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United States v. Elmore.

No. 22-1432. 5/21/2024. D.Colo. Judge Moritz. Seizure of Premises—Fourth Amendment—Search Warrant—Exclusionary Rule.

May 21, 2024

Elmore found his son in the son’s bedroom in Elmore’s house unresponsive, unconscious, and not breathing. Elmore suspected a drug overdose, and law enforcement officers and an emergency medical team responded. By the time help arrived, Elmore had moved his son from the bedroom to a sidewalk area outside the home. An emergency medical technician (EMT) asked if Elmore knew what drugs his son had taken, and Elmore led the EMT inside the house where they found an open metal box in his son’s bedroom that included fentanyl, propofol, and used drug paraphernalia. The EMT took the box, and the entire team then transported Elmore’s son to the nearest hospital, which was about an hour away. Elmore followed the ambulance in a separate vehicle. Shortly thereafter, detective Smith directed two officers to secure the Elmore home and prevent anyone from entering. A couple of hours later, Elmore’s wife Hayes arrived with their young child, and they were denied entry into the home. Hayes explained that there were unsupervised pets inside the home in need of care and said that she would consent to a search of Elmore’s son’s bedroom, but officers did not accept her offer. When Elmore arrived back at the home shortly thereafter, he also consented to a search of his son’s bedroom if the family could re-enter the home. Officers continued to refuse the family entry into the home. During the course of the home seizure, an officer saw a gun safe inside the home, and officers found out that Elmore had prior felony convictions. After allowing almost eight hours to elapse, officers applied for and obtained a search warrant, searched Elmore’s home, and discovered two firearms in his bedroom. Elmore was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He moved to suppress the evidence, and the district court denied the motion. Elmore entered a conditional guilty plea to being a felon in possession of a firearm.

On appeal, Elmore challenged the district court’s order denying his motion to suppress. He argued that the initial seizure of his home was unreasonable because officers lacked probable cause to believe the home contained his son’s drugs or other evidence of drug possession and had no reason to fear anyone would destroy evidence. Elmore further maintained that even if the initial seizure was justified, the seizure became unreasonable because officers made no effort to protect his interests and extended the seizure much longer than was reasonably necessary to obtain the search warrant. The Tenth Circuit assumed that probable cause and exigency justified the initial seizure. Accordingly, pursuant to Illinois v. McArthur, 531 U.S. 326 (2001), it assessed the seizure’s reasonableness based on (1) whether officers reasonably attempted to reconcile law enforcement needs with personal privacy demands and (2) whether the restraint lasted no longer than reasonably necessary for police, exercising diligence, to obtain the warrant. Here, officers denied Elmore entry into his home, even though allowing police-supervised entry would have achieved law enforcement’s asserted need to prevent evidence destruction and protected Elmore’s Fourth Amendment interests in his home. Because officers made no effort to balance those competing interests, the first factor weighed heavily against the government. As to the second factor, if officers had probable cause to believe the home contained drugs or drug possession evidence when they first seized it, then Smith needed nothing more to draft his search warrant affidavit at that time. But before applying for a warrant, Smith spent hours investigating various details, thus extending the seizure much longer than reasonably necessary to obtain the warrant. Accordingly, the seizure became unreasonable when officers made no effort to reconcile the competing interests at stake and extended the seizure longer than reasonably necessary to diligently obtain a search warrant. Therefore, the seizure violated the Fourth Amendment, and the exclusionary rule applies in these circumstances. And because the exclusionary rule applies, the firearms discovered in Elmore’s bedroom must be suppressed.

The order denying suppression was reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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