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United States v. Spinelli

decided: May 25, 1988.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLEE,
v.
FRANK ANTHONY SPINELLI, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Appeal from judgment of conviction for narcotics violations entered after a bench trial in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Charles L. Brieant, Chief Judge, following denial of defendant's motion to suppress evidence seized in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 3109. Affirmed. Judge Oakes concurs, in a separate opinion.

Lumbard, Oakes, and Kearse, Circuit Judges.

Author: Kearse

KEARSE, Circuit Judge:

Defendant Frank Anthony Spinelli appeals from a judgment of conviction, entered after a bench trial on a stipulated record in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Charles L. Brieant, Chief Judge, convicting him on one count of conspiracy to manufacture and possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846 (1982), and one count of the underlying substantive offense, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 812, 841(a)(1), and 841(b)(1) (1982 & Supp. IV 1986), and 18 U.S.C. § 2 (1982). On this appeal, Spinelli contends that the district court erred in refusing to suppress evidence seized from his home and truck by law enforcement agents who failed to announce their authority and purpose before entering as required by 18 U.S.C. § 3109 (1982). For the reasons below, we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

On March 27, 1987, federal agents associated with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA") Task Force ("Task Force") obtained a search warrant for Spinelli's home and adjacent grounds in Valhalla, New York. Section 3109 of 18 U.S.C. (called the "knock-and-announce" statute) provides, in essence, that an officer seeking to execute such a warrant should give notice of his authority and purpose before entering a house forcibly; an exception has generally been recognized where unannounced entry is required by exigent circumstances.

In executing the search warrant on March 27, the law enforcement agents did not knock at Spinelli's door or announce their authority or purpose. Rather, two Task Force members drove onto Spinelli's front lawn, then went to the front door and kicked it in. These agents, who were local police detectives at least one of whom had been deputized as a federal marshal, had never executed a federal warrant before and were unaware of the knock-and-announce statute. Once inside the house, they arrested Spinelli and a codefendant. They and other agents searched the house, finding a methamphetamine laboratory in an upstairs bedroom, and searched a U-Haul truck parked in the driveway, finding 362 grams of methamphetamine.

Spinelli moved to suppress the evidence seized from his home and the truck on the ground, inter alia, that the entry and seizures violated the knock-and-announce statute. The government urged that the motion be denied because the unannounced entry was justified by exigent circumstances. Spinelli argued that noncompliance with the statute could not be so justified because the entering officers were not even aware of the statute.

Following an evidentiary hearing, described in greater detail in Part II.B. below, the district court denied the motion to suppress, stating that the standard for determining whether exigent circumstances warranted noncompliance is "objective[] rather than subjective[], and that the subjective thinking of the arresting officer of [ sic ] is of no moment." (Transcript of Hearing, October 6, 1987, at 61.) The court elaborated as follows:

I think the proper standard of whether there are exigent circumstances is not what the officers knew or what they decided. If timid officers violated the knock-and-announce requirement, because they thought exigent circumstances existed, and the Court, in fact, made a determination that that exigent circumstances [ sic ] did not exist, based on the reasonable-person test, then that decision, no matter how hard they thought about it, would be a nullity. And I suppose where people recklessly enter without regard to the statute because they simply do not know any better and nobody told them, if, in fact, exigent circumstances did exist, would be entirely lawful and justifiable.

(Id. at 60-61.) Applying the objective standard, the court found that "a reasonable officer . . . could have reached the conclusion that it would not be necessary to knock and announce . . . ." (Id. at 61.) Accordingly, the court denied the motion to suppress.

II. DISCUSSION

On appeal, Spinelli argues that the district court erred in applying only an objective standard and should have applied a subjective standard as well, and that application of the latter standard should have led the court to suppress the evidence seized. We agree that the proper standard for determining whether exigent circumstances warranted noncompliance with the knock-and-announce statute comprises both subjective and objective components. Nonetheless, though the district court erred by applying only the objective component, we affirm the denial of ...


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