On September 2, 2020, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Rivera[i], in which the court examined whether a protective sweep of a motel room was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The relevant facts of Rivera, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
From June 7 through 17, 2015, five convenience stores in the Tampa area were robbed during early morning hours by an unknown Hispanic male brandishing a short-barreled shotgun. In four of the robberies, the suspect appeared to be wearing the same white athletic shoes with black edging. Although the suspect’s face was covered, surveillance footage from inside one of the convenience stores shortly before it was robbed showed a Hispanic male, whose face was uncovered, wearing similar shoes as the robber. This person was seen exiting the store and getting into a Ford “Expedition or van” parked nearby. A dark Ford Expedition was also seen around the same area and time of two other robberies. Law enforcement was able to obtain a license plate number for the Expedition that was seen on June 7.
With this information, law enforcement located the Expedition, which was registered to Leila Green, at a Knights Inn motel. Approximately five to seven officers went to the motel to conduct surveillance on the vehicle. While conducting surveillance, Detective Ronald Corr observed a Hispanic male who matched the description of the robbery suspect, later identified [*4] as Rivera, and a Black female, later identified as Green, “screaming and cussing at each other” outside of room 314. Green entered the room and slammed the door. After briefly walking away, Rivera returned and tried to open the door, which was locked. Rivera then kicked in the door and entered the room.
Upon seeing these events, Corr radioed the other officers to inform them of a potential violent domestic situation involving the suspect, and they made the decision to check on Green’s safety. The officers approached the motel-room door and an officer identified himself. After a brief conversation with Rivera, officers entered the motel room and made contact with Rivera and Green, who had a bruise on her cheek. Meanwhile, another officer, Sergeant Janak Amin, went straight to the back of the motel room, checked the bathroom, and then turned around. As he turned around, he saw a white athletic sneaker with black trim on the floor of the motel room. Recognizing this sneaker from pictures of the robbery suspect, Amin yelled to everyone in the room to “get out” so the room could be secured and a warrant obtained. According to Corr, he could also see the sneaker from about halfway inside the room. The room was immediately emptied. The events inside the motel room lasted no more than two minutes.
Based on the discovery of the sneaker, the officers obtained search warrants for the motel room and Green’s Expedition. In the Expedition, officers found a short-barreled shotgun similar to the one used in the robberies, among other pieces of evidence.[ii]
Rivera was charged with weapons violations under federal law. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence and argued that the protective sweep of his motel room violated the Fourth Amendment because it occurred after he and Green were secured and there was no reason to believe anyone else was in the room. Further, he argued that the discovery of the sneaker violated the Fourth Amendment because it was in a bag, not in plain view. The district court held the entry into the motel room was justified by exigent circumstances to protect Green, the protective sweep was reasonable, and credited the officer’s testimony that the shoe was in plain view, not in a bag, and as such, denied the motion to suppress. Rivera appealed the denial of the motion to suppress to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit noted that, regarding the location of the shoe on the floor in the room (as opposed to in a bag), the decision of the district court must not be disturbed unless the evidence showed the district court committed “clear error.” There was no evidence of “clear error” regarding that decision of fact, therefore, the holding of the district court that the shoe was located on the floor, rather than in a bag, remained.
The Eleventh Circuit also noted that, on appeal, Rivera did not contest the district court’s holding that the initial non-consensual entry into his room was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, based on exigent circumstances to prevent violence against Green. Rivera’s primary issue related to the motion to suppress was that the protective sweep violated the Fourth Amendment and any evidence seen or derived from that protective sweep should be suppressed.
