On December 18, 2020, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Cronin v. Peterson[i], in which the court examined the conduct of officers conducting an internal, criminal investigation on another member of their department. The relevant facts of Peterson, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
In September 2015, the Lincoln Police Department received a complaint from the Nebraska Crime Commission alleging that a detective in Ohio believed that Cronin was interfering with the detective’s investigation into alleged illegal steroid sales by a nutritional supplement store owner in Powell, Ohio. The Ohio detective had seized the store owner’s cellphone and discovered extensive text messages between the owner and a phone number associated with Cronin. Based on these text messages, the detective believed that Cronin had purchased illegal steroids for himself and a coworker and was impeding the detective’s investigation by advising the store owner on how to frustrate interactions with the police. When Lincoln’s assistant police chief contacted Cronin to advise him of the complaint, Cronin confirmed that he had a friend in Ohio whom Cronin had instructed to contact an attorney about issues with a search warrant related to the friend’s business.
Meanwhile, Lincoln’s police chief received the same complaint. He referred the matter to the internal affairs department, which contacted the Ohio detective. The detective described his investigation and provided copies of the text messages at issue. The text messages used terms that the detective believed showed the exchange of both legal and illegal steroids between Cronin and the store owner. The police chief then directed internal affairs to obtain an opinion on the text messages from Peterson, the Lincoln narcotics unit captain. Although Peterson’s only steroid-specific training occurred prior to 1997 and totaled fewer than 5 hours, he had 25 years of police experience, which included 13 years of general narcotics experience. Peterson agreed with the Ohio detective, believing that the text messages’ terms, “ana,” “anavar,” “var,” “pct,” “clomid,” “nolvadex,” “juice,” and “light steroid,” were associated with anabolic steroids, which are controlled substances under Nebraska law. Neb. Rev. Stat. §§ 28-405, 28-416(3). Peterson also believed that Cronin’s text messages about avoiding “gyno risk” by using “clomid” and “novadex” referred to steroids’ effect on testicle size.
Peterson, Legal Advisor Peters, the police chief, and the assistant police chief met to discuss Peterson’s assessments. The police chief then directed the Lincoln narcotics unit to conduct a criminal investigation. Peterson met with two narcotics investigators, Sergeants Reynolds and Koepke, to begin the investigation. Reynolds went to Cronin’s home to await consent to search it or the issuance of a warrant. Koepke headed to Cronin’s substation to interview him. With Peters’s assistance, Peterson began to draft search warrant affidavits for use if Cronin denied consent to various searches.
Koepke met with Cronin in a conference room at the substation. Although the exact timeline is disputed, the following events occurred during the next few hours: Koepke interviewed Cronin; the police obtained warrants to search Cronin’s home, personal and police vehicles, police locker, and person based on affidavits prepared by Peterson and Peters; the police obtained Cronin’s blood and urine samples; and Reynolds and another officer searched Cronin’s home and Cronin’s wife’s Ford Escape. Although Cronin drove the Ford Escape to work every day and parked it in the police department lot, it was not the car identified in the search warrant. The police also later obtained a warrant and warrant extensions to search Cronin’s cellphone. The investigation continued over the next few months, but no charges were ever brought against Cronin and he remained employed by the Lincoln Police Department.[ii]
Cronin subsequently filed suit against the officers involved in the investigation for violating his rights under the Fourth Amendment. The district court dismissed the suit and granted the officers qualified immunity. Cronin appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The first issue was whether Sergeant Koepke violated Cronin’s Fourth Amendment rights when he was initially detained in the substation conference room.
The court first noted the applicable legal principles related to this issue and stated
A police officer can “briefly detain a person for investigative purposes if the officer has a reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that criminal activity ‘may be afoot,’ even if the officer lacks probable cause.” United States v. Winters, 491 F.3d 918, 921 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoting United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7, 109 S. Ct. 1581, 104 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1989)). In forming reasonable suspicion, an officer “may rely on information provided by other officers and all the information known to a team of officers involved in the investigation.” United States v. Ortiz-Monroy, 332 F.3d 525, 529 (8th Cir. 2003) (citing United States v. Robinson, 119 F.3d 663, 666-67 (8th Cir. 1997)).[iii]
The court then looked to the facts that may support a finding of reasonable suspicion to detain Cronin. First, the Lincoln Police Department received a complaint from a detective in Ohio that Cronin may have interfered with their investigation into an Ohio supplement store that possibly was involved in distributing steroids. Second, Captain Peterson saw text messages between Cronin and the supplement store owner that were suggestive of possible illegal activity. The court also stated that
When officers worked closely together during the investigation for the warrant[,]. . . we presume that the officers have shared relevant knowledge which informs the decision to seize evidence or to detain a particular person, even if the acting officer is unable to completely and correctly articulate the grounds for his suspicion at the time of the search.[iv]
Thus, the court held the facts were sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion that Cronin may be involved in criminal activity. Therefore the initial detention was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and Koepke was entitled to qualified immunity.
The second issue was whether Cronin’s initial detention was of such an extended duration that it amounted to a de-facto arrest without probable cause and thus violated the Fourth Amendment.
