Author: Jim Chapman
Defendant Albert Ramirez Ramirez was convicted in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas of being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of federal law, after law enforcement officers discovered a gun in his jacket during a warrantless search. Ramirez timely appealed his conviction to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. United States v. Ramirez, ___ F.4th ___, 2023 WL 3336423 (5th Cir. May 10, 2023). The sole question on appeal was whether, by tossing his jacket—with the gun inside—over a fence onto his mother’s property, Ramirez had forfeited his property interest or privacy interest in the jacket, thereby freeing officers to seize and to search the jacket regardless of the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirements and constraints. The Fifth Circuit held that he had not. The relevant facts were not disputed by the Parties and are as follows.
When Officer Christopher Copeland of the San Antonio Police Department began his shift, he was told to be on the lookout for a truck that was registered to Ramirez’s mother. Accordingly, Officer Copeland visited her address several times during his patrol. Upon driving up the second time, he discovered the truck, with Ramirez in the driver’s seat, at an intersection catty-corner to the mother’s house. Officer Copeland then observed Ramirez roll through a stop sign before pulling into his mother’s driveway. Officer Copeland initiated a stop in response to Ramirez’s traffic violation.
But at that point, Ramirez was already exiting the vehicle, which was now parked in front of his mother’s chain link fence. A female passenger also exited the vehicle. Officer Copeland then observed Ramirez walk toward the gate and toss his jacket over the fence into his mother’s yard and onto the back corner of a closed trash bin.
Ramirez then began to walk around the front of the truck, at which point Officer Copeland confronted him, patted him down, placed him in handcuffs, and detained him in the back of his patrol vehicle. Officer Copeland also detained the female passenger. Officer Copeland later testified at a suppression hearing that he felt that it was necessary to secure Ramirez and the female passenger as a safety precaution because they had exited the vehicle without being instructed to do so and because the female passenger attempted to approach the truck multiple times despite being instructed not to do so.
Thereafter, Officer Copeland advised Ramirez that he had been stopped because he ran a stop sign, to which Ramirez replied, “my bad.” While patting him down, Officer Copeland asked Ramirez whether he had any weapons, and Ramirez responded that he did not. Officer Copeland then asked Ramirez for permission to search the truck, and Ramirez consented to a search. Officer Copeland found no contraband as a result of his search of the truck.
Soon thereafter, Officer Ryan Cahill arrived, and Officer Copeland asked Officer Cahill to reach over the fence to retrieve the jacket that Ramirez had tossed over the fence. Upon searching the jacket, Officer Copeland discovered a gun in one of the jacket’s pockets. Officer Copeland did not ask for Ramirez’s consent to search the jacket or to enter the property before doing so, nor did he obtain a warrant before doing so.
Eventually, Ramirez was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of federal law. Ramirez moved to suppress the evidence of his gun possession, arguing that he did not abandon his jacket by tossing it over his mother’s fence and that Officer Copeland’s search of his jacket, therefore, violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
The District Court held a suppression hearing, at which the Government’s primary witness was Officer Copeland. Testimony showed that Ramirez had lived at his mother’s house most of his life, including into his adulthood, and that he still came to her house almost daily for meals and to check on and make breakfast for her. The evidence also showed that Ramirez regularly received mail at his mother’s address, including bills, and that his criminal history and his most recent ID both linked him to his mother’s address.
At the conclusion of the suppression hearing, the District Court denied Ramirez’s motion to suppress, concluding that Ramirez abandoned his jacket and any Fourth Amendment protections as a result. Thereafter, Ramirez pleaded guilty to the charge against him, and the District Court sentenced him to 46 months of incarceration. Ramirez timely appealed his conviction and challenged the District Court’s denial of his motion to suppress.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit opined that, one of the many ways that a criminal suspect can forfeit his reasonable expectation of privacy in his property—and, thereby, forfeit the Fourth Amendment’s protection—is by abandonment. An example of “abandonment,” for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, occurs when a fleeing suspect abandons his contraband by tossing it to the ground as he runs from police. Another example occurs when a suspect who abandoned an item insists that the item does not belong to him. In cases of alleged abandonment, courts look to all the relevant circumstances existing at the time to determine whether the person prejudiced by the search had voluntarily discarded, left behind, or otherwise relinquished his interest in the property in question.
The District Court concluded that Ramirez had abandoned his jacket by tossing it over the fence onto his mother’s yard, and therefore, he retained no reasonable expectation of privacy in its contents. But the Fifth Circuit held that it could not fairly be said that Ramirez had manifested an intent to disclaim ownership in his jacket simply by placing it on the private side of his mother’s fenced-in property line. The Fifth Circuit posited that the situation would be different had Ramirez dropped his jacket on the public sidewalk and ran away, or if he had insisted before the search that the jacket did not belong to him. The Fifth Circuit further explained that it would also be different if the evidence had demonstrated that Ramirez were not permitted to leave his possessions on his mother’s property. But the Fifth Circuit noted that the Government had not offered any evidence that would support either conclusion. On the contrary, the evidence offered by the Government at the suppression hearing overwhelmingly showed that Ramirez was welcome on the property. As a result, the Fifth Circuit found that the District Court had erred in finding that Ramirez had abandoned or forfeited his interest in his jacket and, thereby, had not abandoned or forfeited his interest in the gun inside of his jacket.
In finding that the District Court had erred in denying Ramirez’s motion to suppress, the Fifth Circuit rejected each of the Government’s arguments in support of suppression and the District Court’s holding. First, the Government argued that a defendant, like Ramirez, abandons an object when he throws it to the ground as officers’ approach. However, the Fifth Circuit countered that the legal authorities cited by the Government for this blanket rule all involved the critical additional facts that the challenged evidence was discarded in a public place while the suspect was fleeing arrest. Ramirez did not flee from Officer Copeland, nor did he leave his jacket in a public place.
Second, the Government argued that Ramirez manifested an intent to abandon his jacket when he walked away from the jacket and towards Officer Copeland. However, the Fifth Circuit found that the Government had overstated the holdings of the cases that the Government had cited in support of this argument. In this case, Ramirez had not disclaimed an ownership of his jacket; he did not place the jacket in a public place; and he did not walk away in a manner consistent with an intent to abandon it. To the contrary, Ramirez tossed the jacket and the gun inside over the fence and onto his mother’s property.
Third, the Government argued that Ramirez had implicitly denied ownership over the jacket and the pistol in its pocket when, while being patted down, he insisted that he did not have a gun. Although the Fifth Circuit conceded that a suspect may relinquish his privacy interest in an item by disclaiming ownership of it, the Government did not cite any case holding that a suspect loses his reasonable expectation of privacy in an item by lying about its contents.
In sum, the Fifth Circuit stated that, while Ramirez’s actions might support the inference that he intended to conceal his jacket and its contents from Officer Copeland, those actions do not evince an intent to discard, leave behind, or otherwise disavow an ownership or privacy interest in the jacket. Accordingly, in the absence of alternative arguments from the Government, the Fifth Circuit held that Ramirez did not lose his reasonable expectation of privacy in the jacket or its contents, and therefore, Officer Copeland’s search was subject to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant constraints and requirements. As a result, the Fifth Circuit vacated Ramirez’s conviction and sentence, as well as the District Court’s order denying his motion to suppress and remanded the case for further proceedings.