The court then identified the legal principles that were relevant to Rivera’s case. The first principle was concerning the exigent circumstance exception to the warrant requirement. The court stated
While warrantless searches and seizures within a home are presumptively unreasonable, an exception to the warrant requirement permits police to “enter a private premises and conduct a search if ‘exigent circumstances’ mandate immediate action.” United States v. Holloway, 290 F.3d 1331, 1334 (11th Cir. 2002); see United, 963 F.3d 1056, 1062 (11th Cir. 2020) (en banc) (explaining that the Fourth Amendment‘s protections may extend to hotel rooms). As relevant here, “[u]nder the ’emergency aid’ exception, officers may enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.” United States v. Timmann, 741 F.3d 1170, 1178 (11th Cir. 2013)[iii]
The second legal principle, and the one most relevant to the main issue on appeal, was related to protective sweeps of residence, which includes motel rooms. The court stated
When officers are lawfully within the premises, they may undertake a “protective sweep”-a quick and limited search of the premises to protect the safety of the officers or others-so long as they “possess a reasonable belief based on specific and articulable facts that the area to be swept harbors an individual posing a danger to those on the . . . scene.” Id. (quoting Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325, 337 (1990)). “The sweep must be narrowly confined to a cursory visual inspection of those places in which a person might be hiding.” United States v. Yarbrough, 961 F.3d 1157, 1163 (11th Cir. 2020) (quotation marks omitted).[iv]
The third legal principle noted by the court was related to the “plain view” doctrine. The court stated
Police can seize evidence discovered in plain view during a protective sweep and use it to obtain a search warrant. United States v. Williams, 871 F.3d 1197, 1202 (11th Cir. 2017). The “plain view” doctrine permits a warrantless seizure “where (1) an officer is lawfully located in the place from which the seized object could be plainly viewed and must have a lawful right of access to the object itself; and (2) the incriminating character of the item is immediately apparent.” United States v. Folk, 754 F.3d 905, 911 (11th Cir. 2014) (quotation marks omitted).[v]
With these legal principles in mind, the court set out to determine if the protective sweep of Rivera’s motel room was an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. Rivera argued that the danger had passed at the time of the sweep because the police had secured him and Green and there was no reason to believe there was anyone else that posed a threat was in the motel room. As such, Rivera argued there was no right to search the motel room without a search warrant.
The court then set out to determine if the protective sweep was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The court looked at the facts of Rivera’s case that are relevant to this issue. First, the court observed that, while the officers entered the motel room under the emergency-aid exigent circumstance, the officers still had reason to believe that Rivera was a multiple robbery suspect who used a short-barreled shotgun to commit his crimes. Second, the officers also had reason to believe that Rivera was assisted by one or more persons during the robberies. Third, since the Expedition, the suspect’s vehicle, was at the motel, there was uncertainty as to who else may be in the room with Rivera and Green. Fourth, the officers had not been monitoring the room prior to seeing Rivera and Green in the argument “so there was a risk that the motel room contained another unknown person with access to a firearm.”[vi] Fifth, the evidence showed that the protective sweep was part of a rapid sequence of events in which an officer conducted the protective sweep immediately after the other officers secured Rivera and Green. Sixth, the protective sweep was a cursory check for persons, was limited to only places a person could hide, and took less than a minute. After a review of the relevant facts listed, the court of appeals stated
In the uncertain circumstances facing the officers on the scene, officer safety justified the officer’s cursory visual inspection of the bathroom and back part of the motel room-places where a person could be hiding.[vii]
Therefore, the court of appeals held that the protective sweep of Rivera’s motel room was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
The court also examined the plain view doctrine’s applicability in Rivera’s case. In order for the plain view doctrine to allow the sneakers to be admissible as evidence, two parts of a test must be satisfied. First, the officers must be lawfully present in the location where they saw the evidence and must have lawful access to the evidence. In Rivera’s case, the officers lawfully entered Rivera’s motel room based on exigent circumstances and conducted a lawful protective sweep of the motel room. This gives the officers a lawful vantage point to observe the sneakers and lawful access to seize the sneakers.
The second part of the test for the plain view doctrine is that the incriminating character of the item must be immediately apparent. While the sneakers themselves are not one-of-a-kind, some facts that make the sneakers immediately apparent to be evidence in the robberies. First, Rivera was present and met the physical description of the robbery suspect. Second, the Expedition linked to at least one of the robberies was present at the motel. These two factors, along with the fact that the robbery suspect wore sneakers with same distinctive pattern were sufficient to render the evidentiary nature of sneakers “immediately apparent.” As such, the court held
Because the sneaker could lawfully have been seized, it clearly could have been used as support for a search-warrant application.[viii]
Therefore, the court of appeals upheld the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] No. 16-15729 (11th Cir. Decided September 2, 2020)
[ii] Id. at 3-5
[iii] Id. at 6 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 6-7 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 7 (emphasis added)
[vi] Id. at 9
[vii] Id. at 9-10
[viii] Id. at 11