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United States v. Cooks

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

April 3, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
WILLIE LEE COOKS, a.k.a. Little Man, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama D.C. Docket No. 2:16-cr-00323-SLB-JHE-1

          Before TJOFLAT, NEWSOM, and GILMAN, [*] Circuit Judges.

          NEWSOM, Circuit Judge

         In the ordinary case, an arrest warrant doesn't automatically authorize police to search the arrestee's residence-the home search requires its own warrant. This isn't the ordinary case.

         The question here is whether police violated the Fourth Amendment when they conducted a warrantless search of the crawlspace in Willie Lee Cooks's home following a four-hour standoff that the responding officers deemed a hostage situation and that culminated in Cooks's arrest. Here's the short version: Rather than submitting to arrest, Cooks barricaded himself in his house, thereby preventing at least two occupants from leaving. Shortly after the police arrived, and as they were trying to coax Cooks out of the residence, they heard what sounded like a power drill being used inside. The officers were able to make contact with one of the occupants, who told them that Cooks was "doing something in a hole in the floor." When the standoff ended and the officers entered the house several hours later, they found the hole, which had been covered by a piece of plywood that was screwed down from the outside. They pried it up, found that it led to a crawlspace, and discovered there an arsenal of firearms.

         As in all Fourth Amendment cases, we must determine the reasonableness of the officers' actions by reference to what they knew at the time. Just as important here is what the officers didn't know-specifically, how many additional individuals might be in the house. Although the government has presented several theories to justify the search in light of the officers' uncertainty, we need address only one here. We hold that the warrantless search of Cooks's crawlspace was lawful under the exigent-circumstances doctrine, as the officers had probable cause to believe that the hole might contain additional hostages.



         The events underlying this case began when a team of officers from the U.S. Marshals Service's Gulf Coast Regional Fugitive Task Force and Counter Gang Unit sought to arrest Cooks at his home. Cooks, a member of the "Bloods" street gang, was wanted for second-degree assault by the Birmingham Police Department. The officers initially knocked on his door, but when no one answered, they entered the house by force. They left after a brief survey of the residence revealed that it was empty.

         The team returned at around 10:30 a.m. the next day. While surveilling Cooks's home, the officers saw a car leave the residence twice, and when it returned the second time at about 12:30 p.m., they ordered the driver-Precious Clemens-to stop. Clemens apparently had no interest in talking to them, as she ran inside the house and locked the door. Although attempts to communicate with Clemens through the door were unsuccessful, two of the home's other occupants- Pamela Price and Everstein Johnson-were more cooperative. When Officer Crendal Deramus asked Price and Johnson to open the door, they told him that they couldn't because the door had been barricaded and locked from the inside using a deadbolt for which they didn't have a key.

         It was around that time that officers started hearing what they would later describe as "sounds similar to a power drill" coming from inside the house. As best they could tell, the sounds came from "the immediate area of the front door." They couldn't see inside, though, because the residence had tinted windows throughout. Shortly thereafter, Price was able to exit the house briefly, and before going back inside she told the officers that Cooks was armed. Concluding that they were facing a potential hostage situation, the officers decided to call the Jefferson County SWAT team. When the SWAT team arrived, a hostage negotiator made contact with Price and another unknown occupant, both of whom reiterated that they wanted to leave but couldn't, and one of whom stated-without further explanation-that Cooks was "doing something in a hole in the floor" of the house.[1] When the negotiations to open the barricaded front door failed, the SWAT team deployed tear gas.

         At 4:30 p.m.-roughly an hour later, and four hours after the initial contact with Clemens-the standoff came to an end. The SWAT team broke a window and extracted Price and Johnson from the house, at which point Price reiterated that Cooks was "doing something in the floor." This time, though, she elaborated that Cooks had put multiple guns in a hole in the floor. The barricade sealing the front door was removed, and the SWAT team swarmed the house and took Cooks and Clemens into custody.

         After arresting Cooks, the officers performed an initial 30-second sweep, followed by a three- to five-minute secondary sweep. In the process, they found a four-by-four-foot hole covered by plywood that, they later explained, had been "hastily" "nailed down with screws." According to Deramus, they hadn't seen the hole during the prior day's entry. The officers used a crow bar to remove the plywood covering and found that it led to the home's crawlspace. SWAT Deputy Douglas Lawson-described as "one of the smaller members of the SWAT team who was often called upon to go into small spaces"-entered the hole. As he put his hand down to brace himself, he felt a plastic tarp move and, under it, saw the butt of a gun in plain view. When Lawson shined his flashlight around the crawlspace, he saw more guns sticking out from underneath the plastic.

