Saturday, August 23, 2014

Officer Safety and Second Hand Smoke

Via John Wesley Hall at Fourth Amendment, a decision out of the 10th Circuit that puts an end to the pressing question of whether second hand smoke presents a sufficient justification to circumvent the 4th Amendment and enter a home without a warrant.  Lest you think this is too ridiculous to be worthy of consideration, bear in mind this is on appeal, the district court having denied suppression.

In United States v. Mongold, Special Agent Ashley Stephens (who apparently is male) of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (“ATF”) was investigating Claudia Moore, whom she knew to be a felon from prior dealings, for drug dealing. After conducting observations, she, together with three other agents, went to Moore's apartment to conduct a "knock and talk," since she lacked probable cause to get a warrant.

Aside: For those unaware, a "knock and talk" is a means of circumventing the warrant requirement by relying on submission to the shield, lies, fear and the possibility that the agents might either see or cause something to happen to give rise to an exception to the warrant requirement that would allow them to enter a home. And yes, it's been held to be perfectly lawful since anyone, cop or Fuller Brush salesman, can knock on your door and say "hi." Or scream "police", as the case may be.
According to the testimony, Stephens heard "scurrying and shuffling" inside the apartment upon her knocking on the door, "which immediately caused us concern." A male voice asked who it was, and after he responded "police," there were "loud movements" and a "short delay" before Mongold opened the door. That's when the bad stuff happened.

After the delay, Mr. Mongold, who had been living in the home for several months, opened the door. Agent Stephens smelled marijuana and recognized what he believed were prison tattoos on Mr. Mongold. Agent Stephens asked for Ms. Moore. Mr. Mongold told him that he would go get her and turned to walk to the back of the house to find her. The officers followed him inside even though they did not have permission to enter the house.

Once inside, they saw ammunition. Knowing that Moore was a prior felon, possession of ammunition was a crime, and it went downhill from there. Mongold, Moore and her two adult children subsequently consented to a search of the place, which found drugs and guns. 

The defendant moved to suppress before the district court, based on the initial warrantless entry. The government's argument below was that the smell of marijuana, combined with the "prison tats" on Mongold's arm, suggesting that he too was a felon, created a justifiable fear of officer safety, which allowed for Stephens to enter for a protective sweep. The court below also held the entry justified under exigent circumstances to preserve evidence.

The Circuit wasn't as impressed.  While the court acknowledged that the smell of marijuana is accepted as a basis to believe there is pot inside, it merely gives rise to a belief that it's basic possession of marijuana.

Based on the foregoing, if marijuana possession is the only crime for which the officers in this case had probable cause, the exigency exception for destruction of evidence should not apply because marijuana possession is not a serious crime.

But that wasn't the only argument.  There remained their deep concern for the safety from the smell (yes, I'm being facetious calling it "second hand smoke," because it's unclear whether the smell is smoke or fresh pot, and the opinion really has nothing to do with the second-hand smoke aspect in any event).

At the suppression hearing, Agent Stephens argued that he feared for his and the other officers' safety because the home's owner, Ms. Moore, was a known felon, and he suspected Mr. Mongold was a felon as well, based on his "prison tattoos."

Officer safety is not an alternative ground to affirm because the first element of the test is dispositive. The Government presented no evidence that the officers had "reasonable grounds to believe that there [was] immediate need to protect their lives or others." Before entering the home, the officers had not seen a weapon or any other indication of heightened danger.

Even the use of cool active verbs ("scurrying"), curious descriptors ("loud movements") and expressions of deep concern reflecting both the terrible, life-and-death dangers of conducting a "knock and talk" to circumvent the Constitution, didn't sway the court.  Instead, the court reached the conclusion of remarkably wisdom:

They could most easily have protected the officers' safety by leaving Ms. Moore's home, not by entering it.

An idea so radical, so outlandish, that it never occurred to either the agents or the prosecutors: walk away. While this might make for good fodder to be chiseled into the lintels over courthouses everywhere, the bad news is that the opinion, while persuasive, is not precedential:

This order and judgment is not binding precedent, except under the doctrines of law of the case, res judicata, and collateral estoppel. It may be cited, however, for its persuasive value.

This, of course, means that the next time a second-hand smoke case arises, the district judge may not be willing to adopt such a radical concept as expecting the agents to walk away rather than conduct a warrantless search of a home after smelling marijuana or seeing prison tats, because they're very scary to agents.

And don't discount the possibility that if the odor was of burning pot, the agents would be authorized to break down the door to protect themselves from the second hand smoke. Truth is, this opinion doesn't preclude such a holding at all. It could still happen.





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