Wednesday, November 25, 2009

It lives! The Fourth Amendment lives!

In a decision handed down on October 29, 2009, the United States Court of Affirms, er... Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, reversed a trial court ruling and ordered evidence in a drug case obtained by a warrantless search be suppressed.

In US v. Menchaca-Castruita, McAllen (Texas) police were called to investigate a large marijuana stash and an alleged assault. It turns out that Mr. Menchaca was two months behind in his rent when his landlord knocked on his door. When Mr. Menchaca didn't answer, the landlord's husband went around and knocked on a window and asked Mr. Menchaca to come to the door. When he opened the door, the landlord was shocked to see packages of marijuana in the living room.

Mr. Menchaca offered to pay his back rent immediately if the landlord would just forget about what she had seen. When she threatened to call the police, Mr. Menchaca begged her not to do so. After she called the police he grabbed a tire iron from his truck and threatened the landlord -- never touching her. Then he left.

When the local police arrived an officer went to the door of the rental unit (it was partially ajar) and, smelling marijuana, went in without a warrant. He must have thought he hit the mother lode when he found over 700 pounds of pot in the house.

Mr. Menchaca was arrested shortly after returning to the house to retrieve his belongings and he was charged with aggravated assault (state offense) and possession with intent to deliver marijuana (federal charge).

Mr. Menchaca filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained through the search arguing that the warrantless search was unreasonable given the circumstances. The prosecutor argued that exigent circumstances existed and that the officer was justified in entering the house without a warrant. At the suppression hearing the officer testified that he was worried for his safety, and the safety of others, because drug dealers tended to have firearms, and other weaponry, near their stashes.

The trial court ruled against Mr. Menchaca who was later found guilty after a bench trial.

On appeal the Court found that there were no exigent circumstances justifying the warrantless search of Mr. Menchaca's house. The Court pointed out that the evidence indicated that there was no one in the house when the officer arrived. The Court also found that there was no danger of the evidence being destroyed as the area was secured by police officers. In addition, testimony at the hearing on the motion to suppress indicated that the house was in a municipality and that it would have been relatively easy for the officer to obtain a search warrant for Mr. Menchaca's house.

In its decision, the Court pointed out that a warrantless search based upon exigent circumstances should be the exception, not the rule.

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