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United States v. Rodriacuteguez-Pacheco

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

January 15, 2020



          Lauren E.S. Rosen, Assistant Federal Public Defender, with whom Eric Alexander Vos, Federal Public Defender, Vivianne M. Marrero, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Supervisor, Appeals Section, and Liza L. Rosado-Rodríguez, Research and Writing Specialist, were on brief, for appellant.

          Francisco A. Besosa-Martínez, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney, and Mariana E. Bauzá-Almonte, Assistant United States Attorney, Chief, Appellate Division, were on brief, for appellee.

          Before Howard, Chief Judge, Thompson and Kayatta, Circuit Judges.


         Let's start our work with the big picture: Gabriel Rodríguez-Pacheco ("Rodríguez") was a police officer for the Puerto Rico Police Department who was accused of domestic violence, and when some fellow officers showed up at his mother's house (where he was living) in connection with that accusation, a warrantless entry into the house and seizure of Rodríguez's cellphone, camera, and laptop ensued. A later search of the laptop revealed incriminating evidence of the domestic abuse charge, as well as images of unrelated criminal conduct that form the basis for the charges against him in the case now before us. In the lead-up to his trial, Rodríguez moved to suppress the electronics and the information gleaned from them, along with statements he made to the police. The lower court granted the motion as to some statements Rodríguez made, but denied it as to others. Important here, the lower court denied Rodríguez's motion to suppress seized evidence. Rodríguez appealed, and that's where we come in.

         But before we embark upon our analysis, we provide an up-front spoiler to explain why we forgo both a lengthy beginning-to-end rundown of the facts (arrest, search, and seizure) and a comprehensive recap of the lower court's reasoning, ultimately leap-frogging some of the arguments before us and not even reaching others. We do this because, for reasons we'll explain, we agree with Rodríguez on a threshold (literally) issue: the officers' warrantless entry into the house, on the grounds that exigent circumstances existed (as the lower court found), was unconstitutional, and, on this record, there is no evidence demonstrating a different exception to the warrant requirement. For reasons we will explain, we remand Rodríguez's case to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         The Facts

         As is often the case in the motion-to-suppress context, the parties here do not share the same view of the facts. But when we review a challenge to a district court's denial of a motion to suppress, we are to "'view the facts in the light most favorable to the district court's ruling' on the motion."[1] United States v. Camacho, 661 F.3d 718, 723 (1st Cir. 2011) (quoting United States v. Soares, 521 F.3d 117, 118 (1st Cir. 2008)). And "[w]e recite the key facts as found by the district court, consistent with the record support, noting where relevant [Rodríguez]'s contrary view of the testimony presented at the suppression hearing." United States v. Young, 835 F.3d 13, 15 (1st Cir. 2016) (citing United States v. Werra, 638 F.3d 326, 328 (1st Cir. 2011)).

         Officer Nelson Murillo-Rivera ("Officer Murillo"), who works for the Domestic Violence Division in the Ponce region of Puerto Rico, was off-duty on February 28, 2015 when he was approached by his wife's coworker (we refer to her -- using common law enforcement parlance -- as "the victim"), who complained that Rodríguez, with whom she had once been in a relationship, had been sending her threatening text messages. Officer Murillo testified that he saw these complained-of text messages in which Rodríguez was threatening to publish photos and videos of a sexual nature of the victim if she did not agree to rekindle their relationship.

         Officer Murillo reported the above-described episode to the director of the domestic violence unit; later, [2] he was instructed by the district attorney to locate and arrest Rodríguez pursuant to "established procedure."[3] According to Officer Murillo, that procedure is why he did not get a warrant -- he said that, "according to [the procedure], . . . anyone alleged to have committed domestic violence must immediately be placed under arrest." And Officer Murillo testified that, in accordance with that procedure and because Rodríguez was a police officer, the proper course of action was to locate and disarm him, explain the complaint to him, then place him under arrest.

         Intending to carry out this procedure, around midnight, Officer Murillo headed to Rodríguez's house in Yauco, Puerto Rico with several officers, one of whom was Officer Roberto Santiago ("Officer Santiago").[4] The officers had trouble locating Rodríguez's house until they came across a woman (who happened to be Rodríguez's sister) -- when the officers indicated that they were looking for Rodríguez, she led them to their mother's house, then went inside to tell Rodríguez the police were outside.

         Officer Murillo testified that Rodríguez "immediately" came outside to the front of the house. Officer Murillo introduced himself, informed Rodríguez that a woman had filed a domestic violence complaint against Rodríguez, and asked if he knew the woman. Rodríguez said he knew the woman, and so Officer Murillo told Rodríguez that the officers needed to seize his service weapon, and he would have to go to the police station to be questioned.

         Officer Murillo did not handcuff Rodríguez, despite the point of the visit being to arrest him, and he explained that was because Rodríguez "was very cooperative and his family looked like really decent people."

         Officer Murillo asked Rodríguez if he was armed -- he described the exchange as follows:

. . . I asked him, "where is your weapon?" He said, "It's in my bedroom. I'll come right back and I'll go fetch it." Immediately I told him, "No, I'll go with you. You tell me where the weapon is and I'll seek it." To which he answered me, "Okay, no problem." He made a gesture with his ...

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