Supreme Court Watch *UPDATE 2/23/15

The following are recent Supreme Court cases and opinions relating to criminal law discussed and analyzed.  We break down the cases with specific analysis for the affect on practitioners.  This page will be updated as opinions are published.

Rodriguez v. United States; De Minimis Car Searches
Rodriguez v. United States
Docket Number: 13-9972
Argument Heard: TBD

The Supreme Court has previously held that, during an otherwise lawful traffic stop, asking a driver to exit a vehicle, conducting a drug sniff with a trained canine, or asking a few off-topic questions are "de minimis" intrusions on personal liberty that do not require reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in order to comport with the Fourth Amendment.[1]  This case poses the question of whether the same rule applies after the conclusion of the traffic stop, so that an officer may extend the already-completed stop for a canine sniff without reasonable suspicion or other lawful justification.

Petitioner Denny Rodriguez was convicted of one count of possessing with intent to distribute fifty grams or more of a mixture of a substance containing methamphetamines.  Rodriguez was driving with his passenger Scott Pollman on a highway in Nebraska at around midnight when he abruptly steered from the shoulder of the highway back into the right lane.  Officer Morgan Struble of the Valley Police Department in Nebraska witnessed Rodriguez’s maneuver and initiated a traffic stop to investigate the occurrence.  Struble pulled Rodriguez over at 12:06 A.M.

While approaching Rodriguez’s vehicle, Struble took note of the strong smell of air freshener emanating from Rodriguez’s car.  Struble’s experience as a law enforcement officer gave him suspicion that the use of the air freshener was being used to hide the odor of drugs inside the car.  In addition to the tremendous smell, Struble noticed Pollman never made eye contact with Struble, kept his hat low over his eyes, and constantly stared out of the front windshield.  Immediately after running a background check on Rodriguez, Struble asked where Rodriguez and Pollman were coming from so late at night.  Pollman responded that they had traveled to see a car on sale in a town four hours from Omaha;  however, they had not seen pictures of the car, nor did the car have insurance according to Pollman, thus he decided against purchasing the car.  Struble believed the story suspicious but did not investigate further.

Struble returned to his car to do a quick background check on Pollman and additionally requested a backup officer to assist him as a safety precaution.  At approximately 12:27 A.M. Struble gave Rodriguez a written warning and asked to walk his drug sniffing canine around Rodriguez’s car.  Rodriguez promptly refused and Struble directed that he step out of the vehicle.   After the second patrol officer arrived approximately seven minutes after Struble issued Rodriguez’s warning, Struble walked his dog around Rodriguez’s car;  the dog announced the presence of drugs after only twenty seconds.  Struble then searched the car and found a big bag containing methamphetamines.

The District Court for the District of Nebraska indicted Rodriguez, found that Struble did not subject Rodriguez to an extended search of his car.  The court held that Struble acted reasonably in waiting for a second officer to arrive in order to ensure Struble’s safety and that the actual search of the car after the issuance of the warning was a de minimis search.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision contending that the search was extended for a short period of time only because Struble was concerned about his safety.  The use of the dog after issuance of the warning was also minimally intrusive and affirmed.

Rodriguez argues that the length of time he was forced to wait after being issued his warning was unlawful and violated his Fourth Amendment rights.  Rodriguez distinguishes his case from Illinois v. Caballes because in Caballes the drug sniffing dog was deployed during the writing of the citation and thus under the umbrella of the actual stop.  Here Struble conducted his drug sniffing dog search after issuing Rodriguez his written warning, a point in time where an individual is lawfully allowed to leave the scene of the traffic stop and that any officer holding him back from doing so is unlawfully prolonging a stop.

