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United States v. Wyatt

United States District Court, D. Colorado

November 29, 2016



          Marcia S. Krieger, Chief Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant, Richard Wyatt's, Motion to Suppress (# 38) and the Government's Response (# 53).

         This motion concerns a search of Mr. Wyatt's business by the ATF. He seeks suppression of all evidence seized due to misconduct by officers conducting the search. Notably, he does not allege that there were any defects in the warrant executed by the ATF, nor that the ATF exceeded the scope of the warrant when seizing evidence. Instead, Mr. Wyatt argues that the manner in which the ATF exercised the warrant so exceeded the Fourth Amendment's guarantees that suppression of all evidence seized pursuant to the warrant is required. In particular, Mr. Wyatt asserts that the ATF search violated his[1] Fourth Amendment rights because ATF agents: 1) damaged his personal property during the search; 2) detained him during the search; and 3) purposefully exposed him to media coverage.

         I. Facts

         For purposes of this motion, the factual record is, primarily, an oral proffer made by Mr. Wyatt's counsel at a hearing on October 18, 2016 (# 62). (Mr. Wyatt also relies on certain physical exhibits - namely, photographs and a video -- that illustrate certain aspects of the contentions in the proffer.) That hearing concerned a separate motion to suppress, arising out of the same search. At the conclusion of that hearing, the Court noted the pendency of the instant motion by Mr. Wyatt, seeking “blanket suppression” of the fruits of the ATF search. To determine whether a further evidentiary hearing was necessary on that motion, the Court invited Mr. Wyatt's counsel to make a proffer of the evidence he would elicit, were an evidentiary hearing to be held. The Court summarizes that proffer below, taken in the light most favorable to Mr. Wyatt.

         In 2009, the ATF began investigation of Mr. Wyatt and his business, Gunsmoke, Inc., with regard to suspicions that they sold firearms without proper federal licenses. In 2015, the ATF obtained a warrant to search Gunsmoke, Inc.'s business premises and to seize evidence of firearms sales and gunsmithing services.

         ATF agents executed the warrant on March 31, 2015. When Mr. Wyatt pulled into Gunsmoke's parking lot at approximately 9:00 a.m., armed Wheat Ridge police officers pulled up behind him. Mr. Wyatt first engaged with Wheat Ridge officers, with whom he was familiar. The Wheat Ridge officers indicated that ATF officials planned to search the building, that Mr. Wyatt would be detained during that time, and that Mr. Wyatt would be given an opportunity to unlock the building and supply the ATF agents with codes to access areas so that the ATF agents would not have to damage or destroy doors or other areas. Although that discussion was relatively relaxed, Mr. Wyatt became agitated and angry when an ATF agent approached. Mr. Wyatt and the ATF agent had a “contentious argument, ” in which Mr. Wyatt repeatedly demanded to see the warrant and the ATF agent demanded Mr. Wyatt's cooperation in the search. During that argument, while still sitting in his vehicle, Mr. Wyatt reached for his phone. The ATF agent reached into the vehicle and took the phone from Mr. Wyatt, then called for assistance from other agents. Those agents removed Mr. Wyatt from the vehicle and handcuffed him.

         Mr. Wyatt again asked to see the warrant and insisted on calling his lawyer. The ATF agent showed Mr. Wyatt a copy of the warrant, and they argued at some length - perhaps as long as half an hour -- over whether the property address of the building was indeed the address shown on the warrant.[2] Eventually, Mr. Wyatt agreed to provide the ATF agents with keys to the building and codes to provide them access to interior areas. Mr. Wyatt demanded to be permitted to leave the premises and the ATF agents apparently offered him two options: he could stay in the parking lot during the search and be detained and denied access to his phone, or he could leave the premises, but if he left the premises and returned, he would be arrested. Mr. Wyatt states that he expressed an intention to take the latter option and leave. Before he could leave, however, a Wheat Ridge police officer began questioning him about a related criminal case, preventing him from leaving. This questioning lasted some 30-45 minutes.

         At the conclusion of that questioning, ATF agents allowed Mr. Wyatt to leave the premises, telling him that they would call him when they needed him to return. Mr. Wyatt then left. Later that evening, ATF agents called to have him return to open a safe in the building. Mr. Wyatt notes that, at some point prior, he had stated to unidentified persons that he “did not want to be exposed to media coverage [and] humiliation.”[3] When he returned to the premises, “all of the media [was] there.” He attempted to enter inconspicuously through the back of the building, but the door was apparently locked. He called the ATF agents to ask them to open the back door, but they “march[ed] him here in front of the cameras to the [front] section and into the shop.”

