Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Nice Fourth Amendment Win: Anonymous Tip Did Not Provide Reasonable Suspicion for Stop

United States v. Martinez, No. 05-20330 (5th Cir. May 15, 2007) (Reavley, Jolly, Benavides)

The Fourth Amendment may be in pretty sad shape, but Martinez proves that rumors of its demise have been at least somewhat exaggerated. Here the court holds that an anonymous tip did not create the reasonable suspicion necessary to seize Martinez, and reverses the district court's denial of Martinez's motion to suppress guns obtained as a result of his seizure. The opinion also provides a useful reminder of just who has the burden on a motion to suppress arising out of a warrantless seizure (hint: it's on the Government).

The court's recitation of the relevant facts is nice and succinct, so let's go with that:
Law enforcement in Houston received a tip that a man named “Angel” might have been a witness to a quadruple homicide, might be in possession of the weapons used in the homicide, and might be planning to flee to Mexico with those weapons. The tipster stated that Angel was staying with his girlfriend, and provided her address in Pasadena, Texas. The day after receiving the tip, the police did not seek a warrant. Rather, six officers set up surveillance outside the residence. Three or four hours later, a car drove away from the residence. The officers stopped the car and interviewed the driver, a man named Bernardo, who confirmed that a man named Angel was in the residence. At the request of the police, Bernardo agreed to call the residence and ask Angel to come to the location of the stop to retrieve his car. Approximately twenty minutes later, Juan Angel Martinez (“Martinez”) and his girlfriend, Georgina Amatt (“Amatt”), left the house, totally unaware that they were under surveillance. The police stopped them a few blocks away. They immediately placed Martinez in the back of a police cruiser, where he consented to being transported to the police station for questioning. Meanwhile, a Spanish-speaking officer obtained consent from Amatt to search her residence, which resulted in the
discovery of three firearms.

As it turned out, "neither Martinez nor the discovered weapons had anything to do with the quadruple homicide." But Martinez was an illegal alien and a felon, so he wound up under the § 922 gun. The district court denied Martinez's motion to suppress the guns, and found him guilty at a bench trial of being a felon in possession of firearms.

Martinez appealed, arguing that his seizure was unreasonable because the tip was insufficient to create a reasonable suspicion that he was engaged in criminal activity, and that the guns should be suppressed as a fruit of that unreasonable seizure.

The court of appeals agreed, addressing three issues in the process. First, the court rejected the Government's contention that Martinez failed to raise this precise claim in the district court and that the court should therefore review for plain error. The Government argued that Martinez wasn't specific enough about the basis for his motion because he didn't argue that it was the tip that failed to give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and that if Martinez had been more specific on that point then the Government would have called more witnesses to shore up the reliability of the tip or the tipster. (Astonishingly, none of the witnesses called by the Government had any first-hand knowledge of either one.) The court responded by pointing out that "the burden rests with the government to demonstrate reasonable suspicion, and where that suspicion hinges on an informant’s tip, part of the government’s burden is to address the reliability of that information." Since Martinez clearly argued that there was no reasonable suspicion for the seizure, both the Government and the district court were well aware of the grounds for his motion. Having adequately preserved the issue, Martinez was entitled to de novo review on appeal.

Second, the court of appeals agreed with Martinez that the tip failed to give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Since the Government "never introduced any evidence about the informant whatsoever and made no effort to illustrate his or her reliability in the district court[,]" the court treated it as an anonymous tip. That meant that "the government had to establish reasonable suspicion based on some or all of the other [relevant] factors . . . . : the specificity of the information provided, the extent to which the information is corroborated by officers in the field, and whether that information concerns recent activity or has instead gone stale." Here, the only thing the officers confirmed was that a man named Angel lived at the residence they had staked out; there was no absolutely no corroboration whatsoever of the allegation of criminal activity. Absent that, there was no reasonable suspicion for the stop.

Third, the court held that the guns were a fruit of the illegal seizure. Addressing the relevant factors from United States v. Chavez-Villareal, the court easily concluded that there was no break in the causal chain from the illegal stop to Amatt's consent to the guns.



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