W&M Clinic Victory in Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals

On April 21, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit decided United States v. Soza in favor of Appellant Bradley Soza, a client of the William & Mary Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic.  The Tenth Circuit held that Soza was unlawfully arrested without probable cause when officers brandished their weapons and handcuffed him based only on his general resemblance to the description of a suspect in a nearby burglary. The opinion can be read here.

Soza was standing on the front porch of his home when two Albuquerque Police Department officers invaded the porch with their guns drawn and handcuffed him. The officers had responded to a 911 report of a break-in in Soza’s neighborhood. While circling the building of the alleged break-in, one of the officers saw Soza walking from his home and ordered him to go inside. Soza immediately complied by turning and walking back to his house. A few minutes later, the officers decided to seek out Soza because they began to think that he may have matched the 911 caller’s description of the suspected burglar. The officers approached Soza’s home with their guns drawn, entered the porch where Soza was standing, and immediately ordered Soza to put his hands on his head. Soza again complied. The officers then handcuffed Soza and searched his person.

The district court denied Soza’s motion to suppress evidence found as a result of his arrest. Despite recognizing that Soza’s front porch was constitutionally protected curtilage, the district court held that the officers effectuated a reasonable investigatory detention when they entered the porch without a warrant to seize Soza. On appeal, Soza argued that the district court erred for two separate reasons. First, the officers violated Soza’s Fourth Amendment rights by entering the curtilage of his home to seize him without a warrant, consent, or probable cause plus exigent circumstances. Second, the arrest would have been unlawful even had it taken place in public because it was unsupported by probable cause.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court on the basis of Soza’s second argument, holding that the officers lacked probable cause when they drew their weapons and handcuffed Soza. The officers had no reason to believe Soza was armed, knew Soza had been calm and compliant, and failed to conduct even a rudimentary investigation. In light of those facts, the use of such intrusive measures to seize Soza constituted an arrest. And the officers––who knew only that Soza “matched a rather generic description of the suspect and was found in close proximity to the crime”––lacked probable cause to make that arrest. Because Soza was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment, the Tenth Circuit ordered that the evidence obtained as a result of the arrest be suppressed.

Third-year law students Emily Hessler and Andrew Pecoraro were primarily responsible for the briefing. Hessler argued the case with the support of Pecoraro. To prepare for the oral argument, the students received helpful guidance from several faculty members. Students in the Clinic practice under the supervision of Adjunct Professor Tillman J. Breckenridge, a partner at Bailey & Glasser LLP and director of the Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic.

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