy of the written consent form, but as another agent held it up to her she slammed the front door shut, locking it behind her. The agents at the front door heard Andino running through the house, and officers on the side of the house heard a faucet begin to run in the kitchen. The officers then heard drawers being opened and closed and alerted the other agents and officers that evidence was being destroyed. The DEA agents at the front door made entrance into the residence, believing that Andino was in the process of destroying the cocaine. The agents at the front had to remove a window air conditioning unit to enter. The officers on the side of the house attempted to enter as well but were unable to make entry.
At that point Andino returned to the living room and the first DEA agent ordered Andino to open the front door for the rest of the team. Andino complied, and was detained by other officers. Two DEA agents conducted a protective sweep of the residence without locating any other persons inside. Agents observed the faucet still running and when they examined the sink they discovered a plastic bag in the sink containing a white milky residue. Andino was placed under arrest, and a later laboratory examination confirmed that the white residue was cocaine.
Andino filed a motion to suppress the cocaine evidence from the residence. The trial court decided that the entry to the home under exigent circumstances was valid based upon the actions of Andino. However, once she was detained, the trial court ruled that the search of the sink and seizure of the cocaine exceeded the scope of the valid exigent entry, and suppressed the cocaine. In effect, the trial court ruled that the agents needed to stop their search, and obtain a search warrant to seize the cocaine from the sink.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Although the agents had written consent from Montanez, Andino was also a resident, and present at the time the agents arrived. As such, the agents were required by law to obtain valid consent from her as well (U.S. Supreme Court case of Georgia v. Randolph). This is different from a similar case where the court ruled that a resident that is present can overrule the refusal of consent from another resident that IS NOT PRESENT (The 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case of Fernandez v. California). In essence, the consent of a resident that is present at the time officers seek to search outweighs the refusal of consent from a resident that is absent.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed an appeal to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. The 2nd Circuit began their investigation with the core principles of the 4th Amendment, advising:
“It is a basic principle of Fourth Amendment law that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable.” Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, “the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment must yield” where “exigent circumstances require law enforcement officers to act without delay.” Marin v. Moreno, 701 F.3d at 72-73 (internal quotation marks omitted). “[T]he need to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence has long been recognized as a sufficient justification for a warrantless search.” (quoting Kentucky v. King, 131 S. Ct. 1849, 1856 (2011)).
The Court continued its examination by asking whether a “reasonable experienced officer to believe that there was an urgent need to render aid or take action.” The Appeals Court then went further than the trial court by examining if the subsequent actions by the officers were consistent with the exigent reasons for the entry in the first place. To determine the reasonableness of the officers’ actions in the face of 4th Amendment restrictions the Court considered the following facts:
- The officers knew there was cocaine in the residence based upon Montanez’s confessions.
- When the officers attempted to show Andino the written consent form she slammed the door and locked it. Officers then heard sounds of a person running, sounds of water running, and drawers being opened and closed.
- Once entry was made, the officers could still hear the water running in the sink, so the initial reasoning for exigent entry (destruction of evidence) still had legitimate law enforcement action required to ensure the destruction stopped.
As such, the 2nd Court of Appeals ruled that going to the sink to stop the water was reasonable, under the same legal principle that authorized the officers to make exigent entry (to stop the destruction of evidence). The Court then looked at whether the seizure of the bag with white residue from the sink constituted an unlawful seizure without a search warrant. To tackle this legal question the Court examined the principle of plain view.
“The “plain view” doctrine is another well-recognized exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, Ruggiero v. Krzeminski, (2d Cir. 1991), whereby “law enforcement personnel may seize an item without a warrant provided that it is immediately apparent that the object is connected with criminal activity, and further provided that the officers viewed the object from a lawful vantage point – i.e., that the officers have not violated the Fourth Amendment in arriving at the place from where they can see the object,” United States v. $557,933.89, More or Less, in U.S. Funds, (2d Cir. 2002).
As such, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the officers had used an acceptable exception to the 4th Amendment requirement to a search warrant, when the facts they were faced with reasonably indicated the destruction of evidence. Once inside the residence, the sink faucet was still running, reasonably requiring officers to stop the means of destruction by going to the sink. Once at the sink, a position the officers were legally able to be, the observation of the bag of cocaine was a matter of plain view, another exception to the 4th Amendment’s warrant requirement.
Therefore the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals overruled the suppression of the cocaine, deciding that its seizure was valid according to 4th Amendment requirements.
The key points to learn from this ruling is a strong understanding what satisfies the “exigent circumstances” exemption to the 4th Amendment requirement for a warrant:
- Search Incident to Lawful Arrest
- Plain View Doctrine
- Valid Consent
- Stop & Frisk – Could Include Protective Sweeps
- Automobile Exception (consistent with Arizona v. Gant)
- Emergencies/Hot Pursuit.
In addition, readers are cautioned that the specific circumstances surrounding this exigent entry warranted the officers seizing the drugs from the sink. Had the sink been turned off, the Court would have likely ruled that the seizure of the drugs extended beyond the legal standing of the emergency entry, and suppressed the drug evidence. Having the legal ability to enter a residence under exigent circumstances, does not provide officers a carte blanc freedom to an in-depth search. If the exigency is controlled, the best course of action is for officers to secure the scene and apply for the search warrant.
NOTE: As always the information provided here at BSD is informational only! Readers are encouraged to study the Court rulings themselves and seek legal advice from their Department’s legal advisor and/or their local prosecutors.