The Government posits that because Struble was alone at night, faced with two individuals acting suspiciously, and fearful of any sort of attack, he was justified in prolonging the stop seven to eight minutes to ensure backup arrived.  The Government uses United States v. Alexander, an Eighth Circuit case, to demonstrate that a search occurring four minutes after a stop was deemed lawful and so minimally intrusive it did not violate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights.  The Government also uses Terry v. Ohio to justify the “patdown” of the car because Struble’s heightened suspicion that “criminal activity may be afoot.”[2]

Yet to be released

The Supreme Court will likely affirm the Government’s argument; however, it will need to establish a rule about what constitutes a reasonable time after a citation or warning is given in which a police officer can use a canine to search a car.  A court will interpret reasonable length of time differently according to the size of the vehicle, for example a semi-truck with a trailer attached will command a more extensive dog search because of its massive size than will a family sedan.  This case will give law enforcement officials greater leeway to search an individual’s car after a traffic stop so long as relevant circumstances are apparent such as the officer’s knowledge of the neighborhood of the stop as a high crime area or a relatively crime free area, time of the stop, and how many officers are present at the stop.  This case will continue the long line of cases the Supreme Court has dealt with regarding traffic stops and the automobile exception first established in Carroll v. United States[3].

Written by Brian Zack
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

[1] See Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 407-08 (2005) (asserting that a search or seizure of a car becomes unlawful when the time required to complete the search takes longer than reasonably expected. Additionally, use of a drug sniffing does not make a search unlawful unless the dog sniff search violated privacy rights implied in the constitution).
[2] Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30 (1968).
[3] See Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 153 (1925) (holding that the search of a “ship, motorboat, wagon, or automobile” is lawful under the circumstances because a warrant may not be obtained in time and because the vehicle’s mobility requires quick action).

Whitfield v. United States: De Minimis Movements

Whitfield v. United States
Docket No. 13-9026
Argument Date: Dec. 2, 2014

On December 2, 2014, the Supreme Court of United States will decide whether 18 U.S.C. § 2113(e), which applies to a bank robber who forces another person to accompany him while in flight from the crime scene, requires proof of more than a de minimis movement of the victim.  § 2113(e) states: “whoever, in committing any offense defined in this section [bank robbery], … forces any person to accompany him without the consent of such person, shall be imprisoned not less than ten years, or if death results shall be punished by death or life imprisonment.”  Federal circuit courts differ on how to interpret the words “to accompany him.”  The Fifth and Tenth Circuits have held force-accompaniment only happens upon a showing of substantial movement of a victim as compared to what usually happens during a bank robbery.  However, the Fourth Circuit held that this section applies to all forced movements no matter how insubstantial.

On September 26, 2008, Larry Whitfield and Quanterrious McCoy tried to rob the Fort Financial Credit Union in North Carolina.  After their failed attempt, Whitfield and McCoy separated and fled.  Whitfield ran into Mary Parnell’s house where he attempted to contact a friend to pick him up.  At his time Whitfield engaged in conduct that caused his forced-accompaniment conviction.  Upon entering Parnell’s house Whitefield saw that Parnell started crying.  He then stated, “I don’t have no weapons and I’m not here to hurt you.  I just need somewhere to stay.”  In one statement, Whitfield indicates that he asked Parnell where he can hide and told her “to go into the computer room.”  This statement gives the implication of force.  However, another statement indicates, after asking Parnell where he can stay, that they both “just took … the first room” and sat down on the chairs.  These statements show de minimis force of part of Whitfield.  Shortly after, while Whitfield was trying to contact his friend, Parnell died of a heart attack.  Whitfield ran out of the house and was arrested in the woods.  McCoy is later found hiding under a parked car.  The Court of Appeals affirmed Whitfield’s conviction on the grounds that his conduct, no matter how insubstantial, falls under § 2113(e) forced accompaniment provision.

Whitfield argues that Congress intended the provision to apply in rare circumstances, such as when robbers take hostages to help them escape.  Legislative history on § 2113 called the provision the “kidnapping provision” after John Dillinger used human shields to flee from banks.  Therefore, Congress intended § 2113(e) to cover egregious conduct and not trivial, de minimis movement.  Also, the word “accompany” refers to substantial distance, and in this case Parnell only moved a few feet within her home.  Under the Government’s broad interpretation, if during a bank robbery any person is forced to move, the robber will face significantly higher penalties. Whitfield sees this as an extreme provision that Congress did not intend.

