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Tenth Circuit: Deputy ‘Trying to Help’ Doesn’t Make Search Permissible Under Community Caretaking Exception to Warrant Requirement

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled that a deputy trying to help a woman retrieve her belongings by opening the lid to a camper did not make a subsequent warrantless search lawful under the community-caretaking exception to the warrant requirement.

Deputy Buddy Clinton and Sergeant John Wofford responded to a report of a verbal altercation between Jack DeWayne Neugin and his girlfriend, Julie Parrish, in a restaurant parking lot. When Clinton arrived, Neugin was sitting on the curb, and Parrish was inside the restaurant.

Clinton learned the couple’s pickup truck had broken down. He went inside the restaurant to help Parrish arrange a ride while Wofford stayed with Neugin. Parrish told Clinton she needed to retrieve her belongings, so he accompanied her to the truck. Without obtaining permission, Clinton opened the lid of the camper attached to the back of the truck. As he did so, he looked inside and saw “a large bucket containing several rounds of ammunition.” He asked who owned the ammunition, and Neugin said he had obtained it from a deceased family member. Clinton set the bucket aside while Parrish removed her items from the truck.

Clinton requested dispatch to run a background check on Neugin and learned he was a felon. He asked Neugin if he had a firearm, and he replied no. Neugin then refused to give Clinton permission to search the truck, explaining he had purchased the truck for Parrish. Clinton then asked Parrish whether Neugin had a firearm. She said he had a shotgun in the truck and that he had threatened her with it the previous evening. She then consented to a search of the truck.

Clinton found a shotgun in the truck and arrested Neugin. The truck was impounded and inventoried. Neugin was indicted for firearm and ammunition possession by a felon.

Neugin moved to suppress the evidence seized from the truck as fruit of an unlawful search. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma reasoned that Clinton acted as a “community caretak[er]” when he opened the camper, and therefore, the search was not unconstitutional. The district judge found that the ammunition was in plain view when the camper was opened and became subject to seizure when Clinton learned Neugin was a felon. When Clinton then heard about Neugin threatening Parrish with a shotgun and then saw the shotgun, he had authority to arrest Neugin and seize the evidence, according to the district court. Alternatively, the discovery of the evidence was inevitable because the truck was impounded and inventoried, the court concluded. Neugin pleaded guilty on the condition that he could appeal the district court’s denial of his suppression motion.

The Tenth Circuit observed “[t]he Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable government searches of their ‘persons, houses, papers, and effects.’” One way a defendant may establish that the government conducted a search for Fourth Amendment purposes is to show both “a subjective expectation of privacy in the object of the challenged intrusion” and society’s “willing[ness] to recognize that expectation as reasonable.” California v. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 207 (1986).

Reasonable searches require a warrant based on probable cause, and searches conducted without a warrant are per se unreasonable — subject to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions. Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967). While the defendant bears the burden of proving the Fourth Amendment was implicated, United States v. Hernandez, 847 F.3d 1257 (10th Cir. 2017), the government bears the burden of proving that the warrantless search was justified by one of the exceptions. United States v. Carhee, 27 F.3d 1493 (10th Cir. 1994). The “community-caretaking exception” is a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973). This exception allows the government to introduce evidence obtained through searches that were “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” Id. Noninvestigatory searches of automobiles under the community caretaking function do not offend the Fourth Amendment, as long as the activities are warranted in terms of state law or sound police procedure, and are justified by concern for the safety of the general public. United States v. Lugo, 978 F.2d 631 (10th Cir. 1992).

The “exclusionary rule” provides that when the government obtains evidence through an unconstitutional search, the evidence is inadmissible. Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963). If an unlawful act or unlawfully obtained evidence leads to the discovery of additional evidence, that additional evidence is also inadmissible as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” Id. But there are also exceptions to the exclusionary rule, one of which is the “inevitable discovery doctrine.” United States v. White, 326 F.3d 1135 (10th Cir. 2003). The inevitable discovery doctrine permits the government to use unlawfully obtained evidence if the government can prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the evidence would have been discovered by lawful means wholly divorced from the unlawful search. Id. In determining whether the government has met its burden of proof, courts look at “demonstrated historical facts” and not speculative elements or what could have or might have occurred. Id.

In the instant case, Clinton’s act of lifting the camper lid to help Parrish retrieve her belongings was indeed a search, the Court stated. Neugin had covered the bed of his pickup with a camper, hiding the contents from public view. As such, he had an expectation of privacy that society was willing to recognize. Clinton’s act of lifting the lid to the camper was not “warranted in terms of state law or sound police procedure, and [was not] justified by concern for the safety of the general public.” Clinton and Wofford could have stayed with Neugin while Parrish went to the truck by herself to retrieve her belongings. Consequently, the community-caretaking exception does not apply to Clinton’s act of opening the camper, the Court concluded.

As such, the Court ruled that the search was unlawful, and thus, the evidence of the ammunition and shotgun were subject to the exclusionary rule as fruit of the poisonous tree. The Government argued that the evidence would have been inevitably discovered when the truck was impounded and inventoried. But the Court determined that the truck was impounded only after Neugin was arrested based on the unlawful search. Neugin’s arrest was not wholly divorced from Clinton’s unlawful activity, the Court explained. The Government had not shown that Clinton would have inevitably discovered the ammunition or shotgun by lawful means and then lawfully arrested Neugin. Without arrest, the truck would not have inevitably been impounded. The truck was in a parking lot, and Neugin could have called his own towing service or a mechanic. The Court pointed out that the Government cannot meet its burden of proof based on what might have or could have happened.

The Court concluded that Clinton unconstitutionally searched the truck when he opened the camper and looked inside. He exceeded any community-caretaking role, and the police would not have inevitably discovered the evidence absent the Fourth Amendment violation. Because Clinton’s unlawful act caused the discovery of the ammunition and firearm, the evidence should have been suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree.

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Related legal case

United States v. Neugin



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