Multiple dwellings and probable cause for search warrants

Blight v. City of Manteca,
944 F.3d 1061 (9th Cir. 2019)

Manteca, California! Nestled about halfway between Modesto and Stockton off of Highway 99, it is the hometown of former NBA point guard and coach Scott Brooks – an undrafted, 5’11″ bundle of grit and inspiration. But perhaps more importantly for our purposes here, Manteca is also the setting for a good reminder about search-warrant law and probable cause.

Blight v. City of Manteca arose because police officers, in executing a search warrant for a marijuana grow, also searched a separate mobile home located on the lot. The mobile-home resident was not the subject of the warrant, nor even Scott Brooks. It was an elderly woman who was plainly not growing pot in her trailer. She was not impressed, and later sued. Sadly, the Ninth Circuit upheld summary judgment in favor of the police, holding that there was probable cause to search the mobile home. The general rule is helpful as far as it goes: “when a structure contains two residences or two residences share a lot, there must be probable cause to search each.” Id. at 1066-67 (citing United States v. Whitten, 706 F.2d 1000, 1008 (9th Cir. 1983), overruled on other grounds by United States v. Perez, 116 F.3d 840 (9th Cir. 1997) (en banc)). But, “a warrant is valid when it authorizes the search of a street address with several dwellings if the defendants are in control of the whole premises, if the dwellings are occupied in common, or if the entire property is suspect.” Id. The Court held that under the facts provided to the magistrate, “there was a substantial basis for the issuing judge to believe [the marijuana grower] was in control of the whole premises.” Id. at 1067.

Another helpful tidbit here is the reminder that “[o]fficer authority to search property listed in a search warrant is not unlimited.” See Mena v. City of Simi Valley, 226 F.3d 1031, 1038 (9th Cir. 2000). If officers know (or should know) that they are searching a residence that was erroneously included in a search warrant, then they must stop the search as soon as they apprehend that risk. Id. This wasn’t one of those cases either, the Court held, but we should keep this in mind as a backstop against plain-view mischief. Even if the police initially believe they have a right to be somewhere, they have to shut things down as soon as they learn they are in the wrong place.

Lawsuit by wrongfully convicted defendants not barred by Heck doctrine.

Roberts v. City of Fairbanks,
947 F.3d 1191, 1193-94 (9th Cir. 2020)

Roberts involves a wrongful conviction, a seemingly extortionate liability waiver, and the question of whether the criminal defendants can sue thereafter. The case arose from a group beating on the streets of Fairbanks, resulting in a 15-year-old boy’s death. Three young men were convicted of the murder. Several years later, a different man confessed to the crime, implicating entirely different co-conspirators. Post-conviction hearings ensued, corroborating the confession and undermining the thin evidence that originally convicted the first group of men.

After the hearing, the judge announced that his decision wouldn’t issue for another 6-8 months. And, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, the prosecutors promised that they would appeal an adverse decision all the way to the state Supreme Court. Id. at 1195.

But then the prosecutors offered a deal: they would dismiss all charges, but only if all four defendants agreed not to sue and signed releases of liability. The accused, anxious to get out of jail, reluctantly agreed. Id.

But once they got out of jail – God bless ‘em – they sued anyway! They sought monetary damages and a declaratory judgment that the settlement agreement was unenforceable. The district court held that the claims were barred by the Heck doctrine, which holds that a criminal conviction precludes a related civil suit if success on the civil claim would necessarily undermine the validity of the criminal conviction. Thankfully, the Ninth Circuit reversed. It held that because the trial court had vacated the convictions, there was no Heck bar to a subsequent civil case, and it remanded to consider the enforceability of the liability release in the settlement agreement.