The court first examined the legal principles related to this issue. The court stated
An investigative detention may become “an arrest if it lasts for an unreasonably long time or if officers use unreasonable force.” United States v. Donnelly, 475 F.3d 946, 953 (8th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). During such a detention, “officers should ’employ the least intrusive means of detention and investigation, in terms of scope and duration, that are reasonably necessary to achieve the purpose’ of the temporary seizure.” United States v. Maltais, 403 F.3d 550, 556 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting United States v. Navarrete-Barron, 192 F.3d 786, 790 (8th Cir. 1999))… In determining whether a detention is excessively long, we consider the “law enforcement purposes to be served by the stop as well as the time reasonably needed to effectuate those purposes.” United States v. Sharpe, 470 U.S. 675, 685, 105 S. Ct. 1568, 84 L. Ed. 2d 605 (1985).[v]
The court noted that the officers had reasonable suspicion that Cronin had purchased illegal steroids and interfered in an investigation. Thus, the investigative detention must be related to this allegation and intended to confirm or dispel such allegations.
The court then examined the initial detention and the reasons for its length. First, Koepke asked for consent for a urine test which Cronin initially consent, and then withdrew consent. A warrant for blood and urine was obtained. Second, Cronin was driven to the hospital for the tests, notably riding in the front seat of an unmarked police van. Third, Cronin explained his side of the allegations and was allowed to search the internet for the substances mentioned in the text messages. Fourth, Cronin called his wife, called the union attorney and texted a friend. The court determined that the delays were not within Koepke’s control and the entire time he was diligently pursuing the investigation. The court noted
[I]n a motion to suppress context, a valid detention “does not become unreasonable in length as long as the stopping officer uses diligent efforts to process the stop and further delays are the result of circumstances beyond the officer’s control.[vi]
Therefore, the court of appeals held that Cronin’s detention was not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, and Koepke was entitled to summary judgment on this claim.
The third issue was whether the search warrant obtained by Peterson and Peters was not valid because the officers omitted exculpatory information that would have negated probable cause.
The court discussed the legal principles relevant to the issue and stated
The Supreme Court held in Franks that a Fourth Amendment violation occurs when “(1) a law enforcement officer knowingly and intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth, include[s] a false statement in the warrant affidavit, and (2) without the false statement, the affidavit would not have established probable cause.” United States v. Neal, 528 F.3d 1069, 1072 (8th Cir. 2008) (citing Franks, 438 U.S. at 155-56). “This rationale also applies to information that the affiant deliberately or with reckless disregard for the truth omits from the affidavit such that the affidavit is misleading and insufficient to establish probable cause had the omitted information been included.” Id. (citing United States v. Jacobs, 986 F.2d 1231, 1234 (8th Cir. 1993)).[vii]
Cronin argued that Peterson and Peters omitted the following relevant, exculpatory facts: (1) that Koepke thought the substances were legal, (2) that Cronin stated that there were no substances in his home because he used them all, (3) Peterson’s steroid investigation training was outdated, and (4) the nature of the supplement market makes it difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal substances.
The court also noted that the following exculpatory facts were included in the affidavit: “that certain terms used in Cronin’s text messages might not refer to controlled substances; that a lab had not yet confirmed the nature of the drugs seized from the supplement store; that additional evidence from Cronin’s bank and telephone service provider had not yet been obtained; that Cronin asserted that the products at issue were legal and able to be purchased online; and that Peterson only “believe[d]” that the Toyota 4Runner listed in the affidavit was Cronin’s daily vehicle.”[viii]
The court of appeals then held that the allegations made by Cronin are not sufficient to negate probable cause and their omission did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
Cronin also argued that there were other facts omitted for the second warrant related to his phone. The court again held that any omission alleged would not negate probable cause.
Therefore, Peterson and Peters are entitled to summary judgment on this claim.
The final issue was whether Reynolds violated the Fourth Amendment by searching Cronin’s wife’s Ford Escape, which was not listed on the search warrant.
The court noted the legal principles that apply to this issue and stated
Although a warrantless search usually constitutes a per se Fourth Amendment violation, the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment‘s warrant requirement permits the warrantless search or seizure of a vehicle by officers possessing probable cause to do so. Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 51-52, 90 S. Ct. 1975, 26 L. Ed. 2d 419 (1970). “Probable cause exists when, given the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person could believe there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime would be found in a particular place.” United States v. Murillo-Salgado, 854 F.3d 407, 418 (8th Cir. 2017) (quoting United States v. Wells, 347 F.3d 280, 287 (8th Cir. 2003)). Because “[p]robable cause is a practical and common-sensical standard,” “an officer may draw inferences based on his own experience” to determine whether probable cause exists. Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).[ix]
The court examined facts relevant to this issue which were as follows: (1) Cronin routinely drove his wife’s Ford Escape to work; (2) the search of the residence did not reveal the suspected “Anavar;” and (3) the Ohio detective’s allegations that Cronin had purchased illegal steroids and evidence of texts that he provided. As such, the court of appeals held
Although Reynolds may very well have not been the exemplar of a careful officer, his search of the Ford Escape was authorized under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement…[x]
Therefore, the court held that Reynolds did not violate the Fourth Amendment and was entitled to summary judgment.
[i] No. 19-1054 (8th Cir. Decided December 18, 2020)
[ii] Id. at 2-5
[iii] Id. at 6-7 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 9 (emphasis added)
[vii] Id. at 12-13 (emphasis added)
[viii] Id. at 16
[ix] Id. at 19 (emphasis added)
[x] Id. at 20