The Government, on the other hand, argues that the statute provides no support for the substantial distance requirement.  And the word “accompany” only refers to two or more people moving and does not require travel.  The forced accompanying of a bank robber is a terrifying experience that needs to be subjected to increased penalties.  The Government separates that all bank robberies that require forced movement by focusing on the word “accompanying.”  Accompanying is when the robber follows the victim after giving them a direct order and is different from forced movement generally.  And finally the requirement that the victim travel a distance seems arbitrary to the Government.  The distance test would be unpredictable and hard to mandate.

The Government’s arguments are weak but have found success because the defendant is not able to prove the statute says anything favoring its position.  The Government’s argument about accompanying makes no sense since robbers who force victims around the bank usually follow someone unintentionally.  I believe the Supreme Court will overturn the conviction of Whitfield on the basis that the movement being so trivial or de minimis it can fall under force-accompanied movement.

Written by Hassan Mukhlis
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

Heien v. North Carolina: Is a Reasonable Mistake Enough to Warrant a Traffic Stop?

Hein v. United States
Docket No.  13-604
Argument Date:  Oct. 6, 2014

On December 15, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that a police officer’s reasonable mistake of law was enough to establish reasonable suspicion to justify a traffic stop and that it did not violate the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Whether a police officer’s mistake of law can provide reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment.

On April 29, 2009 Sergeant Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department was stationed on Interstate 77 watching traffic.  While he was there, he saw a Ford Escort, which was driven by Maynor Javier Vasquez.  While the Escort was slowing down and driver was applying the breaks, one of the taillights failed to light up. As a result, Sergeant Darisse pulled the Escort over and told the driver, Maynor Javier Vasquez, that he stopped the car “for a nonfunctioning brake light.”  Mr. Heien was in the passenger rear of the car.  During the traffic stop, Mr. Vasquez and Mr. Heien gave conflicting stories about where they were going and Sergeant Darisse began to suspect that there was contraband present in the car.

Although only issuing a warning about the taillight, Sergeant Darisse asked both Mr. Vasquez and Mr. Heien if there was contraband in the car and they said no.  Mr. Vasquez and Mr. Heien also consented to a search of the vehicle.  At this time another officer reported to the scene and aided Sergeant Darisse in thoroughly searching the car.  In the side compartment Sergeant Darisse found a sandwich bag of cocaine and arrested both Mr. Heien and Mr. Vasquez.  They were charged with two counts of trafficking in cocaine.
In trial, Mr. Heien tried to suppress the cocaine evidence stating that it was obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.  After both officers testified and a video of the stop was shown, the trial court judge denied the motion to suppress and stated that the faulty light had given Sergeant Darisse reasonable suspicion to conduct the stop.  The trial judge further stated that the consent to the search was valid.  While reserving his right to appeal Mr. Heien plead guilty.  On appeal, the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed stating that the initial stop was not valid since driving with one brake light was not actually a violation of North Carolina law.[1]  Although concluding that the a faulty brake light was not a violation of the law, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that Sergeant Darisse could have reasonably believed, despite it being a mistake, that the vehicle code required that both brake lights be in good working order.  It held that Sergeant Darisse’s mistake was a reasonable one and therefore conducting the stop was valid.

The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed on discretionary review and held that there was reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle and that a reasonable mistake of law can provide reasonable suspicion. On remand, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that the search of the Escort was valid and the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed.

After stating the facts of the case, Chief Justice Roberts went into the Court’s jurisprudence regarding the Fourth Amendment.  The Fourth Amendment prevents the unreasonable searches and seizures of people or things.[2] The touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is “reasonableness.”  In determining reasonableness, the Supreme Court has previously stated that the Fourth Amendment allows for mistakes of fact and those can be reasonable.  Chief Justice Roberts reasoned that mistakes of law can also be allowed in regards to reasonable suspicion, saying that reasonable suspicion stems from the officers combined understanding of both the facts and the relevant law.  In coming to this conclusion, Chief Justice Roberts looked to a number of Nineteenth Century cases showing that mistakes of law would justify probable cause in seizures under federal law.   While the facts in these old cases are not on point with the issue presented in the present case, Chief Justice Roberts stated that no Supreme Court decisions have undermined the understanding that reasonable mistakes of law can excuse governmental action.  Ultimately, the mistakes need to be “those of reasonable men.”  In looking at the statute that was at issue in the case, namely the issue with whether one or all stop lamps on the car need to be working, the Justices in the case saw that the law was ambiguous.  Chief Justice Roberts stated that since the statute refers to “a stop lamp” it could refer to the need for one stop lamp to work.  However, later on in the statute, it states that vehicles need to “have all originally equipped rear lamps or the equivalent in good working order,” and this could mean that if the car has more than one stop lamp, all of them must be working. [3] Given this reasonable possible interpretation, the Court affirmed the North Carolina Supreme Court opinion.

