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Coleman v. United States

May 13, 1999

RONALD L. COLEMAN, APPELLANT
v.
UNITED STATES, APPELLEE



Before Terry and Farrell, Associate Judges, and King, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry, Associate Judge

Notice: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the Atlantic and Maryland Reporters. Users are requested to notify the Clerk of the Court of any formal errors so that corrections may be made before the bound volumes go to press.

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Linda Turner Hamilton, Trial Judge)

Argued December 17, 1999

Appellant was charged with possession of marijuana*fn1 and possession of drug paraphernalia.*fn2 Before trial he moved to suppress certain evidence that was seized during a search of his home. Appellant claimed that despite a concededly valid search warrant, the officers violated the Fourth Amendment and applicable knock-and-announce statutes when they entered his house by means of a ruse without first announcing their true purpose and authority. The trial court, after an evidentiary hearing, denied the motion. Following a non-jury trial, appellant was convicted of possession of marijuana and acquitted of possession of drug paraphernalia. On appeal he seeks reversal on the ground that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress. We hold, first of all, that an entry by ruse does not implicate the knock-and-announce statutes. Because we agree with the trial court that the entry in this case was otherwise reasonable, we affirm appellant's conviction.

I.

Sometime between September 7 and September 11, 1996, Officer Edward Delgado of the Metropolitan Police obtained a warrant to search appellant's residence for a .25 caliber pistol.*fn3 Before executing the warrant, Officer Delgado learned that appellant's elderly, invalid mother also lived in the house. Concerned that appellant's mother might "have a heart attack or pass out or faint or get knocked out of the way" if police officers should have to enter the house forcibly, Officer Delgado proposed using a ruse to gain entry. He testified that he and other officers "decided to use a radio run approach rather than come barging into the residence like we usually do." The officers employed the ruse "for [the mother's] safety as well as ours."

In the late afternoon on September 11, Officer Chad Hambrick and another officer, both in uniform, approached the front door of appellant's house. When Officer Hambrick knocked on the front door, he could see appellant's mother sitting on the couch inside.*fn4 Through the screen door he told her that he and his fellow officer "had received a radio run to her house and that [they] wanted to make sure everything was okay." He described the call they had supposedly received as either "a burglary or burglar alarm." Appellant's mother told the officers that they could come in to "make sure everything was all right."

Once inside the house, the officers radioed to other members of the search warrant team who were waiting nearby in police cars. The other officers, including Officer Delgado, arrived within thirty seconds and secured the house. Delgado heard "somebody . . . talking already about a search warrant, that they had a search warrant for the premises" when he walked through the front door.*fn5

Despite a thorough search, the officers did not find any guns. However, they did recover marijuana and assorted drug paraphernalia*fn6 from an upstairs bedroom, where they also found mail bearing appellant's name. When they completed the search, the officers gave appellant's mother a copy of the search warrant with an inventory of all the items they had seized.

The trial Judge denied appellant's motion to suppress. She found the use of the ruse reasonable because it promoted the purposes of the knock-and-announce statute. First, it decreased the potential for harm to both appellant's mother and the officers. Second, because the officers had seen a picture of appellant and had been given a description of his mother prior to the search, there was no risk that they were entering the wrong dwelling. Third, the ruse prevented any potential destruction of property. On the basis of these findings, the Judge held that the entry was reasonable and thus did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

II.

Appellant contends that the evidence seized from his home was improperly admitted because the police officers' use of a ruse to gain a peaceful entry violated the local and federal knock-and-announce statutes. According to his interpretation, the officers were required to disclose their true authority and purpose before entering the house to execute the warrant. Appellant also asserts that the entry was not reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, so that the search was unlawful despite a valid warrant.

The District of Columbia knock-and-announce statute, D.C. Code ยง 23-524 (a) (1996), requires an officer to execute a search warrant "in accordance with section 3109 of Title 18, ...


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