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United States v. Neugin

No. 19-7043. E.D.Okla. Judge Matheson. Fourth Amendment Search and Seizure—Suppression of Evidence—Warrantless Search—Community Caretaking Exception—Inevitable Discovery Exception.

April 27, 2020

Officers responded to a verbal altercation between defendant and his girlfriend, who were in a restaurant parking lot. Their pickup truck was broken down. Defendant’s girlfriend told Deputy Clinton that she needed to retrieve her belongings from the truck. Without asking permission, Deputy Clinton opened the lid of the camper attached to the back of the truck. In doing so, he observed ammunition. Deputy Clinton then requested a background check from dispatch and learned that defendant was a convicted felon. Deputy Clinton requested defendant’s permission to search the truck, but defendant declined, explaining that he purchased the truck for his girlfriend. Defendant’s girlfriend stated that she and defendant owned the truck and defendant had a shotgun in the truck, and she consented to a vehicle search. Deputy Clinton searched the rest of the truck and located the shotgun.

Defendant was indicted for firearm and ammunition possession by a felon. He moved to suppress the evidence seized as the fruit of an unlawful search. Following an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied the motion, reasoning that Deputy Clinton had acted as a community caretaker. Defendant entered a guilty plea on condition that he could appeal the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress.

On appeal, defendant argued that Deputy Clinton conducted a search without a warrant or probable cause, and the community caretaking exception did not apply. The community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement allows noninvestigatory searches of automobiles where warranted by state law or police procedure and justified by safety concerns. Here, Deputy Clinton conducted a search under the Fourth Amendment when he opened the camper and looked inside because defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the truck’s contents. Deputy Clinton’s actions were not necessary to protect anyone present, and the government did not show that state law or sound police procedure warranted opening the camper. Therefore, the community caretaking exception did not apply.

Further, contrary ot the government’s argument, the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule did not apply because the government did not show that it would have inevitably discovered the ammunition and shotgun if Deputy Clinton had not opened the camper. Therefore, without the Fourth Amendment violation, defendant would not have been arrested and the truck would not inevitably have been impounded and searched. The evidence was therefore fruit of the poisonous tree and should have been suppressed.

The judgment was reversed.

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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