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De Novo Review And Clear Error Review Of Fourth Amendment Search And Seizure Issues: Mixed Questions Of Law And Fact


de novo review and clear error review, criminal appeals lawyer, mixed question of law and fact

United States v. Andino

United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

2014 WL 4548434

Decided on: September 16, 2014

2nd Circuit Applies De Novo Review To Determine Whether Police Search Was Objectively Reasonable

Blog By: Stephen N. Preziosi Esq., Criminal Appeals Lawyer

Issue: Whether exigent circumstances existed to justify a warrantless entry into Defendant’s home where Police knocked on Defendant’s door and his girlfriend shut the door closed, ran into the kitchen, turned the faucet on in an attempt to destroy evidence.

Summary: Defendant Montanez was arrested for selling cocaine to an informant cooperating with the Task Force. He told the DEA that he had cocaine at the house and provided the officers with a written consent to search the residence and told them that Andino, Defendant’s girlfriend, would know where the cocaine was located.

The agents arrived at Defendant’s house, knocked on the door and informed Andino that Montanez had been arrested by the DEA, had told the agents there was cocaine in the house, and had given consent to search the house and seize the cocaine. Andino slammed the door, ran into the kitchen where the Agents heard a faucet run, drawers being opened and closed, prompting them to believe drugs or evidence was being destroyed. The Officer’s entered the home and went into the kitchen where the faucet was still running. One officer noticed, in plain view, a plastic baggie in the sink containing a ‘milky white’ residue. The bag was subsequently submitted for analysis that confirmed the residue was cocaine and the Officer’s arrested Andino.

The District Court concluded that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless search, however, the Judge concluded that those exigent circumstanced did not still exist at the time the plastic baggie was located and seized because the officers had already obtained physical control over Andino and secured the house before entering the kitchen. The District Court suppressed the evidence and the Government appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit where the factual findings of the trial court were reviewed for clear error and conclusions of the law from the trial court was reviewed de novo.

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Holding: The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless entry into Defendants home and it was reasonable to conclude that Defendant was attempting to destroy evidence which allowed the agents to prevent the imminent destruction of that evidence.

Under clear error review, the Court of Appeals reviews the District Courts factual findings, viewing them in the light most favorable to the Defendant and it’s conclusion of law de novo. In sum, factual findings of the trial court are reviewed for clear error and conclusions of law of the trial court are reviewed de novo.

Facts: Defendant Montanez was arrested for the involvement in sales of cocaine to an informant cooperating with the Task Force. Montanez told the DEA that he had cocaine at the house and provided the officers with a written consent to search the residence and told them that Andino, Defendant’s girlfriend, would know where the cocaine was located.

The agents arrived at Defendant’s house, knocked on the door and informed Andino that Montanez had been arrested by the DEA, had told the agents there was cocaine in the house, and had given consent to search the house and seize the cocaine. Andino slammed the door, ran into the kitchen where the Agents heard a faucet run, drawers being opened and closed, prompting them to believe drugs or evidence was being destroyed. The Officer’s entered the home by removing a window air conditioning unit and directed Andino to open the front door to allow the rest of the search team to enter, which she did.

Two DEA agents remained with Andino and others in the search team, went into the kitchen where the faucet was still running. One officer noticed, in plain view, a plastic baggie in the sink containing a milky white residue. The bag was subsequently submitted for analysis that confirmed the residue was cocaine and the Officer’s arrested Andino.

The District Court concluded that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless search, however, the judge concluded that those exigent circumstanced did not still exist at the time the plastic baggie was located and seized because the officers had already obtained physical control over Andino and secured the hosue before entering the kitchen. The District Court suppressed the evidence.

The Government appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit where the Court reversed the District Courts order.

Legal Analysis: The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held, in evaluating the grant of a motion to suppress evidence, they will review the District Court’s factual findings for clear error, viewing them in the light most favorable to the Defendant, and its conclusions of law de novo. United States v. Murphy, 703 F.3d 182, 188-89 2d. Cir.2012

Under clear error review, the Court of Appeals held that they must be left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed in order to reverse a District Court’s exigent circumstances finding.

The reasonableness of a police action is a mixed question of law and fact that is reviewed de novo. Therefore, the Court of Appeals held that the ultimate determination of whether a search was objectively reasonable in light of exigent circumstances is a question of law reviewed de novo. United States v. Marin Moreno, 701 F.3d 64, 72 2d Cir. 2012. The need to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence has long been recognized as a sufficient justification for a warrantless search, Kentucky v. Kin, 131 S.Ct. 1859, 1856 2011.

In this case, the Court of Appeals turned to the District Court’s examination of the totality of the circumstances confronting the law enforcement agents. The Court of Appeals held that, the core question is whether the facts, as they appeared at the moment of entry, would lead a reasonable, experienced police officer to believe that there was an urgent need to render aid or take action, United Stats v. Klump, 536 F.3d 113, 117-18 2d Cir. 2008.

In answering this question, the Court of Appeals held that they often refer to factors described in United States v. MacDonald, 916 F.2d 766, 769-70 2d Cir. 1990, which held,

1) the gravity or violent nature of the offense with which the suspect is to be charged; 2) Whether the suspect is reasonably believed to be armed; 3) a clear showing of probable cause to believe that the suspect committed the crime; 4) strong reason to believe that the suspect is in the premises being entered;5) a likelihood that the suspect will escape.

Here, the officers reasonably believed Defendant was destroying evidence by washing cocaine down the kitchen sink. The objective of the warrantless entry was to stop the destruction of evidence, and the officer’s entry into the kitchen was limited to achieving the objective that justified the entry. Upon learning that the officers were looking for cocaine, the Defendant shut the front door, ran from the door, opened and closed drawers, and turned on the kitchen faucet.

The Court of Appeals held that it was reasonable for the officers to conclude that she was attempting to wash the cocaine down the kitchen sink. The faucet was still running when the Defendant was seized. It was securing her person and turning off the faucet that allowed the agents to stop the destruction of evidence.

Therefore, the officers’ entry into the kitchen after physically securing Defendant was justified by continuing exigent circumstances and the search did not exceed exigency. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the portion of the order of the District Court that suppressed the evidence seized from the kitchen and remanded the case.


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