Argued March 6, 2015.
The Government appeals the order of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Scheindlin, J.) granting the motion of defendant Severne Watson to suppress physical evidence. At the time of the search of Watson and seizure of the physical evidence that was the subject of his suppression motion, the officer who conducted the search was pursuing a different robbery suspect, for whom Watson was allegedly mistaken. The district court determined, inter alia, that the physical disparities between the two men were too significant for the mistake of identity to be objectively reasonable and that the officer did not actually believe that Watson was the suspect sought. On appeal, the Government argues that the two men looked sufficiently alike to make the search reasonable and that the district court's consideration of the officer's subjective beliefs about the facts was in error. We AFFIRM.
FOR APPELLANTS: ANDREA M. GRISWOLD, Assistant United States Attorney (Michael A. Levy, on the brief), for Preet Bharara, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
FOR APPELLEE: DAWN M. CARDI, (Ariadne Green and Chad L. Edgar, on the brief), Cardi and Edgar, LLP.
Before: GUIDO CALABRESI, PETER W. HALL, Circuit Judges, and JED S. RAKOFF, Judge.
JED S. RAKOFF, District Judge
On April 2, 2013, New York City Police Officer Christopher Vaccaro, while searching for a robbery suspect named Chauncey Butler, spotted defendant Severne Watson. Allegedly perceiving a general physical resemblance between Watson and Butler, the officer exited his patrol car to inquire about Watson's identity. During the course of the inquiry that followed, Watson denied being Butler and produced valid identification with his name on it. Nonetheless, the officer proceeded to frisk Watson and, in doing so, uncovered a gun and 27 bags of crack cocaine. Watson was indicted on cocaine and weapons possession charges, and subsequently moved to suppress this physical evidence. After holding an evidentiary hearing, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Scheindlin, J. ) granted Watson's motion.
In this interlocutory appeal pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3731, the Government asks us to reverse the district court's decision on the ground that the two men looked too similar for the officer's mistake to be objectively unreasonable and that, to the extent that the district court took account of the officer's subjective beliefs, the determination of those beliefs was both clearly erroneous and legally irrelevant to the Fourth Amendment analysis. Further, the Government argues that, because the officer suspected Butler, for whom Watson was allegedly confused, of forcible robbery, the search was per se reasonable. For the reasons that follow, we reject the Government's arguments and affirm the order of the district court.
The Factual Dispute
During the suppression hearing in front of the district court, the parties presented conflicting versions of the facts leading up to Watson's arrest. We begin with what is undisputed.
On the morning of April 2, 2013, New York City Police Officers Christopher Vaccaro and Damon Valentino were ordered to locate and arrest Chauncey Butler, a third-degree robbery suspect. The officers
were provided with a photograph of Butler from a previous arrest and an investigation card, or " I-Card," that contained " pedigree information." Based on these records, the officers had at their disposal Butler's race, black; height, 5'10" to 6'0" tall; hair color, black; weight, 155 to 180 pounds; age, 19; and home address, on Valentine Avenue in the Bronx. The I Card also stated that the officers had probable cause to arrest Butler and that he was suspected of violating " PL16005," i.e., New York Penal Law § 160.05, robbery in the third degree. Additionally, approximately one year earlier, Officer ...