case law update

Third Circuit: Payton Reasonable Suspicion Standard is the “Equivalent” of Probable Cause

The Third Circuit recently joined the likes of the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Ninth Circuits to hold that officers possessing only an arrest warrant may not enter a home without probable cause to believe that an arrestee resides at and is present within the residence.

In 2010, Deputy U.S. Marshal Gary Duncan received a tip from another officer and from street informants that Mr. Edguardo Rivera, a suspect in a homicide case, was “staying” or “residing” at an apartment in Harrisburg, PA. Deputy Marshal Duncan obtained an arrest warrant for Rivera. He then arrived at the provided address with local officers. The officers knocked on the door but received no response. Hearing movement inside, the officers forcibly entered the home.

The officers discovered that Rivera was not present at and did not live in the apartment. Instead, the officers found Mr. Johnny Vasquez-Algarin, powder cocaine, a razor blade and sandwich baggies. One officer obtained a search warrant while the other officers waited in the apartment. After searching the apartment, the officers discovered ammunition, unused plastic bags and hundreds of small black bands. The officers then arrested Vasquez-Algarin.

Vasquez-Algarin was charged with distribution and possession with intent to distribute cocaine. He moved to suppress the evidence seized from the apartment, contending that the officers’ entry into the apartment was unconstitutional. The District Court denied Vasquez-Algarin’s motion to suppress, concluding that the officers’ entry was constitutional.

A jury convicted Vasquez-Algarin on both drug counts, and he appealed the District Court’s denial of his suppression motion to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Vasquez-Algarin argued on appeal that the officers needed a search warrant to enter his apartment because the subject of their arrest warrant did not reside there.

The Supreme Court previously issued two major decisions regarding the constitutionality of in-home arrests. In Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1980), the Court stated that an arrest warrant implicitly carries the limited authority to enter a dwelling “in which the suspect lives when there is reason to believe the suspect is within.” Courts developed a two-prong test for residency in the wake of Payton, finding that officers must have a “reasonable belief” that (1) the arrestee resides at the dwelling and (2) the arrestee is present at the time of entry.

The Supreme Court later applied a different framework where officers believe an individual that they have an arrest warrant for is a guest in a third-party home. In Steagald v. United States, 451 U.S. 204 (1981), the Court held that officers cannot enter a third party’s residence to execute an arrest warrant without first obtaining a search warrant “based on their belief that [the suspect] might be a guest there.” However, neither the Payton decision nor the Steagald decision contemplates the possibility of uncertain residency.

The Court of Appeals clarified that Vasquez-Algarin’s matter sits between the residency test derived from Payton and the Fourth Amendment protections guaranteed to third-party homes under Steagald. For the first time, the Court of Appeals was asked to determine the level of certainty needed to develop a reasonable belief that a suspect resides at and is present at a particular address before forcing entry.

The court looked to other circuits that weighed in on the issue. The D.C., First, Second and Tenth Circuits have held that the reasonable belief standard requires less than probable cause. In contrast, the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Ninth Circuits have held that it is the equivalent, or functional equivalent, of probable cause. The Court of Appeals in Vasquez-Algarin’s case agreed with the latter grouping of circuits, holding that the reasonable belief standard “embodies the same standard of reasonableness inherent in probable cause.” 

The Court of Appeals ruled, “law enforcement armed with only an arrest warrant may not force entry into a home based on anything less than probable cause to believe an arrestee resides at and is then present within the residence.” The court reasoned that the context of the Payton decision and the language used by the Supreme Court supports a probable cause standard. It further noted that the nature of Fourth Amendment privacy interests supports the right of an individual to retreat into his or her home and be free from unreasonable governmental intrusion.

After defining the “reasonable belief standard as equivalent to probable cause,” the court declared that the officers did not meet that standard for either prong of the Payton test here. First, Deputy Marshal Duncan relied on informant tips and the word of another detective that Rivera lived in the home, but failed to identify the number of informants, their reliability based on prior interactions or the information related. As such, the officers lacked probable cause to believe Rivera lived in the apartment. Second, because the officers lacked probable cause to believe Rivera lived in the apartment, mere signs of life inside could not establish probable cause that Rivera was present. Therefore, the officers could not justify their warrantless entry into Velasquez-Algarin’s apartment.

The government contended that even if the officers unlawfully entered Vasquez-Algarin’s home, his conviction should stand because the evidence is admissible under the good-faith exception. The Court of Appeals disagreed, stating that the officers’ conduct was “grossly negligent” and inconsistent with fundamental Fourth Amendment principles. Accordingly, it reversed the District Court’s denial of Vasquez-Algarin’s motion to suppress.

Read the full case: United States v. Vasquez-Algarin


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: case law update, michael j sgarlat


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