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First Circuit: Securing a Weapon Not Used in Offense Is Not Exigent Circumstance Permitting Warrantless Entry and Search of Suspect’s Home

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed a district court’s order denying a defendant’s motion to suppress on the basis that exigent circumstances did not exist solely because officers wanted to secure the defendant’s service weapon, absent the weapon’s proximate use to the crime or arrest.

Officer Murillo-Rivera (“Murillo”) of the Domestic Violence Division for the Ponce Region of Puerto Rico received a complaint in which the victim claimed Gabriel Rodríguez-Pacheco (“Rodríguez”), an officer in the Puerto Rico Police Department, sent her text messages threatening to publish explicit photos and videos of her if she did not rekindle their relationship.

Murillo was directed to arrest Rodríguez immediately and to secure his service weapon pursuant to General Order 2006-4 because, he testified, “according to the procedure ... anyone alleged to have committed domestic violence must immediately be placed under arrest.”

Murillo and an unspecific number of other officers located the home Rodríguez shared with several family members, and Rodríguez immediately came outside. Murillo notified Rodríguez about the complaint, his impending arrest, and the need to seize his service weapon. Murillo did not handcuff Rodríguez because he “was very cooperative and his family looked like really decent people.” Rodríguez stated his weapon was inside the house.

While Rodríguez testified later that he did not consent to Murillo’s entry (and subsequent search), Murillo followed Rodríguez into the home.

However, after locating the weapon, he also seized a Go-Pro camera, a laptop, and a cellphone — items he believed were related to the complaint. Murillo later obtained a search warrant for the contents of the electronic devices, and the search resulted in evidence that led to 16 counts of production of child pornography and one count of possession of child pornography.

Rodríguez went to trial, was found guilty on all counts, and received 262 months’ imprisonment followed by 15 years’ supervision. On appeal, he claimed the district court improperly denied his motion to suppress the evidence resulting from the search.

“On a motion to suppress evidence seized on the basis of a warrantless search, the presumption favors the defendant, and it is the government’s burden to demonstrate the legitimacy of the search.” United States v. Delgado-Perez, 867 F.3d 244 (1st Cir. 2017). “The Fourth Amendment has drawn a firm line at the entrance to the house, and warrantless entries into a home are presumptively unreasonable.” Morse v. Coultier, 869 F.3d 16 (1st Cir. 2017). However, warrantless entry may be justified by consent or “exigent circumstances.” United States v. Almonte-Baez, 857 F.3d 27 (1st Cir. 2017).

The First Circuit found that though consent was the Government’s original argument justifying the warrantless entry into the home, the district court bypassed that argument. It instead found exigent circumstances existed for the need to secure Rodríguez’s service weapon. The Government’s brief on appeal cited United States v. Lopez, 989 F.2d 24 (1st Cir. 1993).

However, in Lopez “the most important element was that the police had reason to believe that the defendant had a sawed-off shotgun nearby, which had been used only shortly before to threaten the victim.” The Court found that Rodríguez’s gun had not been used in connection with the complaint, nor had the officers felt he posed any threat during his arrest since they never bothered to handcuff him. The Court stated, “In the end, this particular record, viewed in its totality, does not reflect one of ‘those crisis situations when there is compelling need for official action and not time to secure a warrant.’” Quoting from United States v. Irizarry, 673 F.3d 554 (1st Cir. 1982).

The Court thus ruled that “the facts of this case simply do not square with our exigent-circumstances case law, and it was error to deny the motion to suppress on this basis.”

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Related legal case

United States v. Rodriguez-Pacheco



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