Appeals Court Rules Cops Can Steal Cars and Lie to Victims To Conduct a Warrantless Search
On December 18, 2004, Ascension Alverez-Tejeda and his girlfriend were stopped at a traffic light near La Pine Oregon, and when the light turned green, the car in front of them stalled. Alverez-Tejeda stopped in time but a pickup truck behind him rear-ended him. When he got out to look at his bumper, the police showed up and arrested the truck driver for drinking and driving. The cops then convinced Alverez-Tejeda and his girlfriend to go to a nearby parking lot, ordered them out of their car and into in the back of the cop car for 'processing.' While they were in the cruiser, a person jumped in their car and took off. The cops ordered the pair out and set off in full pursuit up the road. A few minutes later, the stolen car comes flying back down the road with the police cruiser in pursuit. The pursuing officer returns alone with the woman's purse, telling the duo that the carjacker thrown it out the car window and escaped. The woman is so upset she hurls and the police put the distraught couple up in a motel.
But it was all a set up worthy of David Mamet. DEA agents were tracking a drug gang and had bought drugs out of the car months earlier, though not when Alverez-Tejeda was there. Using wiretaps and surveillance, the DEA learned that Alverez-Tejeda was using the leader's car to transport illicit drugs. The agents then decided to stage something, perhaps even a carjacking, in order to seize the drugs without tipping off the conspirators. They never consulted a judge, but every person in the story, other than Alverez-Tejeda and his girlfriend, was a cop of some sort.
Once they got the car, the agents got a search warrant without telling the judge about the caper and seized cocaine and methamphetamines, as well as property belonging to Alverez-Tejeda and his girlfriend. The government indicted Alverez-Tejeda but the district court in Washington found that the caper violated the Fourth Amendment, thus making the drugs inadmissable in court. The government appealed.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court's decision Friday, finding that this police escapade was legal since the cops had probable cause already to seize and search the car, thanks to the vehicle exception to the Fourth Amendment created by the courts during the War on Drugs. Therefore, the court found, the police are allowed much latitude in how they seize the car and arrest the driver. The tap was considered only a minimal use of force, and the fake chase wasn't considered to have put any civilians lives in danger.The government here certainly had important reasons for employing this unusual procedure in seizing the car. First, the agents wanted to stop the drugs before they reached their ultimate destination -- a patently important goal. Second, they wanted to protect the anonymity of the ongoing investigation -- another vital objective. By contrast the lower court forcefully found that the government agents lied to, stole from and terrified these citizens during a warrantless search and seizure no court had approved:[L]aw enforcement intentionally caused an accident and stole a car, along with Defendant’s and Ms. Volerio-Perez’s personal effects – all to effectuate an administrative seizure that could have been done with flashing lights and sirens. In reading the facts of this case, one cannot help but be shocked and outraged by the manner in which the DEA agents chose to effectuate an administrative seizure. [...]Judge Raymond Fischer, one of the three appeals court judges that heard the case, agreed with his colleagues that the search was constitutional, but felt compelled to add this in his concurring opinion:
No inventory was filed. No judicial determination was made of the need for a covert search. No judicial determination was made of the period of time needed to delay notification. No judicial review of the inventory was made. All of the decisions normally made by the judiciary were made by the officers involved. It is difficult to conclude that the authors of the Fourth Amendment contemplated such discretion be afforded to the Executive branch.
The intentional stopping, searching, and detention of people is a crime if committed by private citizens. It is permissible conduct by law enforcement if done in connection with legitimate activities, such as an arrest. In this case, as part of the administrative seizure, people were stopped, searched, and detained. This is not usual in an administrative search. [...]
The staged collision, "theft" of the car (and all of its contents), car chase and search of Alverez-Tejeda's apparently innocent companion had the potential to spin out of control and exceed reasonable bounds. Nonetheless, on the record before us I agree with my colleagues that the agents' ruse stayed within bounds (even if they pushed the envelope in some respects). Although we do not sustain the district court's thoughtful analysis, I do not thereby mean to endorse this police action as a model for future creative seizures.Full (though very concise) Ninth Circuit opinion (.pdf). Lower court's order (.pdf) to suppress the evidence. Via Volohk via California Appellate Report.