On October 19, 2021, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Moats[i], in which the court examined whether it was lawful for the police to seize a gun from a third party at residence where they were serving a probation violation warrant. The relevant facts of Moats are as follows:
Officers went to a residence to arrest a woman for whom there was an outstanding warrant for a probation violation. After receiving consent to search the home, they found the woman in the basement. She and Moats were asleep, side-by-side, in an oversized chair. The officers attempted to awaken both persons. Moats woke first. The officers asked him to stand and move to the other side of the room. When he stood up, the officers observed the handle of a gun sticking out of his front pants pocket. Although mere possession of a firearm was not unlawful in West Virginia, an officer took possession of the gun for safety reasons and placed it inside his coat. Another officer escorted Moats out of the residence.
The officer then woke the woman and arrested her. After taking her outside and handing her over to a patrol unit to transport to the police station, the officer told Moats that he was going to run the serial number on the gun to make sure it was not stolen and that he would return the gun after he made sure Moats was not a prohibited person or had an active domestic violence petition against him.
When the officer removed the gun from inside his coat and looked for the serial number, he noticed that the serial number had been removed. He then told Moats that the gun would not be returned to him and Moats said, “What gun?” and was allowed to walk away. Moats was later charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and possessing a firearm with an obliterated serial number.”[ii]
Moats filed a motion to suppress and argued that the officers detained him and seized his gun in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied his motion, and he appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, the court examined four arguments made by Moats. First, Moats argued that he was initially illegally detained in violation of the Fourth Amendment when they woke him up and had him leave the chair where he was sleeping. Moats argued that the police should have removed female, who was the subject of the warrant, then woke her up, and let him continue to sleep. The court of appeals noted the legal principle that governs this issue and stated
When conducting a lawful search, law enforcement officers are authorized to temporarily detain individuals on the premises. Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692, 702-05, 101 S. Ct. 2587, 69 L. Ed. 2d 340 (1981). This temporary detention is justified by the need for officers to conduct the search, to prevent flight, and minimize the risk of harm to themselves and others. Id. at 705.[iii]
The court of appeals held that it was reasonable for the officers to awaken Moats and separate him from the woman “to gain control of the area and for fundamental officer safety.”[iv]
Second, Moats argued that the police violated the Fourth Amendment when they seized the gun, which was in his pocket. He argued that possession of a firearm is legal in West Virginia, and the officers seized the gun without reasonable suspicion or probable cause that his possession was unlawful. The court of appeals cited precedent from the Fifth Circuit and the Eighth Circuit that upheld seizures such as this. The court stated
The district court found that the officer acted prudently by seizing the weapon in the interest of officer safety. We agree. See United States v. Malachesen, 597 F.2d 1232, 1234 (8th Cir. 1979) (officer’s temporary seizure, unloading, and retention of a handgun whose incriminating nature was not immediately apparent was a “reasonable precaution to assure the safety of all persons on the premises during search“); see also United States v. Roberts, 612 F.3d 306, 313-14 (5th Cir. 2010) (holding that officers who were conducting a protective sweep of an apartment acted reasonably in seizing firearms for safety reasons even though officers did not know at the time whether possession of the firearms was unlawful).[v]
Moats also argued that the gun was not in “plain view” and the should not have been admissible under the “plain-view exception.” The court first noted that the plain view exception
authorizes warrantless seizures of evidence when the officer is  lawfully in the place from which the object may be plainly viewed,  the officer has a lawful right of access to the object seized, and  the object’s incriminating character is immediately apparent. United States v. Jackson, 131 F.3d 1105, 1109 (4th Cir. 1997) (citing Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 136-37, 110 S. Ct. 2301, 110 L. Ed. 2d 112 (1990)).[vi]
First, in Moats’ case, the officers were lawfully in the residence with consent of the homeowner to search for the female who was wanted. Second, the officers then observed, in plain view, the grip of the firearm poking out of Moats’ pocket while they were lawfully in the residence. This means the officer’s had lawful access to the weapon. Third, when officers observed the serial number had been scratched off the weapon, this made the incriminating nature of the firearm immediately apparent. As such, the plain view exception was applicable in Moats’ case.
Lastly, Moats argued that he was unlawfully detained outside the residence, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court observed that the only evidence in the record was that Moats was escorted outside of the residence to remove him from where officers were arresting the woman. Further, the officers did not question Moats or tell him he was not free to leave. In fact, when an officer told Moats that they were not giving him the firearm back, he walked away, and was allowed to do so. Thus, the court held that there was no evidence that Moats was unlawfully detained outside the residence.
As such, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] No. 21-4002 (4th Cir. Decided October 19, 2021 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 2-3
[iii] Id. at 4-5 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 5
[v] Id. at 5-6 (emphasis added)
[vi] Id. at 7 (emphasis added)