Ivan Garcia-Lopez probably wishes he had taken his meal somewhere else on the evening February 5, 2014. He was living in a single-wide trailer home in Wharton County, Texas, with Jaime Garcia and his brother, Yonari.
Felony Arrest Warrant
Two Wharton County Sheriff’s deputies, Raul Adam Gomez and Lionel Garcia, went to the Garcia trailer home to serve a felony arrest warrant on Yonari Garcia. Deputy Gomez went to the front door while Deputy Garcia went to the backdoor of the residence. Deputy Gomez asked Jaime if his son (Yonari) was at the residence. Jaime said he was not. The deputy then asked Jaime if the officers could search the residence for Yonari. The home owner gave his consent to search.
While standing at the doorway, Deputy Gomez noticed a light coming from a distant room. He asked Jaime if anyone else was in the residence. He replied that his older son Garcia-Lopez was in the residence. Just as Deputy Gomez initiated this conversation with Jaime, Garcia-Lopez closed and locked door of his room. That immediately aroused the deputy’s suspicion who walked down the hall to the door and ordered Garcia-Lopez to unlock the door.
Garcia-Lopez did as instructed.
Officer Enters Room and Searches for Suspect
Deputy Gomez entered the room, and after pushing Garcia-Lopez aside, began a search for Yonari.
The room, which was a 10 by 11 room without a closet, was an add-on room to the trailer home. An unmade bed with only a mattress and box spring sat flush to the door. The only other items in the room were a dresser and an entertainment system.
There was no visual evidence that Yonari was in the room.
Finds Bulletproof Vest
Deputy Gomez saw two bulletproof vests on the bed. At that moment Garcia-Lopez asked the deputy if he could sit on the bed and finish his meal. The deputy said he could.
Asked to whom the bulletproof vests belonged, Garcia-Lopez responded they belonged to Yonari. Deputy Gomez did not believe him. He knew Garcia-Lopez was a convicted felon and that the vests placed him in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 822(g) (1).
Deputy Gomez instructed Garcia-Lopez to stand, handcuffed his hands behind his back, and moved him to the door of the room. He then radioed Deputy Garcia for his assistance.
Further Search Reveals Guns
With Deputy Garcia watching Garcia-Lopez, Deputy Gomez continued his search of the room. He found a short barrel shotgun and two rifles under the mattress, and then discovered three handguns with ammunition in a nearby backpack.
With the search of Garcia-Lopez’s room complete, the two deputies left the trailer home with Garcia-Lopez in custody. They did not search the remainder of the residence for Yonari.
Indicted: Felon in Possession
In March 2014, Garcia-Lopez was indicted on six counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The indictment also contained a forfeiture notice of the firearms and the bulletproof vests.
Motion to Suppress
Garcia-Lopez’s attorney filed a motion to suppress, alleging that the search of the backpack and under the mattress was conducted without probable cause. The government responded, and the district court agreed, that the search was permissible under the “protective sweep” exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.
Protective Sweep Exception to Warrant Requirement
In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court in Maryland v. Buie defined a protective sweep as those occasions when officers are lawfully inside a residence to serve an arrest warrant and who may conduct a protective sweep with only “reasonable suspicion,” a lesser standard than probable cause. The Supreme Court said the reasonable suspicion standard requires only “articulable facts which, taken together with the rational inferences from those facts, would warrant a reasonably prudent officer in believing that the area to be swept harbors an individual posing a danger to those on the arrest scene.”
Deputy Gomez had consent to search the residence for Yonari. That consent did not extend to a search of Garcia-Lopez’s personal belongings in his room. Everything was out in the open in the room as there was no closet: the mattress-box spring that sat flush to the door, the dresser and entertainment system were all in the open.
No Yonari was in sight.
Motion to Suppress Denied
In reaching its decision to deny Garcia-Lopez’s motion to suppress, the district court at the outset determined that the two deputies were lawfully at Jaime Garcia’s residence in search of Yonari.
The question then was whether Officer Gomez had what the district court called a “reasonable suspicion of danger” that someone was concealed between the mattress and the box spring. Deputy Gomez testified that it was his experience that people sometimes conceal themselves under a mattress to avoid arrest.
And here is where the situation gets flaky. The district court pointed out that even though Garcia-Lopez had been arrested as a felon in possession of body armor (the two bulletproof vests), Deputy Gomez had a right to search for Yonari between the mattress and box spring.
We strongly believe this was an erroneous conclusion.
We believe Deputy Gomez continued the search of Garcia-Lopez’s personal belongings in the room because he wanted to find more incriminating evidence; namely, weapons. Yonari certainly could not have hidden in the backpack, or even under the mattress.
Our belief is reinforced by the fact that once the deputies completed the search of Garcia-Lopez’s room, they left with the suspect in custody and did not search the rest of the trailer home for Yonari.
The chronology of facts of this case, as articulated in a January 11, 2016 decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, support the argument that the so-called “reasonable suspicion” Deputy Gomez had that Yonari was under the mattress or in the backpack was an unlawful pretext to conduct a search without a warrant.
Fifth Circuit Upholds Denial of Motion to Suppress
In upholding the district court’s ruling on the suppression motion, the Fifth Circuit explained why it could not accept the pretext position:
“There is ample evidence to support the district court’s finding of reasonable suspicion. Under the facts, Deputy Gomez first noticed a light on before hearing a door shut. Prior to these events, Deputy Gomez had been given no concrete proof as to who might actually lie on the other side of the closed door. Upon entry, Deputy Gomez became suspicious that Garcia-Lopez’s first order of business after their ‘standoff’ over the locked door was to calmly request to sit back on the bed. In that moment, Garcia-Lopez seemingly innocent request triggered something else entirely for Deputy Gomez. To Deputy Gomez, the request led to his belief that Yonari might be hidden beneath the mattress in a hollowed box spring. Deputy Gomez testified as much before the district court, stating ‘… when I was looking for Yonari because he could possibly be hiding between the mattresses.’”
Fifth Circuit Finds Reasons to Affirm
There was no bulge or rise in the mattress, and without these indications, at least two circuit courts of appeals have held that searches under mattresses are not justified in a protective sweep. The Fifth Circuit’s reliance on Deputy Gomez’s intuition, without more, that Yonari might be under the mattress is, at best, incongruous to us.
Deputy Gomez saw bulletproof vests on the bed. He knew Garcia-Lopez was a convicted felon so the deputy placed him under arrest. He called Deputy Garcia to assist. He gave no indication that he believed Yonari was anywhere in Garcia-Lopez’s room. He did not instruct Deputy Garcia to do a wider protective sweep of the trailer home. He kept his attention focused squarely on Garcia-Lopez’s personal belongings in the room—the backpack and the mattress.
There is simply no reasonable evidence to support Deputy Gomez’s stated suspicion that he believed Yonari was between the mattress and box spring. In order to affirm the lower court’s denial of the motion to suppress, the appeals court had to stretch and supply reasoning for search between mattress and box spring, namely that “it was logical under the facts that the suspect might have been hiding in a hollowed out box spring.”
No Harm, No Foul Reasoning
The Fifth Circuit’s upheld Garcia-Lopez’s conviction and 46-month prison sentence, we suspect, because Garcia-Lopez entered a conditional guilty plea to one count of the indictment. Any other finding would have resulted in the release of a felon who had served less than half of his 46-month prison term. The appeals court was not about to go there.