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Seventh Circuit: Fugitive’s Cell Phone Tracked to Apartment Building Does Not Establish Reasonable Suspicion of Criminal Activity for Warrantless Seizure and Search of All Occupants and Apartments in Building

by Anthony W. Accurso

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that GPS location data of a fugitive’s cell phone putting it at a particular apartment building does not establish reasonable suspicion of criminal activity by all the occupants of the building justifying the warrantless investigative seizure and search of every occupant and apartment in the building. 

Ernesto Godinez was wanted in connection with the shooting of an undercover ATF agent in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago on May 4th, 2018. Two days later, agents tracked a cell phone they believed belonged to Godinez to an apartment building. They saw Destiny Rodriguez, Godinez’s girlfriend, leaving the building around 5:00 p.m. and detained her. Approximately two hours later, they entered the building to search for Godinez.

While teams of agents went in various directions, one team proceeded through a door and up a stairway. “About halfway up the stairs, they realized that the stairs did not merely lead to a common area of the second floor, but instead led directly into a second-floor apartment.”

They called out to any occupants, and Jose Segoviano appeared at the top of the stairs. The agents asked if any other persons were present and requested to search his apartment to locate the fugitive. Segoviano indicted that no one else was present in the apartment and consented to a search of it for the fugitive. Agents then “removed Segoviano from the apartment, and cuffed him, and conducted the limited search.”

After they failed to locate Godinez (or anyone else), the agents brought Segoviano back into his apartment still in handcuffs. Without providing Miranda warnings, they proceeded to interrogate him. When Segoviano asked the agents if he was under arrest, they responded that he was “detained.”

During questioning, Segoviano stated there was marijuana and cocaine in the apartment, as well as firearms for which he possessed a Firearm Owners’ Identification card. The agents informed him his admissions would be sufficient cause to obtain a search warrant for his apartment, so he consented to a more thorough search. This second search “yielded four firearms, approximately 2.28 kg of marijuana, and approximately 95 g of cocaine.”

Segoviano was never charged with any offense linked to Godinez; instead, he was charged with possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

He filed a pretrial motion to suppress all evidence obtained after he was brought back into his apartment while handcuffed and questioned, claiming that he was illegally detained and that he should have been released after the agents determined Godinez was not in the apartment. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois denied his motion.

He then entered a conditional guilty plea, which allowed him to appeal the denial of his suppression motion. On appeal, he argued that the evidence should be suppressed because: “(1) the statements and consent were given during an unlawful detention and therefore were not voluntary; (2) the statements and search were the result of an unlawfully extended detention, which continued beyond law enforcement’s stated purpose, and therefore were not voluntary; and (3) the statements were obtained as a result of a Miranda-less custodial interrogation.”

The Court began its analysis by reiterating the frequently stated constitutional principle that the “very core” of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures is a person’s “right … to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable government intrusion.” Caniglia v. Strom, 141 S. Ct. 1596 (2021); Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1 (2013). It observed that “absent permission, the threshold of a home therefore cannot be crossed without a warrant, subject to certain exceptions which enable law enforcement officials to address emergency situations presenting a ‘compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.’” Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373 (2021). Fourth Amendment protections apply to both seizures as well as searches equally. Steagald v. United States, 451 U.S. 204 (1981).   

One recognized exception to the warrant requirement to enter and search a home is to prevent a suspect’s escape. Lange v. California, 141 S. Ct. 2011 (2021). The Court noted that because of the primacy of one’s home under the Fourth Amendment, it is “entitled to special protection.” Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1980). In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to recognize a categorial exception to the warrant requirement to catch a fleeing suspect into his home. Lange (police not constitutionally permitted to apprehend a fleeing misdemeanant into his home without a warrant). When the exception to the warrant requirement applies, great care must be observed in ensuring the search is strictly limited to the scope and purpose that gave rise to the exception in the first place. See Lange; see also Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103 (2006). Additionally, even with probable cause, law enforcement generally may not enter a home to make an arrest in the absence of consent or exigent circumstances. Steagald.   

Another recognized exception to the warrant requirement for a warrantless seizure is a Terry stop, which permits the police to briefly detain a person for investigatory purposes on the basis of reasonable suspicion based upon articulable facts that criminal activity may be occurring. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968); United States v. Wilbourn, 799 F.3d 900 (7th Cir. 2015). The Court explained that although several other circuits have held that a Terry stop is inapplicable in a home or its curtilage, the Seventh Circuit has held that a Terry stop can be constitutional under certain circumstances. See United States v. Richmond, 924 F.3d 404 (7th Cir. 2019). The Court stated that it need not revisit that issue in the present case because the “reasonable suspicion standard cannot be met here even if we set aside any question as to the applicability of the Terry exception.”

The Court explained that “reasonable suspicion” is less than probable cause or preponderance of the evidence but cannot be satisfied by a mere hunch. Wilbourn. An investigatory Terry stop must be based on “some objective manifestation that the person stopped is, or is about to be, engaged in criminal activity … [or] is wanted for past criminal conduct.” United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411 (1981). Based on the totality of the circumstances, the detaining officer “must have a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.” Id.; Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47 (1979).

Turning to the present case, the Court stated that it need not address the issue of whether Segoviano’s initial seizure and handcuffing during the consensual sweep of his home was constitutional because the continuation of that seizure after the sweep failed to locate Godinez undoubtedly violated Segoviano’s Fourth Amendment rights. 

The Court flatly rejected the Government’s argument that the agents had reasonable suspicion to believe that Segoviano was engaged in criminal activity — harboring a fugitive — based on the fact that cell phone location data put Godinez’s phone in the vicinity of Segoviano’s apartment building, his girlfriend was seen leaving the building, and Segoviano lived in an apartment in the building. That’s the totality of the circumstances on which the District Court concluded agents had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity by Segoviano, but the Court ruled that those facts “are insufficient as a matter of law to constitute reasonable suspicion that Segoviano was harboring a fugitive.”

The Court stated there are “absolutely no facts tying Segoviano or his apartment to Godinez.” The agents lacked a “particularized suspicion” based on “some objective manifestation of criminal activity” linking Segoviano in particular to wrongdoing, i.e., harboring a fugitive, the Court explained. See Cortez. Based on the Government’s position, there was reasonable suspicion with respect to the entire building and every apartment within. However, the Court chided: “We have repeatedly and consistently held that ‘[a] mere suspicion of illegal activity at a particular place is not enough to transfer that suspicion to anyone who leaves that property.’” United States v. Bohman, 683 F.3d 861 (7th Cir. 2012); United States v. Rickmon, 952 F.3d 876 (7th Cir. 2020); see Ybarra v. Illinois, 444 U.S. 85 (1979). In order for the agents to establish reasonable suspicion to seize Segoviano, they must show that they had information in their possession at the time of seizure that he was “not simply proximate to criminal activity but a participant in it.” United States v. Richards, 719 F.3d 746 (7th Cir. 2013). Thus, the Court ruled that the “facts are insufficient to support a finding of reasonable suspicion under Terry and therefore insufficient to support prolonging” Segoviano’s detention following the sweep of his apartment.

The Court added that because Segoviano’s continued detention after the sweep violated his Fourth Amendment rights, the Government can’t rely on the evidence obtained after that unconstitutional seizure and resultant search to justify his continued detention in the first instance.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the District Court’s decision denying the motion to suppress and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: United States v. Segoviano, 30 F.4th 613 (7th Cir. 2022). 

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