case law update

Fifth Circuit: Exigent Circumstances Exception Applies to Vehicles

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that a defendant’s consent to a search, obtained after invoking her right to remain silent, is not testimonial evidence that can be suppressed as a Miranda violation.

Over a wiretap, an FBI agent heard Robert Williams, a suspected leader of the drug trafficking organization the “Harvey Hustlers,” give permission to an associate to kill an individual he identified as “Tye” or “Todd.” The agent overheard Williams state that the target was driving around in a silver Infiniti coupe in the Kennedy Heights neighborhood of Avondale, Louisiana.

The agent contacted Detective William Roniger, a member of the task force investigating the Harvey Hustlers. Detective Roniger contacted the sheriff’s division responsible for the Kennedy Heights area of Avondale and subsequently met several of its officers at a gas station. Detective Roniger and the other officers proceeded to the Kennedy Heights neighborhood and searched for a silver Infiniti. As they were leaving the area, they encountered a silver Infiniti, and Deputy Jean Cadet proceeded to follow it. Deputy Cadet noticed the car was traveling over 35 miles per hour in a 20 miles per hour zone.

Deputy Cadet pulled over the silver Infiniti and told the driver, Tosh Toussaint, to exit the vehicle holding his license, registration, and insurance information. Toussaint exited the vehicle and quickly fled on foot. Detective Roniger chased him down, arrested him, provided him with Miranda warnings, and searched him incident to arrest. Detective Roniger found a 9mm pistol and a bag with rocks of crack cocaine. Touissaint once again tried to flee but was caught. At that time, forty-five minutes elapsed between the initial threat over the wiretap and the stop of the car.

Touissant was brought to the sheriff’s investigations bureau and interviewed. The government charged Toussaint with three crimes related to the pistol and drugs. Touissant moved to suppress the fruits of the traffic stop as well as the statements he made to the police once they brought him to the investigations bureau. The government contested that the stop was legal under the exigent-circumstances exception and that the speeding violation provided the officers with reasonable suspicion to make the stop.

The district court granted Touissaint’s motion to suppress on both grounds, finding exigent circumstances when the call was first intercepted but not when the officers found Toussaint forty-five minutes later. Additionally, it found that Roniger and his fellow officers’ response to the threat was unreasonable, noting their lack of urgency and questioning whether the officers believed Toussaint needed urgent help. The government appealed the order suppressing the evidence to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

A district court’s determination of the existence or nonexistence of exigent circumstances is a factual finding examined for clear error. The court of appeals stated that to decide whether the court erred in suppressing the evidence, it confronted an issue that had not yet been decided by federal courts of whether officers could justify any stop of a vehicle (as distinguished from the search of a home) under the exigent circumstances exception.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits only searches that are unreasonable. Although searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable, officers can respond without a warrant where exigent circumstances justify it. One recognized exigent circumstance is the need to assist persons seriously injured or threatened with injury. However, the court of appeals noted that the vast majority of cases applying the exigent circumstances exception address warrantless entries into homes and that no federal court had yet approved or rejected the extension of this doctrine to a vehicular stop.

The court of appeals found that “there is no logical difficulty with extending the exception” to those situations where officers need to assist others even though they could not otherwise be legally present without a warrant. The court justified this conclusion, stating that there is little reason to think that officers should be permitted to enter a home to help someone, but be foreclosed by the Fourth amendment from stopping a car to help someone. The court also emphasized that an individual’s privacy interest in his or her vehicle is less substantial than is the interest in his or her house.

In evaluating whether an exigency existed, courts must examine whether there was an objectively reasonable basis for such a belief. The objective facts in this case were straightforward. An FBI agent overheard a threat to someone’s life, contacted officers who searched for the potential victim, and found him within forty-five minutes. The court of appeals disagreed with the district court’s conclusion that the exigency dissipated by the time the officers located Toussaint based on these facts. Instead, it concluded that the emergency still existed when the officers pulled over Toussaint. The court also stated that the officers’ actions, taken as a whole, were a reasonable response to the emergency. Therefore, the court of appeals reversed the suppression order.

Read the full case: United States v. Toussaint


This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

Tags: FBI, drug trafficking, michael j sgarlat, Fifth Circuit


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