People Vs. Saldana

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Jason Saldana was arrested two days after the Watertown City Fire Department and the Watertown Police Department found evidence of a marijuana growing operation in his home. At trial, Mr. Saldana sought to suppress the marijuana cultivation evidence on the basis that the police obtained the evidence without a warrant absent any emergency exceptions to the warrant requirement, therefore violating the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article I, section 12 of the New York State Constitution. The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the indictment because the police’s warrantless search and seizure did not satisfy any of the emergency exceptions to the Fourth Amendment and the evidence obtained was not subject to the inevitable discovery doctrine due to the nature of the seizure.

In the early evening of August 30, 2009, a fire broke out at the residential unit owned by the defendant, Jason Saldana. The Watertown Fire Department and Watertown Police Department Officer Frederick March responded to the call. The fire department extinguished the fire and, while performing the usual search of the residence for victims or signs of arson, came upon a marijuana cultivation operation. The fire department notified Officer March that it discovered something on the third floor. Officer March was brought up to the location of the fire and observed in plain view, a marijuana growing operation containing fifteen marijuana plants.

Officer March returned downstairs and questioned Saldana about what was in the attic. Saldana initially claimed, “he was growing pumpkins and vegetables. ” Approximately an hour and a half after Officer March responded to the scene, Saldana admitted to cultivating marijuana in a supporting deposition and gave “the police permission to search the house and collect the marijuana. ” After this supporting deposition was obtained, another officer arrived and collected the contraband as evidence. Subsequently, Saldana was charged with marijuana cultivation.

During preliminary proceedings, Saldana filed a motion arguing that the indictment should be dismissed because the officer’s entry and search of his residence was illegal and therefore all evidence seized should be suppressed. In response, the People filed an affidavit “stating that the search was lawful under either the emergency or inevitable discovery exceptions to the federal and state warrant requirements.”

The central issue at trial regarded Officer March’s warrantless search of Saldana’s home. The city court first analyzed whether the search of Saldana’s home by Officer March fell into one of the various emergency exceptions to the warrant requirement. Explaining that emergency exceptions have been used “when public safety concerns eclipse those of privacy,” the judge concluded that the search of Saldana’s residence did not fall into the exceptions for two reasons. First, no emergency situation existed at the time the officer entered Saldana’s home. Second, the officer’s “apparent intent was to investigate a crime, not to provide emergency services. ” The judge referred to the officer’s testimony to show this intent and state of mind: “I was advised by City Fire that there was something I should see in the attic. I was advised that it looked like they were growing something in the attic, which was a bedroom.”

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Subsequently, the judge analyzed the People’s second argument that “even if Officer March’s search wasn’t properly sanctioned, the marijuana plants should be admitted pursuant to the inevitable discovery doctrine. ” Upon reviewing the inevitable discovery doctrine, the judge held that the state did not meet the burden required for the marijuana plants to be submitted as evidence into trial. After analyzing the warrant requirements under both the United States and New York Constitutions, the emergency exceptions thereto, and the inevitable discovery doctrine, the court held that the warrantless search by Officer March was illegal and that the evidence of marijuana cultivation was inadmissible. Because of the court’s decision, Saldana’s motion to dismiss was granted.

In Saldana, no emergency existed at the time of Officer March’s entry. The facts clearly show that the fire had been put out prior to the officer gaining entrance into the defendant’s attic. It was explicitly clear in Tyler’s progeny, Clifford, that further post-fire entries to investigate must be made pursuant to a search warrant. Justice White’s dissent in Tyler, clearly proposed this premise six years earlier when he stated: “The state courts found that at the time of the first re-entry a criminal investigation was under way and that the purpose of the officers in re-entering was to gather evidence of crime. Unless we are to ignore these findings, a warrant was necessary. ” Unlike Parr, the emergency had already subsided when the officer entered the defendant’s living quarters, and the mere fact that the fire had existed did not create an ongoing emergency. Officer March’s seizure of the marijuana should have been pursuant to a search warrant, evidenced by the Court’s holding in Mincey. Furthermore, the reasoning in Tyler, that evidence can be seized if the warrantless entry is determined to be constitutional, is not applicable to New York State law. Under New York General Municipal Law, firefighters do not have the authority to seize evidence or partake in any criminal investigation.

Although the New York Court of Appeals has yet to apply the reasoning of Brigham, the decision in Saldana would most likely have resulted in the same outcome. As Mitchell provided, there are three guidelines to the application of the emergency exception. The facts in Saldana reveal that Officer March was motivated to seize evidence of criminality when he entered Saldana’s residence. However, even without the second element of the Mitchell guidelines (officer’s motivation to enter) the emergency exception would still not have applied because there was no threat of removal or destruction of the defendant’s fifteen marijuana plants. Therefore, there was no threat of destruction of the evidence like Guins and Knapp; Officer March had no excuse for proceeding without a warrant. Furthermore, juxtaposing Calhoun, Officer March’s entry was not in furtherance of the firefighter’s duties and therefore the court correctly distinguished Calhoun from the facts in Saldana.

One could argue that Officer March was only told that “they were growing something in the attic” and, due to this broad statement, he feared that an emergency existed. It seems that the state’s position was that the nature of what was told to Officer March could have been construed to rise to the level of an emergency. However, this theory stretches into the realm of hypotheticals; it would be irrational to decide law on the People’s optimistic forecast that a potential danger exists.

When looking to cases not cited by the court in Saldana, the conclusion that a warrant is necessary for post-fire investigations is clear. Like Hoffman, Officer March did not enter the defendant’s home while an emergency was present. Furthermore, the reasoning in Saldana is akin to Hoffman: “The mere fact that a fire has occurred does not give police officers Carte blanche to enter one’s home, even when armed with probable cause to suspect that evidence of a crime may be within the premises.”

Therefore, Saldana’s holding is proper when based on either the three guidelines in Mitchell or the abrogation of intent in Brigham. This ruling will inevitably be used to support the proposition that law enforcement, in the absence of exigent circumstances, must obtain a valid warrant to seize evidence of a crime, even though the item was primarily discovered in plain view during a lawful warrantless post-fire investigation by a separate public official.

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