D.Haw.: False alert package was opened didn’t nullify reasonable belief of exigent circumstances

The package had a GPS and a trigger “alarm” or alert for when it was opened. Here, however, the trigger alert was subject to failure if the package was dropped with sufficient force. Officers assembled outside the apartment, and the alert went off and they heard noises inside. On the totality, officers had exigent circumstances to enter to prevent potential destruction of evidence. Despite the false alert, the entry was reasonable. United States v. Iwai, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 63399 (D.Haw. May 13, 2016):

The officers breached the front door and entered the apartment. They immediately saw Defendant Iwai near the kitchen area. He was the only occupant of the unit. The officers also saw the package. It was unopened.

1. The Officers Entered Defendant’s Apartment Under Exigent Circumstances to Prevent the Imminent Destruction of Evidence

The totality of the circumstances establishes that the officers had probable cause to believe that evidence faced the threat of imminent destruction, and that they entered Defendant Iwai’s apartment to prevent such an event from occurring. See United States v. McCabe, 582 F. App’x 680, 682 (9th Cir. 2014) (stating that “exigencies must be viewed from the totality of circumstances known to the officers at the time of the warrantless intrusion”) (quoting United States v. Licata, 761 F.2d 537, 543 (9th Cir. 1985)).

The events culminating in the entry into Defendant’s apartment demonstrate that the officers’ actions comport with the Fourth Amendment. Defendant, and his apartment, were under investigation as part of a drug trafficking interdiction. The United States Postal Inspection Service had intercepted a package addressed to Defendant and found it carried six pounds of methamphetamine. Agent Jones, a highly experienced narcotics investigator, knew that Defendant picked up the package from the building manager’s office and brought it into his apartment. See United States v. Hicks, 752 F.2d 379, 383-84 (9th Cir. 1985) (overruled on other grounds) (“In assessing the existence of probable cause to enter or to search a residence, this court has held that direct observation of contraband in a particular location is not required. A court may also consider ‘the type of crime, nature of the items, and normal inferences where a criminal will likely hide contraband.'”) (quoting United States v. Dubrofsky, 581 F.2d 208, 213 (9th Cir. 1978)). Despite identifying himself as a law enforcement officer and repeatedly asking the door be opened, Agent Jones saw the figure of a person stand up, walk towards the front door, and then retreat to the interior of the apartment. See Dualeh v. United States, 466 F. App’x 621, 622 (9th Cir. 2012) (holding that a person watching police officers from the second floor of a home they were about to enter to serve drug-related warrants supported a finding that exigent circumstances to prevent the destruction of evidence existed). The significance of the figure’s suspicious behavior was compounded by the rustling noises Agent Jones heard immediately after seeing the then-unidentified figure back away from the door. The circumstances of these events “would cause a reasonable person to believe that entry … was necessary to prevent … the destruction of relevant evidence.” Brooks, 367 F.3d at 1135 (internal quotations and citations omitted); United States v. Clement, 854 F.2d 1116, 1119 (8th Cir. 1988) (officers were permitted to enter after seeing someone look through the front door’s peephole and retreat, and hearing a “scrambling” noise); United States v. Ashbourne, 571 F. App’x 422, 424-25 (6th Cir. 2014) (allowing warrantless entry in a situation where officers heard unexplained noises from inside an apartment and received no response after shouting at the resident to come to the door).

2. The Beeper’s Errant Signal did not Render the Officers’ Entry Illegal

Defendant places great weight on the beeper’s apparent false alert. The fact that the beeper’s signal precipitated a chain of events that led to a forced entry into the apartment is not dispositive. The officers approached the door because the beeper signal indicated to them the package had been opened. The exigent circumstances in this case arose when the officers heard what sounded like the rustling of paper and plastic. See United States v. Banks, 540 U.S. 31, 38, 124 S. Ct. 521, 157 L. Ed. 2d 343 (2003) (recognizing that the destruction of drugs can occur in less than 20 seconds). Once they heard the rustling noises, “the exigency had matured, [and] the officers were not bound to learn anything more or wait any longer before going in.” Id. at 40.

The officers relied on the efficacy of the beeper in good faith. The beeper passed both of Officer Bugarin’s pre- and post-installation tests. There is no evidence that the beeper routinely malfunctioned, or was unreliable. Testimony introduced at the hearings indicated that while the beeper’s wires were delicate, false signals occurred on rare occasion. In this case, the Defendant had been observed kicking the parcel prior to taking it into his apartment.

The totality of circumstances resulted in an appearance that the package and its contents were in imminent danger of destruction. Brooks, 367 F.3d at 1134. The law enforcement officers’ warrantless entry into Defendant’s apartment complies with the Fourth Amendment.

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