When a person is arrested in a home or an apartment, it is understandable for the law enforcement officers making the arrest to conductive a protective sweep of the residence to ensure that nobody is hiding or waiting to attack the officers. While protective sweeps are considered a type of search under the Fourth Amendment, they are often permitted without a warrant.
Sometimes, however, the police overstep their bounds and use such sweeps as a justification to conduct evidentiary searches. When evidence is uncovered as the result of such a search, it may be considered tainted and the court may rule that the evidence is inadmissible. A recent ruling by a federal court in Connecticut highlights the importance of limiting the scope of protective sweeps.
Sweep Following an Arrest
In May 2016, members of the U.S. Marshals’ Violent Crime Fugitive Task Force showed up to execute an arrest warrant for Connecticut man wanted in connection with an armed robbery and two domestic disputes. Eight officers, including representatives from several local police departments, arrived to arrest the man at his girlfriend’s apartment where they knocked on the door. The man kept the police waiting for a short time before he emerged and surrendered without incident. He was taken outside to a police car while other officers conducted a protective sweep of the apartment.
The sweep took about five minutes, according to court records, but the police remained in the apartment for approximately 20 more minutes. The officers asked the girlfriend for permission to conduct an evidentiary search, but it took her several minutes to consent. Meanwhile, the suspect was interrogated by a detective on the scene without being given Miranda warnings. The suspect acknowledged the presence of a firearm in the apartment, and the detective notified the officers inside the building. Court documents indicate contradictory witness statements about the timing of the notification compared to the consent to conduct a search, but the weapon was found. As a result, the man was indicted for illegal possession of a firearm in addition to the charges for which he was arrested.
Motion to Suppress
The suspect filed a motion to suppress all evidence found during the search, including the weapon, on the basis that the search illegal. The defendant claimed that the officers went far beyond a protective sweep and that their presence in full tactical gear in the apartment heavily influenced the girlfriend into granting consent to search the apartment. He further claimed that he was pressured into admitting the presence of the gun—without being Mirandized—by implied threats against his girlfriend and their child.
The court ultimately agreed with the defendant on a number of points. First, the court found that the protective sweep was unnecessary given the circumstances and the existing suspicions of the officers on the scene. Next, the court also concurred that the girlfriend’s consent to the evidentiary search was not valid based on the conduct and presence of the officers. Finally, the court found the man was interrogated without being reminded of his rights to remain silent and to have an attorney present. Thus, the search was held to be illegal, and the court granted the motion to suppress.
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