Saturday, November 19, 2016

There Is A Crown Victoria Lurking In The Shadows

Police commonly lay in wait for suspects at their homes. Armed with a search warrant for the home, the police wait until the suspect enters the curtilage of the home before revealing themselves and initiating the search. This tactic permits the police to forego obtaining an arrest warrant while increasing the scope of the search warrant to include what the suspect has on his person. Rarely, however, do police permit a suspect to get a block away from the house before springing into action. But on a snowy night in Grand Rapids, this is what happened to Kevin Price.

In United States v. Price, police had staked out Mr. Price’s home in three vehicles (including a Crown Victoria). Price arrived at the home in a truck with a snowmobile trailer in tow. He exited the vehicle and briefly spoke to someone in a nearby idling car. Police interpreted Price’s actions in relation to the person in the idling car as consistent with a drug transaction (the police did not divine whether the transaction involved a felony amount). Price then went to the back of the home, paced for a few moments (not far from the Crown Victoria), then got into a truck parked behind the home and left.

The police sprang into action—arresting Price at gunpoint a block away. They brought Price back to the home and began their search. In the course of the search, the police discovered evidence of two units Price rented at a nearby storage area. Although Price initially refused consent to search the units, he broke down three hours after his arrest and consented to a search (which revealed controlled substances and firearms). An indictment followed.

Price moved to suppress the arrest and excluded the search of the storage units because they were searched based on consent resulting from the prolonged arrest. The Court rejected Price’s arguments because the police had probable cause to support the arrest. The Court relied upon: (1) the information in the search warrant; (2) the police interpretation of Price’s interaction with the idling driver as a drug transaction (coupled with Price’s criminal history), and (3) Price’s flight from the scene—because, although there was no direct evidence that Price knew the police (or the Crown Victoria) were present, Price could have seen the Crown Victoria and Crown Victorias are “easily associated with police even when unmarked.” Hence, his departure was evidence of flight from the scene. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The decision marks a troubling expansion of the distance the police can go to arrest a suspect incident to the execution of a search warrant—particularly because of the reliance on the search warrant material to support the arrest. Perhaps the decision is best dealt with by limiting it to its facts, thereby holding it as an arrest case. And, maybe most importantly, if you think you may be suspected of wrongdoing and you see an unmarked Crown Victoria, don’t leave—doing so is evidence of flight.

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