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Valdez v. McPheters (1998)

10 April 1999 Published in Resolved Cases

Police Practices - In December 1993, FBI Agent Samuel McPheters and BIA Agent Greg Littlewhiteman entered and searched the home of Rosanna Valdez in search of her adult son. Although he had not lived with her for over 10 years and the officers had no search warrant, the officers searched Valdez’s home not once, but twice, in an unsuccessful attempt to locate her son. In 1994, the ACLU of Utah and cooperating attorney Loren Weiss filed a complaint on behalf of Valdez arguing that during both searches, she was unreasonably seized (arrested) and subjected to an illegal custodial interrogation.

The officers filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming they were immune from liability for the searches because it was reasonable for them to believe that Valdez’s son was in the home. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, U. S. District Judge Thomas Greene granted the officers’ motion for qualified immunity and dismissed the search claims.

In March 1997, a trial was held on the issue of the illegal seizure, and the jury returned a no cause verdict. We subsequently filed an appeal with the 10th Circuit Court on the issue of qualified immunity for the search, and the court heard oral argument in September 1998. In a 2-to-1 decision issued in April 1999, the 10th Circuit upheld the District Court’s ruling on qualified immunity. For the first time, the 10th Circuit adopted the rule that to justify a search pursuant to an arrest warrant, the police must have reasonable belief that: (1) the subject of the warrant lives in the home; and (2) the subject is present in the home at the time of the search. Such a rule had previously been adopted in other circuits. The dissenting judge found that the officers had not met the second criteria by their claims that the suspect led a “nocturnal lifestyle,” and he expressed a well-founded concern that overzealous officers could use such lifestyle stereotypes to justify almost any warrantless search.