The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has upheld a federal judge’s decision to grant a motion to suppress evidence obtained during an illegal search.
Straughn Gorman was stopped by a Nevada state trooper for an alleged “left lane violation” while driving a motorhome. The trooper was suspicious that Gorman was carrying bulk amounts of cash in the motorhome. But Gorman would not consent to a search, and he had no criminal history. Eventually the trooper let Gorman go, more than 30 minutes after the stop started.
After Gorman drove off, the trooper radioed ahead to another police department. The trooper told the other police department that he felt that Gorman was hauling cash in his motorhome, but had to let him go because he did not have probable cause to detain him further. The trooper told the other officer that a dog would be needed to develop probable cause for a search. Police dogs are trained to detect the scent of drugs.
The other officer stopped Gorman for a traffic violation. The dog performed a sniff around the motorhome and alerted. A warrant was obtained, and$167,070.00 in cash was discovered in the vehicle.
Gorman was never charged with any crime. Instead, the federal government sought forfeiture of the cash. Federal law allows the government to seize assets earned from drug activity.
Gorman hired a lawyer and fought the forfeiture. Gorman argued that the cash should be returned because it was found as a result of an illegal search. The lower court agreed, ordered the cash returned, and granted Gorman nearly $147,000 in attorney’s fees.
The Government appealed, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.
The Government conceded on appeal that the trooper unconstitutionally extended his stop of Gorman in violation of the Fourth Amendment. But since the money was recovered as a result of the second stop, not the first, the Government argued that the funds should not have been suppressed under the exclusionary rule as “fruit of the poisonous tree.”
The appeals court emphatically disagreed.
The coordinated action at issue in Gorman’s case offers a prime illustration of the value of the “fruit of the poisonous tree” analysis. The analysis allows us to see the officers’ conduct in Gorman’s case as what it is: a single integrated effort by police to circumvent the Constitution by making two coordinated stops. When the result of one stop is communicated and, on that basis, another stop is planned and implemented, the coordinated stops become, in effect, one integrated stop that must as a whole satisfy the Constitution’s requirements. An illegal police venture cannot be made legal simply by dividing it into two coordinated stops. See, e.g., United States v. Peters, 10 F.3d 1517, 1522–23 (10th Cir. 1993); United States v. Ilazi, 730 F.2d 1120, 1125 (8th Cir. 1984); United States v. Morin, 665 F.2d 765, 768–69 (5th Cir. 1982), abrogated on other grounds by United States v. Bengivenga, 845 F.2d 593, 596 (5th Cir. 1988) (en banc). The Constitution guards against this kind of gamesmanship because the Fourth Amendment’s protections extend beyond the margins of one particular police stop and can extend to the integrated and purposeful conduct of the state.
The lower court’s decision granting the motion to suppress evidence based on an illegal search was accordingly upheld in all respects. United States v. Gorman, No. 15-16600 (9th Cir. 2017).