In a rare, three-opinion panel decision, the Third Circuit has weighed in on -- but, for now, has not resolved -- an important issue concerning the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule: when a suspect is unlawfully seized, but then breaks away and discards evidence while being chased by police, should the evidence be suppressed? The case is United States v. Dupree, No. 09-3391 (3d Cir. Aug. 6, 2010). The district court suppressed the evidence in question, a gun, and the government appealed. The Third Circuit affirmed the suppression order, with one judge concluding that the government had waived the suppression argument it made on appeal, and another judge concluding that the order should be affirmed on the merits.
A standard exclusionary rule "fruits" analysis would lead to suppression when a "forced abandonment" occurs after an unlawful seizure, since there is no meaningful causal attenuation between the unlawful seizure and the discovery of the discarded evidence. The Third Circuit assumed as much in United States v. Coggins, 986 F.2d 651 (3d Cir. 1993), which presented the same factual scenario. The Coggins court did not have to reach the fruits issue, however, because the Court in that case held that the initial seizure was lawful.
But in Dupree, everyone agreed -- the government a bit later, as explained below -- that there was an unlawful seizure. The fruits issue was thus in play.
In dictum in California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621 (1991), the Supreme Court arguably cast doubt on whether suppression is appropriate in this situation. Hodari D.'s holding is that a show of authority to which a suspect does not submit is not a seizure -- regardless of whether a reasonable person in the suspect's position would have thought he was free to leave. Since there was no seizure in Hodari D. (just as there was no unlawful seizure in Coggins), the Supreme Court had no occasion to conduct a fruits analysis. But the Court stated at one point in its opinion that, had the suspect in Hodari D. been touched by the police and thereafter had broken away and discarded evidence, "it would hardly be realistic to say that disclosure had been made during the course of the arrest." 499 U.S. at 625.
On appeal in Dupree, the government argued that this dictum from Hodari D. -- coupled with the deterrence rationale for the exclusionary rule recently emphasized by the Supreme Court in cases such as Hudson v. Michigan, 547 U.S. 586 (2006) and Herring v. United States, 129 S. Ct. 695 (2009) -- means that evidence discarded after a brief seizure has ended is not fruit of the seizure, and suppression is therefore inappropriate. But in the district court, the government had argued a different point: that, under Hodari D., Dupree had never been seized before discarding the evidence. It was only on appeal that the government conceded that an unlawful seizure -- however momentary -- had taken place (without reasonable suspicion, a police officer had grabbed Dupree for approximately two seconds before Dupree broke away and fled).
Most of the courts that have addressed the dictum from Hodari D. have held that it does not mean that such evidence is admissible -- instead, they adhere to a standard fruits analysis and suppress the evidence. See, e.g., United States v. Wilson, 953 F.2d 116, 127 (4th Cir. 1991).
Two of the three judges on the Dupree panel were ready to engage the fruits issue on the merits. Judge Fisher would have affirmed suppression of the evidence under a standard fruits analysis, concluding that the government's Hodari D. argument rests on dictum that has rarely been read in accordance with the government's interpretation, and is in "manifest tension" with established fruits law. Judge Cowen, on the other hand, favored the government's reading of the Hodari D. dictum and would have applied it to reverse the suppression order.
Judge Hardiman, the third judge on the panel, declined to address the merits because he concluded that the government waived its fruits argument by not raising it in the district court. Judge Hardiman emphasized that, as an appellant, the government is subject to strict waiver principles no less than are defendants. Simply relying on Hodari D. in the district court was not enough to preserve the government's fruits argument, because Hodari D. had been used below not to argue fruits, but to argue no seizure.
Dupree is a precedential decision, but what law does it announce beyond affirming the suppression order in the case? The decision's impact appears to lie in its "institutional value," a criterion the Third Circuit uses to determine what decisions receive precedential status. Waiver law has developed for the most part with defendants as appellants, so clarifying waiver's impact on the government is crucial. But perhaps even more, the important Fourth Amendment issue raised in this case is bound to arise again -- in this circuit and others -- and the thoughtful analyses of its merits is surely valuable in that context.