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Tenth Circuit Rules Police Seizure of Home Where No Evidence of Criminal Activity Apparent Violates Fourth Amendment Requiring Suppression of Incriminating Evidence

by Richard Resch

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled that police violated the Fourth Amendment by unreasonably seizing the home of a man whose wife died of an apparent overdose on prescription medication where police had no reason to suspect that the home contained evidence of criminal activity yet barred him from entering it for nearly a day. Incriminating evidence that was subsequently discovered inside the home must be suppressed due to the original unconstitutional seizure.

In the early morning hours of March 2015, Walt Shrum called 911 from his home in Kansas to report that his wife was experiencing a medical emergency, lost consciousness, and may have overdosed on prescription medication. Police and EMS arrived on scene within minutes, and everyone at the house left for the hospital. She was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.

Afterward, a Kingman Police officer “secured” Shrum’s home until the lead detective, Dustin Cooke, arrived. When assigned the case that morning, he was advised of the known facts and that “it was not a suspicious death” at that time. Cooke barred Shrum from returning to his home and directed him to police headquarters for an interview, where he was questioned for about two hours. Cooke told Shrum that he was “gonna go ahead and hold onto your house” for at least a day.

Cooke stated that he needed to retrieve any bottles of medication in the house, but he couldn’t allow Shrum to go inside. He asked Shrum to sign a consent form allowing Cooke to enter the home for the purpose of retrieving any medication. Cooke explained the form to Shrum, who indicated he understood it and signed. Cooke spent about 15 minutes inside the home and took 56 pictures of the kitchen and bedroom. One picture of the bedroom closet showed ammunition in plain view.

Later that day, Cooke realized that Shrum was a convicted felon, so he contacted Agent Neil Tierney with the ATF based on the ammunition observed in Shrum’s home. A federal magistrate judge issued a search warrant for the home, which Cooke and Tierney executed. They seized guns, ammunition, and approximately 4.4 grams of suspected meth.

Shrum was charged with firearm and drug offenses. He filed a motion to suppress the incriminating evidence based on Fourth Amendment claims, which the district court denied. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit was asked to answer two questions: (1) did the initial securing of Shrum’s home constitute an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment and (2) if so, did that taint the incriminating evidence discovered during the execution of the search warrant? The Court answered yes to both questions and reversed.

The Court began its analysis by explaining the threshold question in the case is whether police unreasonably seized Shrum’s home without a warrant for Fourth Amendment purposes. It noted that the Supreme Court instructs that a Fourth Amendment seizure occurs “when there is some meaningful [government] interference with an individual’s possessory in … property.” United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109 (1984). Shrum was prohibited from entering his own home once he left for the hospital at about 5:36 a.m. The Tenth Circuit found that police had asserted “dominion and control” over the house and initiated a “criminal death investigation” by at least 7:02 a.m. The Court concluded police had seized it without a warrant.

The Government argued that a Fourth Amendment violation didn’t occur because police secured the home only from the outside and never entered it. However, the Court flatly rejected that argument, chiding that it misses the point of Fourth Amendment seizure analysis. The Fourth Amendment seizure occurred when police “secured” the house and barred Shrum from entering it. The Court observed: “We see little difference between a perimeter stakeout and internal securing of a home from the standpoint of a Fourth Amendment seizure. Both interfere to the same extent with the possessory interests of those entitled to occupy the dwelling.” Police deprived Shrum the ability “to access his home for his own purposes, in his own way, on his own time,” and thus they seized his home without a warrant.

The Court then turned to the issue of whether the seizure was reasonable. It explained that only “unreasonable seizures” violate the Fourth Amendment. Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398 (2006). Whether a seizure is reasonable depends on the “facts and circumstances of each case viewed in the light of established Fourth Amendment principles.” Ohio v. Robinette, 519 U.S. 33 (1996).

The Court then cited Illinois v. McArthur, 531 U.S. 326 (2001), as instructive for resolving the present case. It observed: “McArthur plainly teaches a police officer armed with probable cause to believe a home contains evidence of a serious crime that might otherwise be destroyed may lawfully secure the home and restrict entry while waiting for an assisting officer to diligently procure a search warrant.” In contrast to McArthur, the police in this case never claimed that the initial seizure of the home was based on probable cause or any articulable suspicion that evidence of a serious crime was contained in the home. The Court admonished that there is no such thing as a “crime scene exception” or “unexplained death scene exception” to the Fourth Amendment. Flippo v. West Virginia, 528 U.S. 11 (1999).

At the time police seized Shrum’s home, they didn’t have any facts to suggest that there was evidence of criminal activity inside the home, and his wife’s death was characterized as not suspicious. Therefore, the Court concluded that the warrantless seizure was unreasonable. It called the seizure “the commencement of a fishing expedition to see what sort and how big of a fish the police might catch,” and in doing so, police “completely disregarded” Shrum’s constitutional rights.

The Court then ruled that the evidence obtained as a result of the unreasonable seizure of Shrum’s home must be excluded under the Exclusionary Rule. The signed consent to search form “was not an act of free will sufficient to purge the primary taint of the illegal seizure,” the Court determined. His consent was “come at by exploitation” of the unconstitutional seizure. It added that while “the causal chain is relatively long, nowhere along the links of the chain were the ‘fruits’ of the unlawful seizure of Defendant’s home purged of their primary taint.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s denial of the motion to suppress and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: United States v. Shrum, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 32343 (10th Cir. 2018). 

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