         Upon entering the shop, Mr. Wyatt observed various forms of damage that had been caused by the ATF agents. Specifically, he described (and evidenced via exhibits): (i) “various mementos and pictures, some of them of great value, that were either hanging on the wall or were very carefully put away” which “ended up with broken frames and basically deposited on the ground”; (ii) apparently, as many as three prints or images were “simply removed” from the building, despite not being listed in the warrant; (iii) gun cases that various weapons were kept it were “thr[own] into a pile on the floor” and one gun case “was torn up and thrown into a pile”: (iv) two valuable weapons were “thrown into this pile on the floor [ ] and left there, ” at least one of them suffering a scratch in the process (although Mr. Wyatt's counsel focused instead on “the indignity” that one of the weapons had sentimental value to Mr. Wyatt and was kept on a shelf in his office, yet “it was . . . thrown on the floor and left in this manner”); (v) other weapons, prints, a collection of badges, and a scale for weighing gold were thrown on the floor[4]; (vi) “an antique cash register of significant value [ ] was broken”; and (vii) that ATF agents located a “poster” (shown in exhibits to be a large photograph of President Obama with a speech bubble referencing him coming to take away one's guns) that Mr. Wyatt had put away in his office and that the agents “put it at his front door . . . as somewhat of a taunting act.”

         At the conclusion of the proffer, Mr. Wyatt's counsel summarized the various offenses as “gratuitous damage, the things that just weren't necessary, valuable prints, even these, you know, throwing collector item handguns down on the floor, things that simply made no sense[, ] 30 minutes of . . . constant requests to have the right to read the warrant and know what's in the warrant, and instead, what they did is they continued to detain him and part of it was the goal of having him questioned by other police officers on related cases.”

         The ATF seized a wide array of business records and other documents, numerous firearms, Denver Sheriff badges, and various other physical items. The Court does not understand Mr. Wyatt to contend that any of these items fell outside the scope of the search warrant or were otherwise seized in violation of any specific 4th Amendment protection. Instead, the Court understands Mr. Wyatt to argue that the conduct described above - the careless handling of and damage to property not subject to the warrant, the delay in allowing Mr. Wyatt to leave the premises, and the actions by the ATF that exposed him to media scrutiny - collectively render the manner of the search so unreasonable as to violate the Fourth Amendment, such that the only appropriate remedy is “blanket” suppression of all evidence seized pursuant to the warrant. At the Court's request, after Mr. Wyatt's proffer, the parties filed additional briefing (# 64, 65)[5] addressing whether the proffered facts could, if taken as true, warrant such suppression.

         II. Analysis

         The Fourth Amendment protects individuals against unreasonable search and seizures. See U.S. Const. amend. IV. In conducting a search, agents are limited to the scope of the applicable warrant and have a duty to execute a search in a reasonable manner. United States v. Maestas, 2 F.3d 1485, 1491 (10th Cir. 1993); United States v. Mendoza, 817 F.3d 695 (10th Cir. 2016); United States v. Basham, 268 F.3d 1199 (10th Cir. 2001); Lawmaster v. Ward, 125 F.3d 1341 (10th Cir. 1997). Failure to conform to these requirements violates an individual's Fourth Amendment rights. Voss v. Bergsgaard, 774 F.2d 402, 404 (10th Cir. 1985).

         It is important to note, however, that not every constitutional violation, and not every 4thAmendment violation, necessarily results in the suppression of evidence. See Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 487-88 (1963); United States v. Shareef, 100 F.3d 1491, 1508 (10th Cir. 1996). As a remedy for 4th Amendment violations, suppression of evidence is designed to deter future unconstitutional police conduct. Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229, 236 (2011). Suppression is often characterized as a “last resort, ” primarily because exclusion of evidence comes at substantial societal cost, often resulting in the guilty avoiding conviction. Hudson v. Michigan, 547 U.S. 586, 591 (2006). Therefore, to be entitled to a remedy of suppression, a defendant must first establish that there was a violation of his 4th Amendment rights, and second, that suppression is the appropriate remedy. United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 906 (1984) (“Whether the exclusionary rule is appropriately imposed . . . is a separate issue from the question whether the Fourth Amendment rights of the party seeking to invoke the rule were violated by police conduct”); United States v. Nava-Ramirez, 210 F.3d 1128, 1131 (10th Cir. 2000); United States v. Orozco, 575 F.Supp.2d 1191, 1207 (D. Colo. 2008).

         Generally, suppression is warranted only where there is a causal connection between the illegal police conduct and the evidence obtained; in other words, where, but-for the illegal conduct, the contested evidence would not have been discovered. See, e.g., Hudson, 547 U.S. at 592; United States v. Hargus, 128 F.3d 1358, 1363 (10th Cir. 1997) (“If evidence is illegally seized, the general rule is that only the improperly seized evidence, not all of the evidence, must be suppressed, unless there was flagrant disregard for the terms of the warrant”). In circumstances where a 4th Amendment violation occurs but suppression is not warranted, the individual may instead seek civil damages through an action under Bivens or 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See, e.g., Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 604 (1999); Hanlon v. Berger, 526 U.S. 808 (1999).

         A. Suppression Resulting From Flagrant Disregard for ...

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