Banging and Clanging: An “Egregious Seizure” Under Fourth Amendment

929926_castle_2.jpgPicture this:
It’s around midnight, and you and your guests are awakened by banging on doors and windows. You hear men shouting outside, demanding that you open the doors. In a matter of seconds, you hear someone trying to force your front door open, and then hear the glass on your front screen door burst into a million pieces. You peek outside, see officers everywhere, and plead for them to stop breaking your door. You accede to their demands, open the front door, and see guns drawn and pointed. As you stand on the doorstep of your castle, an officer immediately accuses you of hiding 10 to 15 illegal aliens inside against their will.

Nervously, you deny that you are holding anyone against their will, but spontaneously admit that one of your friends inside is illegal. Without a warrant, officers barge in, arrest you and the three others inside (two of which are illegal aliens), and cart you down to the police station. You agree to talk to officers, and admit that yes, you knew two of your friends were in the country illegally, albeit voluntarily.

You’ve now been indicted for harboring two illegal aliens, and in order to convict you the government needs to prove you knew the two people in your home were in the country illegally. To do so, the government wants to use against you your doorstep statement as well as your statement made later while in custody, arguing nothing officers did that night violated your Constitutional rights. The district court denies your motion to suppress, finding (1) your doorstep statement was made before you were arrested and therefore admissible, and (2) after you were taken into custody, you waived your Miranda rights at the police station, and therefore that statement is also admissible.

Unfortunately, that’s the situation Melinda Hernandez found herself in United States v. Hernandez, No. 11-40201. Fortunately for her, however, the Fifth Circuit court disagreed with the government, reversed the district court’s decision, and held that Melinda’s two statements were inadmissible.

The government had argued that Melinda’s midnight doorstep statement was admissible, even if the officers’ warrantless entry into the house was deemed illegal. It argued that Melinda’s “admission” preceded the illegal entry and therefore “had nothing whatsoever” to do with the illegal entry and search. The court disagreed. In two different opinions issued in this case, the court noted that the following facts were important:

  • officers “banging on doors and windows while demanding entry,”
  • officers “attempting forced entry by breaking glass on Hernandez’ door,”
  • “an attempt to gain entry into the residence through the use of force in the middle of the night,”
  • “the presence of several officers,” and
  • “the fact that the officers had their weapons drawn”

The court found that such factors “would have caused a reasonable person to believe that he was not free to leave or to decline the officers’ request.” The result: “Hernandez was illegally ‘seized’ without probable cause.”

As for her statement at the police station, the court held that no “intervening event of significance” occurred to dissipate the taint from the prior illegal search and seizure. Even though Hernandez waived her Miranda rights at the police station, there was nothing to “break the causal chain” of illegality between the officers’ earlier “egregious” conduct and Hernandez’ later statement.

Point to remember: banging and clanging can be a “seizure” in itself, tainting further police conduct and invoking Fourth Amendment protection.