The Eighth Circuit Holds That Omaha Police Can't Run Into A Hotel Room Without A Warrant Even When They Just Finished A Very Exciting Chase And Are Proud Of Themselves For Finding The People They Were Looking For
It must be hard for the police to be hot on a chase, then have to slow down to get a warrant.
But, even though the police are excited from being on the trail of a suspected drug mule, the Eighth Circuit held, in United States v. Ramirez, that just because the police are hurrying to get their man, they still have to get a warrant to search his room.
The Great Omaha Goose Chase
A Greyhound bus traveling across the country stopped in Omaha for a rest break. We don't know how, but the police arrested two men from the bus for having heroin in their shoes. The men flipped quick, and told the police that they were traveling with at least one more man who also had heroin in his shoes.
The police went looking for the third man.
They found some luggage from the bus that no passenger claimed - in one of the bags was a photo ID of a man named Hector Cruz.
The bus driver said he was missing five passengers - the two men who had been arrested and three other men.
The bus company said that the five who were missing all purchased their tickets in cash within a few minutes of each other. And all of them purchased one-way tickets from San Diego to Newark.
The officers set out looking for the other three men.
They called cab companies to see who had picked someone up from the bus station. A cab company led them to a nearby Best Western.
At the Best Western, the police learned that three men - one of whom matched the photo of Hector Cruz - had arrived earlier, but didn't check in. The cops learned the men took a cab to a Comfort Inn.
At the Comfort Inn, the police saw video showing that three men - one of whom matched the photo of Hector Cruz - arrived in a cab, but didn't enter the motel.
Instead, they went to McDonald's. Looking at the video, the police thought the men were walking as though they had heroin in their shoes.
At the McDonald's the police learned that the men asked for a phone book. They called a cab, and took it to an Econo Lodge.
At the Econo Lodge, the desk clerk confirmed that three men checked in and that one of them looked like the man in Hector Cruz's photo ID. They were given room 220.
The Econo Lodge clerk, who I imagine to be a kindly Nebraskan grandmother, embroidering an inspirational saying onto a doily as she talked to the police (perhaps "Everyday is a gift, that's why they call it the present", attributed to Kung Fu Panda 2), gave the police a key card to access room 220.
At Room 220
At Room 220, six police immediately set up to go into the room. It was perhaps two and a half hours since they had been at the bus station. The police established perimeter surveillance. One officer listened at the door and heard nothing.
He inserted the keycard.
It didn't work.
The police officer went to Plan B. He knocked at the door, covered the keyhole, and said (I like to think, in a faux female voice) "housekeeping".
A man came to the door, opened it, saw the police, and tried to close the door.
The police stopped him and forced their way inside.
Once inside, they saw shoes like the ones that the two other men from the bus station were wearing. The kind of shoes that, before, had contained heroin.
The shoes in room 220 also contained heroin.
The Motion To Suppress
One of the men, Ramirez, was arrested. (I assume the others were too, but there's nothing in the opinion about that). His lawyer filed a motion to suppress, because there was no warrant.
The district court in Omaha denied the motion. The court found that exigent circumstances justified the warrantless search.
The police generally do not need a warrant if stopping to get a warrant would give the people they're chasing more time to destroy evidence - like heroin - or hurt someone. So, here, the district court said that the police reasonably though that the drugs were likely to be destroyed if they went to get one.
The district court determined that the police could reasonably fear that the men in the room would destroy evidence because:
1) one of the investigators reasonably believed the men were attempting to elude the officers after they witnessed the officers arrest the two men at the bus stop; 2) the men in room 220 had purchased one-way tickets to Newark, New Jersey, with cash, and were not from Omaha; and 3) after the officers announced their presence, Cruz attempted to shut the door to prevent the officers from entering the room.
The Eighth Circuit
The Eighth Circuit disagreed. First it considered the third point that justified exigency - that the man who came to the door would not let the police in - and rejected it.
Basically, a citizen gets to slam the door on the police (as long as you don't hit the police with the door). Just because a person refuses to let the police into his house does not mean that the police can go in without a warrant. There wouldn't be much of a warrant requirement in the constitution if the rule were different.
when the police knock on a door but the occupants choose not to respond or speak, or maybe even choose to open the door and then close it, or when no one does anything incriminating, the officers must bear the consequences of the method of investigation they've chosen. At that point, if their method fails, "the investigation will have reached a conspicuously low point,' and the occupants 'will have the kind of warning that even the most elaborate security system cannot provide." . . . Accordingly, crediting these officers with conducting a run-of-the-mill attempt to simply knock and gain entry, [the man who opened the door] was under no obligation to allow the officers to enter the premises at that point and was likewise within his bounds in his attempt to close the door. That he did so, without more, does not bolster the claim that it was reasonable to conclude that the destruction of evidence was imminent.
As to the first point justifying exigency - the court of appeals found that there was no reason to think the men knew the police were after them. They'd been in the hotel room for half an hour when the cops showed up. If they were going to flush the heroin because the police were chasing, they probably would have already done it.
On the last point, the court of appeals gave it little discussion, but basically no weight. It's probably too obvious to say that it's unlikely that someone would travel to Omaha with heroin just to flush it in a Nebraska toilet.
And, with that, the heroin was suppressed. Good luck in the future, to Mr. Carlos Ramirez.
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