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United States v. Vasquez-Algarin, No. 15-1941

Philadelphia criminal appeals lawyer Lloyd Long discusses details surrounding the Pennsylvania’s Superior Court’s decision in the Vasquez-Algarin case for homocide. Law enforcement were looking for a homicide suspect (not Vasquez-Algarin; there was no evidence of record that the suspect and Vasquez-Algarin were associated in any way). A Deputy US Marshal received some tips that the suspect was living at an address in Harrisburg. Law enforcement obtained an arrest warrant and went to the location. After knocking, they heard much commotion, causing them to believe someone was inside. After a forcible entry, police found Vasquez-Algarin and the tools of a drug dealing operation: narcotics, packaging material, and ammunition. The homicide suspect was not present.

At the suppression hearing, the Deputy US Marshal testified that his information regarding the homicide suspect’s living situation was from another law enforcement officer and from informants on the street. That was it. The district court determined that law enforcement had a reasonable belief and probable cause to believe that the suspect was living at the property, and that the entry with only an arrest warrant was constitutionally permissible.

At trial, the Marshal added that he knocked for a long time at the property because it was not the suspect’s address of record and he wanted to gain contact with someone inside to obtain consent to search the premises.

Vasquez-Algarin appealed the denial of suppression, arguing that law enforcement needed a search warrant to enter his apartment because probable cause to believe that the subject of the warrant resided there was both required and lacking. Law enforcement only needs an arrest warrant where they reasonably believe that the subject of an arrest warrant lives at the property where the warrant is to be executed; if they are going to make the arrest at the property of a third party, they must first secure both an arrest warrant and a search warrant. The issue in the case, therefore, was what standard is needed to establish a “reasonable belief,” thereby only requiring an arrest warrant.

The panel held that that reasonable belief in this context is equivalent to probable cause. A review of the Supreme Court’s use of “reasonable belief” in Fourth Amendment cases demonstrates that the Court has utilized that term and probable cause interchangeably. More importantly, an individual’s home is the pinnacle of Fourth Amendment protections. Allowing police to enter armed with an arrest warrant and some suspicion that an individual lives there would undermine those protections.

Police made a mistake in this case: they wrongly believed that a wanted suspect lived in Vasquez-Algarin’s home. That belief was not supported by probable cause; the Marshal’s information was entirely based on the word of another law enforcement officer and informant tips. There was no specificity in the record about the information received (i.e., the number of informants, whether the information from informants was first or secondhand, the reliability of the informants, the specific information from the other law enforcement officer, or the basis for that officer’s statements). Moreover, the Marshal created more doubt about the information’s trustworthiness in his trial testimony.

Even if there was probable cause to believe that the suspect was living in Vasquez-Algarin’s home, there was not probable cause to believe that the suspect was home when police went there. Mere signs of life in the apartment, even though suspicious, did not establish probable cause.

Law enforcement had not acted with sufficient information to forcibly enter the home, nor had they acted in reliance on binding precedent. Under all of the circumstances, a reasonably well-trained officer should have known that the search was illegal. Accordingly, the prosecution could not avoid suppression by invoking the good-faith exception to the warrant requirement.

Score one for privacy.