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Media Alerts - United States v. Paetsch - Tenth Circuit
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April 15, 2015
  United States v. Paetsch - Tenth Circuit
Case Name: United States v. Christian Paetsch

Headline: Tenth Circuit Holds the Detaining of 29 people and 20 Cars Was Not an Unreasonable Search and Seizure When the Danger Posed by a Bank Robber Was High

Area of Law: Criminal Procedure, Fourth Amendment

Issue Presented: Is it a violation of the Fourth Amendment when police officers barricaded off 20 cars on a street after they tracked stolen money containing a GPS tracking device to the location?

Brief Summary:

Police officers tracked a bank robber to within a 60-foot radius utilizing a tracking device in the stolen money. The police officers barricaded off the area and stopped 20 cars. The 29 individuals in these cars were detained for 30 minutes while police waited for a homing beacon to arrive so that the money could be tracked at a decreased radius. Once the homing beacon arrived the Defendant was detained and the money was found in his car. The majority concluded that this was not a Fourth Amendment violation and utilized a three prong test from Brown v. Texas. The court weighed the gravity of public concern and the public interest against the interference with private liberty. The majority concluded that the public concern and public interest was significant while the interference with private liberty was limited. Therefore, there was no Fourth Amendment violation.

Extended Summary:

On June 2, 2012, the Defendant robbed a bank in Aurora, Colorado. The Defendant did not know that one of the stacks of money he was stealing contained a GPS tracking device. The tracker transmitted a signal to the Aurora Police Department which allowed them to follow the money to the general area of the Defendant. The tracking device could only be pinpointed to within a 60-foot diameter. Police officers blocked off an entire intersection, keeping 20 cars carrying 29 passengers immobilized in their vehicles.

The police officers then waited for an FBI agent to arrive on the scene with a homing beacon which would allow them to track the signal of the money to within 10 feet. Before the homing beacon arrived, officers removed two drivers, including the Defendant, from their vehicles because they were acting suspiciously. Both drivers were handcuffed and placed on a curb. One officer did a visual check from outside the Defendant's vehicle and saw a band used to wrap stacks of money.

At this point, police officers were able to use a properly calibrated homing beach to track the money to the Defendant's car. Inside they discovered the stolen money, two hand guns, two fake license plates, and the clothing used during the robbery.

The Defendant was convicted of armed robbery and a firearm charge. On appeal the Defendant argued that the procedure utilized by police officers during the stop was a violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Specifically, the Defendant argued that the group seizure was not appropriately tailored. City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000). Further, the Defendant argued that the seizure failed the balancing test in Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47 (1979), because it did not advance the public interest to a sufficient degree when weighed against its resulting interference with individual liberty.

The majority disagreed and reaffirmed the district court's ruling that this was not a Fourth Amendment violation.

The court began its analysis by conceding that a search and seizure without individualized suspicion is considered unreasonable. When the police initially set up the barricade, they did not have individualized suspicion of the particular Defendant in this case.

However, the majority indicated that this concept is a general rule which contains several exceptions. The court emphasized that the Fourth Amendment is about reasonableness, not individualized suspicion. The majority pointed to two major exceptions the United States Supreme Court has carved out of this general rule for group seizures that go beyond policing ordinary crime. The first occurred in United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976), which upheld the use of roadblocks by border patrol agents to intercept illegal immigrants.. The second was case involved roadblocks designed to stop drunk drivers. Mich. Dep't of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444 (1990). The majority noted that in those cases the Supreme Court utilized a balancing test instead of individualized suspicion. Therefore, it reasoned that individualized suspicion was not necessary in this circumstance.

The majority continued by analyzing whether or not the group seizure was a violation of the Fourth Amendment when the public interest justifying the seizure is weighed against the intrusion on individual liberty. The majority used a three factor test from Brown to do this. The test requires a court to weigh the gravity of the public concern served by the seizure and the degree to which the seizure advances the public interest against the severity of the interference with individual liberty.

The majority considered the gravity of the public concern significant. It focused on the fact that the Defendant was fleeing a bank robbery and the fact that he was armed.

The court looked at the next prong statistically. It considered the fact that police officers detained 20 cars to catch one bank robber to be significant. The court considered this 5% "hit rate" to be significant when weighed against other Supreme Court precedent which upheld checkpoints that only had a 1.6% "hit rate". However, the court stressed that this precedent did not implicate an emergency situation which was the situation in this case. Further, the police officers had reliable information the bank robber was present within the 20 cars because of the tracking beacon. The majority indicated these factors reasonably advanced the public interest while stressing that police do not have to utilize the least intrusive means for a group seizure, but rather one choice among reasonable alternatives.

The majority then proceeded to the last prong of the test and indicated that the interference with individual liberty was the detaining of 29 innocent people in their cars for close to 30 minutes. It found that this was not an unreasonable interference with individual liberty. The majority noted three major criteria that factored into their conclusion. First, the Fourth Amendment has afforded less protection in automobiles than it has in domiciles. Second, police officers limited the search to the radius of the tracking device. Third, the police officers acted with diligence and did not take longer than reasonably necessary to identify the Defendant. This factor, when weighed against the other two, lead the majority to its conclusion that the procedure utilized by the police was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Having concluded that the group seizure as a whole was not a Fourth Amendment violation, the majority turned to whether or not it was a violation once police officers had developed individualized suspicion of the Defendant. The court analyzed the individual seizure as an investigatory stop and utilized a two prong test. First, the majority asked if the means used to detain the Defendant were not unreasonably intrusive. The court concluded that handcuffing and detaining the Defendant on a curb was not unreasonable, particularly after he started acting suspiciously. Second, the court asked if the duration the Defendant was detained was unreasonably long. It concluded that the Defendant was only detained an hour and a half while the police waited for the homing beacon to arrive and that this was not unreasonably long.

The majority concluded by reiterating that this was not a Fourth Amendment violation because the public interest outweighed the intrusion on private liberty. The district court's ruling was affirmed.

Judge Briscoe issued a concurring opinion. The concurrence disagreed with the majority stating that police officers had not developed individualized suspicion before detaining the Defendant. However, Judge Briscoe indicated that the conduct of the police officers was in good faith and the delay in identifying the Defendant at the group seizure did not amount to the level that would constitute a Fourth Amendment violation.

To read the full opinion, please visit:

Panel: Phillips, Briscoe, Tymkovich

Date of Issued Opinion: April 8, 2015

Docket Number: No. 11-1169

Decided: Affirmed the order of the district court denying Defendant's motion to suppress

Case Alert Author: Leland Churan


John T. Carlson, Assistant Federal Public Defender (Warren R. Williamson, Federal
Public Defender, Interim, and Virginia L. Grady, Federal Public Defender, Interim, with
him on the briefs), Denver, Colorado, for Defendant - Appellant.

Robert M. Russel, Assistant United States Attorney (John F. Walsh, United States
Attorney, and W. Aaron Vandiver, Special Assistant United States Attorney, with him on
the brief), Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff - Appellee.
Author of Opinion: Hon. Gregory A. Phillips
Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Barbara Bergman

Edited: 04/15/2015 at 01:39 PM by Dawinder Sidhu

    Posted By: Dawinder Sidhu @ 04/15/2015 01:25 PM     10th Circuit  

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