The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decided the issue of whether to reverse the district court’s denial of Defendant’s motion to suppress evidence of armed robbery because law enforcement ignored a court order that released Defendant from probation after law enforcement believed the order was erroneous.
The central issue in this case concerns the Defendant’s parole status at the time of his arrest. The Defendant, Robert Starnes, Jr., had criminal convictions in 1993. After serving seven years in prison, in 2000, he was released on parole into the supervision of the Ohio Adult Parole Authority (APA). A condition of his parole with APA was that he submit to voluntary, warrantless searches of his residence and vehicle, should his parole officer have “reasonable grounds” to believe that he was not abiding by the law. In 2005, while serving time for one of his parole violations, he was convicted on new charges of theft and escape. Instead of receiving a new term of incarceration, the sentencing judge placed Defendant on “community control” with the Lorain County Adult Probation Department.
Sometime in 2009, the Ohio Supreme Court issued decisions that affected several of Ohio’s post-release sentencing laws and prompted an audit of APA’s case files. During the process, the APA discovered that Defendant was not properly sentenced for the 2005 convictions and consequently terminated his supervision on December 3, 2009. The APA maintained that this termination related only to the 2005 convictions and thus, the Defendant remained under its supervision for the 1993 convictions. As a result, the Defendant returned to the original sentencing judge for a clarification on the status of Defendant’s supervision. The sentencing judge held that the earlier ruling covered both the 1993 and 2005 convictions and that the Defendant should no longer be under the control of APA.
The APA believed that the sentencing judge lacked authority and that the court’s orders were legally incorrect and thus, were ineffective. The APA’s legal office did not file any formal appeal with the court. Instead, the Assistant Chief Counsel in the APA’s legal office sent the sentencing judge an ex parte, private email notifying the judge of its intent to disregard the order. Because APA decided itself that Defendant’s release from probation was legally erroneous, it attempted to continue its supervision of Defendant and ignored the court order.
The Defendant did not report to parole again. On May 27, 2010, the APA declared Defendant a parole violator based on his failure to report. On July 20, 2010, Defendant’s supervising parole officer, Officer Fitzgerald, received a copy of a Violator-at-Large-Notice issued by the Superintendent and the Chief of the APA. Pursuant to APA protocol, Officer Fitzgerald believed that the notice granted him the authority to execute an arrest of Defendant.
During this same period, three local area banks were robbed, with the last occurring on July 21, 2010. On July 22, 2010, a detective with the Sheffield Lake Police Department (“SLPD”) contacted Officer Fitzgerald to inquire about Defendant’s parole status. At that time, Officer Fitzgerald learned that Defendant was the prime suspect for the robbery, and he identified Defendant from surveillance pictures taken at the bank. Based on this information, Officer Fitzgerald decided to have Defendant arrested for his failure to report.
That afternoon of July 22, officers with the APA, the SLPD, the Fugitive Task Force, and the FBI convened on the Sheffield Lake apartment where Defendant lived with his wife. The officers instead effected a “knock-and-announce” entry. When Defendant’s wife opened the door, the officers informed her that they were executing a warrant for her husband’s arrest based on a parole violation. The wife responded by showing the law enforcement a copy of the sentencing judge’s order. When Defendant encountered law enforcement in his apartment, he told them, “You’re not supposed to be here.”
The APA officers conducted a first search of the apartment but seized no evidence. Sometime during or after this search and Defendant’s arrest, an FBI special agent approached the wife and presented a copy of the FBI’s standard “consent to search form.” The wife responded that she and her husband “had nothing to hide” and signed the form. The FBI then conducted a second search of the apartment and seized a pellet gun, a red bandana, black pants with white striping, and a notebook. After discovering that the wife’s name was not on the title, the FBI asked the APA to search the van pursuant to its parole authority. The APA did so and seized a crossbow, bolt cutters, and a camouflage-colored baseball cap.
A jury convicted the Defendant on two counts of armed bank robbery and one count of bank robbery. The Defendant appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. On appeal, Defendant argued that the officers violated the Fourth Amendment because he was not on parole, the offices did not possess a valid warrant, and the search was conducted without consent.
The Fourth Amendment guarantees individuals the right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures” of “their persons, houses, papers and effects.” The Fourth Amendment protections are enforced through the application of the exclusionary rule, which prohibits the introduction of evidence obtained in its violation. The decision to exclude improperly obtained evidence turns on the culpability of the police and the potential of exclusion to deter wrongful police conduct.
First, the U.S. Court of Appeals decided the constitutionality of the warrantless search and Defendant’s arrest. Because a condition of Defendant’s parole was that he submit to voluntary, warrantless searches, the government contends that this condition means that the Defendant’s suppression motion must fail. The court determined that the APA had no authority to disregard a binding court order “simply because it disagreed with the sentencing judge’s legal analysis. A law enforcement agency has no power to deliberately ignore a court order.” The court also found that the APA’s ex parte email to the sentencing judge notifying of the APA’s intent to disregard the order was not sufficient.
Therefore, the court held that the APA did not have the authority to issue a warrantless search and arrest of the Defendant because a binding court order released him from APA supervision.
Second, the court did not find that the APA believed in good faith that it took appropriate action by emailing the court and notifying the judge of its intent to disregard the order and because the arresting officers were told by the APA that they had authority to execute a warrantless arrest and search, it was responsible for the parole officers to follow the directions of their supervisors. The court determined that “[t]he APA’s awareness of the binding court order, its deliberate decision to disregard the order, and its failure to inform the executing officers of the full facts, means that ‘the exclusionary rule [remains] in play,’” regardless of whether the good faith exception applies to the arresting officers because the APA purposefully ignored the court order. The court held that the good faith exception “does not absolve such flagrantly wrongful conduct.”
Last, the government argued that, regardless of the Defendant’s parole status, the search was valid because Defendant’s wife consented to a search. The court held that “[e]ven if we could divide the searches into separate events and find that [Defendant’s wife] consented only to the FBI’s second search of the apartment, we cannot conclude that [Defendant’s wife]’s consent was freely and voluntarily given under these highly distressing, fast moving, and confusing circumstances.”
For these reasons, the court reversed the district court’s denial of the motion to suppress, vacated Defendant’s convictions and sentence, and remanded to the district court.
The case is United States v. Starnes, No. 11-3446, dated September 26, 2012. To review the decision, visit: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/12a1029n-06.pdf.