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Colorado Springs police relied on an unconstitutional search warrant to seize the guns prosecutors used to convict a man of a federal firearms violation, the appeals court based in Denver determined on Wednesday.

The Fourth Amendment requires search warrants to describe “particularly” the place police intend to search and the persons or things they seek to seize. But the authorization law enforcement used for the home of Perry Wayne Suggs, Jr. after he opened fire at a pedestrian from his car stated that officers intended to search for “Any item identified as being involved in crime” — a phrase the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit found to violate the Fourth Amendment.

“Had the warrant here specified that the search of Defendant’s home was being undertaken in connection with the vehicle shooting, it might be possible to read the catch-all phrase, in context, as authorizing a search only for evidence related to that crime,” wrote Senior Judge Bobby R. Baldock for the three-member appeals panel. “But the warrant didn’t do that.”

At the same time, the panel stopped short of saying the trial court should have suppressed evidence of the firearms, which is the consequence for a Fourth Amendment violation and is intended to deter police misconduct. Instead, the panel ordered a further review of the evidence to see if it qualified for an exception to the rule requiring suppression.

On Jan. 3, 2018, Colorado Springs police investigated a “shots fired” call, in which witnesses described a driver shooting at a pedestrian crossing the street at an intersection. The bullet did not strike anyone, and the driver fled the scene. Based on the vehicle description, police learned the car belonged to Suggs, a felon whom federal law barred from possessing firearms.

According to the narrative from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, officers executed a search warrant at Suggs’ home and observed two firearms in “plain view inside a vehicle” in a carport. The vehicle, an SUV, was not the car witnesses reported seeing at the intersection. After obtaining another search warrant for the SUV, officers seized a handgun and a semi-automatic rifle, plus ammunition.

Suggs’ March 2019 trial resulted in a guilty verdict, and U.S. District Court Judge William J. Martínez sentenced him to more than seven years in prison. Suggs appealed his conviction to the 10th Circuit, arguing the officers' search of the SUV was unconstitutional, and Martínez should have forbidden the use of that evidence at trial.

The 10th Circuit’s opinion described a slightly different version of the police search than the U.S. Attorney’s statement: During a protective sweep of Suggs’ home prior to executing the warrant, one officer shined her flashlight into the window of the SUV, looking for anyone who might be hiding. Instead, she saw the weapons.

“At some point,” Baldock described, she told the officer who applied for the original search warrant about her findings. He then looked inside the SUV himself, and “returned to the police station and used this information to obtain a warrant to search the SUV.”

The government argued that the phrase in the original warrant describing “Any item identified as being involved in crime” clearly referred to the shooting at the intersection. As such, the officers acted legally by peering into the SUV, even before getting the second warrant.

“The disputed phrase does not say ‘any crime,’ ‘all crimes,’ or even ‘criminal activity,’ as it could have if it was intended to encompass evidence of any crime. Instead, it says ‘crime,’ singular,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Karl L. Schock. “Although inserting the word ‘the’ might have made the warrant clearer, the standard for particularity is not one of grammatical perfection."

Judge Nancy L. Moritz, a member of the appellate panel, asked Schock during oral arguments, "What particular crime do you think it was limited to?" The shooting at the intersection, Schock responded.

However, the appellate judges disagreed, with Baldock's opinion describing the phrase as so open-ended that it was “akin to the instruments of oppression vivid in the memory of newly independent Americans” who drafted the Fourth Amendment in response to broad British colonial warrants.

In examining the four categories in the search warrant, the 10th Circuit panel determined that two, “general info” and “guns involved” were valid. But the others — “vehicle,” which did not specify the car officers knew to be involved in the shooting, and “miscellaneous,” which contained the blanket provision for any item involved in crime — were invalid. Although courts may evaluate the valid and invalid parts of a warrant separately, the wide-ranging nature of the invalid sections doomed the entire warrant.

“So even though some portions of the warrant to search Defendant’s home are valid and distinguishable, those portions do not make up the greater part of the warrant,” Baldock concluded.

Ultimately, the panel decided to send the case back to Martínez to determine whether the seized firearms qualified for an exception to the requirement for suppressing evidence. Under the “good-faith exception,” if police officers exhibit objectively reasonable reliance on a search warrant, even if a court later invalidates the warrant, the evidence obtained is allowed at trial. 

As such, some mistakes by law enforcement do not accrue to the defendant's benefit after all. Following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in 2009 to cover negligent police actions under the good-faith exception, Sherry F. Colb, a professor at Cornell Law School, wrote that the Court's majority saw value in barring illegally-obtained evidence only if the police misconduct was intentional.

Prohibiting such evidence attaches "a systematic cost to law enforcement's failure to honor the requirements of the Fourth Amendment, a constitutional provision that in the end demands that police avoid searches and seizures of targets likely to be innocent," Colb explained.

The good-faith allowance has its critics, however. Invoking the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who died in 2020 at the hands of police, Minnesota-based defense attorney Shirlene Perrin argued that courts must not give a "pass" to police for illegal behavior.

"In not tossing out the evidence, the courts are giving the officer a win, success in their role as an officer and success as an officer who broke the law," she wrote last month.

The 10th Circuit in Suggs's case suggested the trial court explore whether the officer who first spotted the guns in the SUV was adhering reasonably to the warrant.

The case is United States v. Suggs.

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