Thursday, February 26, 2009

Escapees Have No Fourth Amendment Rights

United States v. Ward, No. 08-50114 (5th Cir. Feb. 26, 2009) (Higginbotham, Elrod, Haynes)

"Shortly after he received a 10-year federal sentence on a felon in possession charge, state authorities mistakenly released federal prisoner Dan Ward, who exploited the situation by absconding." Marshals tracked down Ward at a motel in Odessa, Texas, and tried to arrest him. Ward managed to maneuver his car around the Marshals' car, and a chase ensued. Fearing an accident, the Marshals broke off the chase and found another motel where Ward had a room registered in his own name. They got a key from the manager, and searched the room. Inside was a camera bag, and inside the bag was another bag, and inside that bag was a loaded 9mm pistol and some ammo. Ward was arrested shortly thereafter in Midland.

Ward was charged with being both a felon and a fugitive in possession of a firearm, based on the gun the Marshals found in the Odessa motel room. After unsuccessfully moving to suppress the evidence from the motel room, Ward conditionally pleaded guilty.

"The question[,]" the court explained, was "whether Ward, as an escapee, had a right of privacy in his motel room entitling him to the protection of the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches." The answer: a resounding "no".

The court looked first to the Supreme Court's decision in Hudson v. Palmer, which held that a prisoner has no protected Fourth Amendment privacy interest in his prison cell. Recognizing that a motel room isn't a prison cell, the court nevertheless concluded that many of the same considerations underlying the decision in Hudson weighed against finding that an escapee has a reasoanble expectation of privacy in a motel room:
  • recognizing such a right would encourage escape, thus undermining prison security
  • "an escapee privacy right remains incompatible with the objectives of incarceration"
  • society needs protection from dangerous felons, and escaped felons "self-select[] themselves into an even more crime-prone subset"
The court also discussed Supreme Court cases approving warrantless searches of parolees' and probationers' persons and homes, and concluded that "[e]scape is a frustration of ordered justice that cannot be rewarded with rights greater than those held by felons that leave or avoid prison lawfully."

Although the court ultimately holds "that Ward, as a prison escapee, could not invoke the Fourth Amendment to suppress a warrantless search of his motel room and bag[,]" it cautions against taking the general principle too far:
[T]here remains the nagging risk of invading the privacy rights of third parties attending the warrantless pursuit of escaped prisoners. By his legal status an escaped felon is walking probable cause—police can arrest and, as we have explained, search his dwelling and his bag without a warrant and without justification under the Fourth Amendment. This makes important the circumstance that the motel room at issue in this case was Ward’s own, not just to the presence of probable cause to enter the room, but also in justification of a warrantless search of the bag when officers learned on entry that Ward was not then in his room. We pause to remind that in recapturing escaped prisoners, law enforcement may well encounter the hurdles of the Fourth Amendment rights of third parties.

As an example of such a hurdle, the court cites "Steagald v. U.S., 17 451 U.S. 204, 215 (1981) (requiring, in the absence of consent or exigent circumstances, a search warrant before law enforcement could search the home of a third party for the subject of an arrest warrant)." Presumably there's others.

One final point worth mentioning: Ward argued "that because he was mistakenly released he is not technically an escapee." The court disagreed, citing cases broadly interpreting the term "escape" under the federal escape statute: "They read escape to include a failure to return, even if the initial escape did not involve anything resembling a physical leap over a prison wall. Thus, we can confidently label Ward as an escapee in the general meaning of the word." There was also the fact that Ward fled when the Marshals tried to arrest him at the first motel.

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