At first blush, it seems that the Court’s ruling is very favorable to police conduct in regards to mistakes of law.  However, the mistakes need to be “objectively reasonable.”  As such, officers still need to understand the law and cannot rely on their subjective understanding of the law.
Given that understanding, it does not appear that the Court’s ruling changed anything about the interpretation of the Fourth Amendment.  Rather, it just added the idea that reasonable mistakes of law for ambiguous statutes is permissible.  With this addition, lawyers, both defense and prosecution, have the opportunity to make arguments about whether a stop was justified if the underlying law supporting the stop was objectively ambiguous.  

Cassandre Plantin
Senior Editor, Criminal Law Practitioner

Henderson v. United States: The Battle for Firearm Property Protection
Henderson v. United States
Docket No.: 13-1487
Argument Heard: Feb 24, 2015

The Supreme Court will have to decide if a felony conviction takes away a defendant’s full property interest in his or her firearms.  Under Federal Law a felony conviction makes it unlawful for a defendant to possess a firearms.  However, can a defendant upon conviction transfer his firearms to a third- party or sell the firearms for personal benefits.

Tony Henderson, a Florida man, was convicted on drug charges and forced to give up his firearms.  Henderson was a former Border Patrol agent who was convicted of distributing marijuana and other drug offenses and  was sentenced to six months in prison.  After his arrest, Henderson voluntarily turned over his nineteen firearms to the FBI.  However, shortly after he wanted to sell the guns to an unrelated third party or just transfer the ownership of the guns to his wife.  The FBI declined Henderson’s requests to transfer the firearms to either of the individuals identified. Henderson then filed a “Motion for the Return/Disposition of Property” in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida.  Both the District Court and the Circuit Court refused his request.  The Court of Appeals held that because Henderson was a convicted felon he had “unclean hands to demand return of his firearms” even though he “did not use those firearms in furtherance of his offense.”


The government believes the court of appeals is correct and that the circuit courts are not divided on this issue.  The government believes that Henderson’s view that the government can transfer interest on his behalf is false because this “transaction would vest the supposedly extinguished interest in a third party” or of persons of Henderson’s own choosing.  The government also contends that the petitioner gave the firearm over voluntarily after he plead guilty and he could have sold his interest prior to the conviction.  The government also states that it is unsafe to give a felon access to guns because he could easily retrieve them, especially if they belong to his wife.

It is hard to say what the Supreme Court is likely to do.  This dispute is becoming a fight for gun control.  On one side are the Gun Owners of America and National Rifle Association, and on the other side is the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.  It is clear the outcome will have an effect on gun owners and their ability to keep possessory interest.  I believe that the Supreme Court will side with the Government and not allow possessory interest.  It seems like Henderson could have sold or transferred his guns before his conviction.  Both lower courts denied to hear his case and I think the Supreme Court took this case to set all of the Circuit Courts straight and to rule that the a felon loses all possessory interest in firearms.  This is a safer alternative then allowing the felon to sell or transfer his gun collection to others after his conviction. Allowing the felon to sell or transfer would allow the felon easy has access to the firearms.  The reason for having this federal law would be defeated if felons could keep possessory interest.

Hassan Mukhlis
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

[1] citing State v. Heien, 714 S.E.2d 827, 831 (2011).
[3] citing N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 20-129(g). 

No comments:

Post a Comment