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February 3, 2014
  U.S. v. Arreguin
Headline: Ninth Circuit reverses district court's denial of a suppression motion due to insufficient authority of an unidentified occupant of the home to consent to the search.

Area of Law: Criminal Procedure and Apparent Authority Doctrine

Issue Presented: Whether answering the door of a home and mere presence inside the home, absent any other information, is enough to justify a reasonable belief of the occupant's authority to consent to a search of the master bedroom, master bathroom, and connected garage.

Brief Summary: Lacking any knowledge about the layout of the residence or who resided there, DEA agents searched appellant Omar Arreguin's home after receiving permission to "come in" from an unidentified occupant (Valencia) who answered the door. After the district court denied Arreguin's motion to suppress evidence found during the search, Arreguin pled and appealed.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of Arreguin's suppression motion, holding that the agents lacked sufficient information to justify an objective reasonable belief that Valencia could consent to the search of the master bedroom, the master bathroom, or the garage that connected to the master bathroom. The Court also ruled that the government's "protective sweep" fallback argument had been waived. Lastly, the Court ruled that the government's "plain view" argument was insufficient since the initial entry was unlawful.

Extended Summary: DEA agents conducted a "knock and talk" investigation at appellant Omar Arreguin's home. Prior to approaching the home, the agents did not know who resided in the home nor who was currently inside. The agents were also unaware that the home had a somewhat unique floor plan where the garage connected directly to the master bedroom.

When the agents knocked the door was answered by a sleepy-looking Valencia, whom facts would later reveal to be a houseguest. While Agent Rubio was talking with Valencia, Agent McQuay could see Arreguin and another adult standing inside the residence. McQuay also noticed that Arreguin had a shoebox in his hand. During Rubio's conversation with Valencia, Arreguin went out of sight and then returned without the shoebox. Eventually Rubio explained to Valencia that he and the other agents were from the DEA, were there to look around, and asked if they could "come in." When Valencia said "yes" and allowed the agents to enter, neither Arreguin nor the other adult occupant voiced any objections.

When the agents entered the home they observed Arreguin walking swiftly down a hallway towards the master bedroom. McQuay and another agent followed Arreguin to the hallway and told him to return to the main entrance area. Arreguin returned approximately thirty seconds later and began talking to Rubio. While Rubio and Arreguin were talking, McQuay and the other agent proceeded to perform a "cursory safety sweep" of the residence. Upon entering the master bedroom McQuay saw that the door to the master bathroom was open and also saw a blue shoebox, with its cover removed, that contained a white powdery substance. The shoebox and the white substance were seized. After finding the shoebox, McQuay proceeded through a second door in the master suite that led to an attached garage. Inside the garage McQuay approached the window of a parked car and noticed a Gucci bag with multiple bundles of cash inside it. The bag and the cash were seized. After being confronted with the items McQuay found, Arreguin signed a consent-to-search form and revealed hidden bricks of methamphetamine inside the car.

Arreguin was indicted under 21 U.S.C. ยง 841. Arreguin claimed that the agents lacked consent to search the residence and moved to suppress the shoebox, the white substance, the Gucci bag, and the cash. After the district court denied the motion, Arreguin entered a conditional guilty plea and appealed. Initially the Ninth Circuit affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case so the government could show that Valencia had authority to consent to the search. On remand Arreguin renewed his suppression motion. Despite additional documentary evidence and testimony, the district court again denied the motion and Arreguin timely appealed.

The Ninth Circuit panel held that the issue of whether Valencia had actual or apparent authority to consent to the search was a mixed question of law and fact and reviewed de novo. The government could meet its burden to show consent in three ways: (1) that the third party had shared use and joint access to or control over the searched area, (2) the owner expressly authorized a third party to give consent to search, or (3) through the apparent authority doctrine. During the first appeal, and in the current answering brief, the government did not make any actual-authority argument, so the Court ruled that such an argument was waived.

Regarding the apparent authority doctrine, the panel considered facts available to the agents at the time of the search that would allow an objective and reasonable belief that Valencia had actual authority to consent to the search. While Valencia's sleepy appearance could lead to the belief that he had a connection with a bedroom, his appearance alone was insufficient to connect him with the particular bedroom that McQuay searched. Furthermore, neither Valencia's mere presence inside the home nor his answering of the door were sufficient to establish his authority absent additional information about his connection to the specific locations searched.

The government argued that none of the other occupants objected to Valencia's consent to the agents' entry. This fact alone, however, does not support an objective reasonable belief since, when Valencia gave his consent, the agents knew nothing about Valencia or the other occupants of the home. The only additional facts the agents had prior to their search was that Arreguin had quickly disappeared inside the room and reluctantly reemerged when instructed to do so by the agents. The panel reasoned that these events did not tie Valencia to the room, they only tied Arreguin to it. However, rather than ask Valencia additional questions to try to determine his status in the residence, and thus his authority to consent to a search, the agents simply rushed past him and began their search of the home.

Relying on the premise that "police are not allowed to proceed on the theory that ignorance is bliss," the panel found that the agents lacked sufficient information to support a reasonable belief that Valencia could consent to the search. Furthermore, the Court found that based on the information they did have, a reasonable person would not have presumed that Valencia had any access, control, or authority over the master bedroom or its adjacent areas.

The government then made fallback arguments that the agents were performing a "protective sweep" and that the evidence was in "plain view". However, the panel ruled that the "protective sweep" argument had been waived since the government failed to raise the claim during the initial district court proceedings as well as in its brief on the first appeal. The panel further ruled that since Valencia lacked any apparent authority or shared use and control over the searched areas, the initial entry was unlawful and as such the "plain view" doctrine did not apply.

For these reasons, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of Arreguin's suppression motion and remanded with instructions to grant the motion to suppress the shoe box, the white substance, the Gucci bag, and the cash. The Court further ordered that the district court consider whether the evidence found after the illegal search, including Arreguin's inculpatory statements, should be suppressed as "fruits of the poisonous tree."


Panel: Judges Goodwin, Nelson, N. R. Smith

Date of Issued Opinion: November 22, 2013

Docket Number: 5:08-cr-00161-VAP-1

Decided: Reversed and remanded

Case Alert Author: Seth DuMouchel

Author of Opinion: Judge Goodwin

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Glenn Koppel

    Posted By: Glenn Koppel @ 02/03/2014 03:02 PM     9th Circuit  

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