This has to be the single most brilliant opinion I’ve ever read. Judge Jeffrey Sutton proceeds to eviscerate the Memphis Police Department and a district court judge who has annoyed me (in fairness, judges probably annoy every lawyer when they rule against that lawyer – it doesn’t mean that the judge is stupid or even wrong). I have tremendous respect for the district court judge in this case, but I have to admit that seeing him get jerked up short by the Sixth Circuit gave me a delicious sense of schadenfreude, seeing how he’s wagged his finger at me before.
And don’t get me wrong; being declared to be wrong by two circuit judges (okay, a circuit judge and a district judge sitting by designation) isn’t a big deal. But the opinion Judge Sutton wrote is hilarious, and you should read it too.
Briefly: Memphis PD attempts to serve an arrest warrant at a particular address. When they arrive, no house is marked with the number they have, but there are two houses (on opposite sides of the street) with the same (preceding) number. To make this example concrete: instead of there being a 101 Main and a 102 Main, on opposite sides of the street, there are instead two houses marked 101 Main (on opposite sides). Make sense? No? Welcome to Memphis.
Anyway, so the officers decide, rather than conducting any sort of independent investigation, simply to knock on one of the doors. A woman answers (incidentally, the arrest warrant was for a woman). She shuts the door on them, then about eight minutes later comes back to the door. The officers assert that they have a search warrant for that house, and she lets them in. At some point, the officers are asked what house they’re supposed to be at, and name the number that is attached to the house (using the example above, they say the warrant is for 101 Main). They’re then told that they’re standing in the house where the warrant was supposed to be served. They find a massive amount of cocaine and arrest the owner of the house.
So far, so good. Defendant moves to suppress the cocaine seized in his arrest. The district court denies the motion and sentences him (on plea subject to appeal) to 126 months. What does Judge Sutton do?
Here’s where it becomes truly beautiful: he proceeds to mock the Memphis PD for seven pages. My favorite example (please note that the arrest warrant was for criminal trespass):
The officers had an arrest warrant for criminal trespassing, not drug dealing or something else that an occupant might wish to hide from the officer’s view. The most law-abiding place for criminal trespassers to be is at home, on their property. The only people apparently trespassing that day were the officers.
And then there’s this, which acknowledges that yes, the cops can lie to you, but seriously there are limits:
Law-enforcement work is not easy, and no one doubts the correlation between preserving public safety and preserving a free society. Nor does anyone doubt the imperative of allowing officers to use ruses and lies in the course of this essential work, particularly if the tools of indirection ensure police safety. Think of an undercover officer asked what he does for a living. But none of this permits officers to tell an occupant that they have a warrant to make an arrest at a given address when they do not. The officers took a knowing roll of the dice, and perhaps it would have worked had they been right as a matter of chance about the address. But when they were wrong, that was their problem, leaving them with having obtained entry into the wrong house based on a false pretense. An officer may not falsely tell a homeowner that he has an arrest warrant for a house, then use that falsity as the basis for obtaining entry into the house.
I also love this passage, where Judge Sutton can almost be seen beating his head against the chambers wall in despair for humanity:
The officers saw five people in the front room, and one officer asked who lived there and who owned the property. The still-unidentified woman at the front door said she lived there, and so did one of the men. One of the occupants then asked, “