         Thirty minutes to an hour after the initial sweep-and still without a search warrant-the officers called Special Agent Steve Owens with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to the scene to inventory the guns that they had discovered in the crawlspace. Owens found several pistols and long guns both underneath and protruding from the tarp, along with several pieces of unopened luggage that officers later determined contained additional firearms. At this point, the officers decided to seek, and thereafter obtained, a search warrant for Cooks's home. All told, the officers seized nine pistols and 22 long guns from the crawlspace.


         The Government later charged Cooks with two counts of unlawful possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Because the officers initially searched the crawlspace without a warrant, Cooks moved to suppress the guns, contending that even if the officers could lawfully sweep part of the house, "pulling up floor boards and crawling under the house . . . was overbroad for a protective sweep." The government responded to Cooks's protective-sweep arguments, and further countered that the search was justified under the exigent-circumstances doctrine because the officers didn't know "if anyone else was inside the residence or inside the hole in the floor." In the officers' minds, the government explained, the crawlspace could have contained individuals "injured from the effects of the tear gas . . . [or] by actions of the defendant himself."

         The government's exigent-circumstances theory was thus largely predicated on the idea that the house could have contained other individuals besides the four known occupants-Cooks, Clemens, Johnson, and Price.[2] The officers candidly acknowledged that they weren't quite sure who might have remained. Lawson, for instance, testified at the suppression hearing that they entered the hole in order "to secure it and make sure there wasn't anybody hiding down there that could harm us." Slightly differently, Deramus said that although he personally believed that all of the house's occupants had been accounted for, he couldn't rule out the possibility that either additional "bad guy[s]" or "potential hostages" remained. For his part, SWAT Sergeant Billy Watts explained that the officers "had no idea how many were [in the house]," elaborating that while they "believed there to be four people in the house from the conversations" that they had with the occupants, they "were still not sure at that point."

         The magistrate judge charged with deciding Cooks's suppression motion in the first instance rejected the government's protective-sweep justification, concluding that although a limited sweep of the house was justified, it couldn't lawfully extend to a search of the crawlspace. Specifically, he emphasized that there was "no evidence that any officer observed anything about the . . . hole that would indicate that a dangerous person was inside," and that although the officers' threat assessment was conceivable, "conceivability does not suffice for reasonableness." The fact that the plywood was nailed down from the outside, the magistrate judge explained, undermined the case for opening it as part of a protective sweep because any hypothetical assailant "would have been effectively locked in." Moreover, the magistrate questioned the extent of the intrusion, as "the government offer[ed] neither authority nor argument for why prying up the nailed-down plywood covering the hole suffices for a cursory visual inspection," as required of a protective sweep under Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325 (1990).

         Even so, the magistrate judge recommended that the district court deny Cooks's motion to suppress on the ground that the officers' search was lawful under the exigent-circumstances doctrine. While for protective-sweep purposes it was "not reasonable for the officers to conclude the . . . hole contained a person ready and able to launch on attack," the magistrate determined that "a reasonable officer could have believed a hostage could be underneath the plywood covering." That was so, the magistrate judge reasoned, because the "officers already had a basis to conclude that people had been kept inside the house against their will." Under the exigent-circumstances doctrine, the magistrate judge concluded, no warrant was necessary here because "a hostage should not have to wait for a warrant to be freed."

         The district court adopted the magistrate judge's report and recommendation in full. Thereafter, Cooks pleaded guilty to both counts under § 922(g)(1) but reserved the right to challenge the denial of his motion to suppress. This appeal followed.[3]


         Let's start with the basics. The Fourth Amendment provides as follows:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

         U.S. Const. amend IV. Whether in light or in spite of that language, Fourth Amendment cases have come to be governed by the principle that warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable, "subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions." Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967). Nowhere is this more true, and important, than in the context of the search of a "home"-the "first among equals" in Fourth Amendment land. See Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1, 6 (2013). Given this privileged status, warrantless searches of homes "bear heightened scrutiny." Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 474 (2011) (citing Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 586 (1980)).

         One of the "well-delineated exceptions" to the presumptive warrant requirement is undisputed here. Cooks doesn't deny that once the officers were in the crawlspace the firearms were in plain view and, therefore, were seizable so long as the officers were lawfully there. See Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 136-37 (1990). Cooks does deny, though, that the officers were lawfully in the crawlspace-arguing that they violated the Fourth Amendment by prying open the crawlspace's plywood hatch. If he's right, the search of the crawlspace-and the ensuing seizure of the firearms-was invalid. See id. at 136 ("It is, of course, an essential predicate to any valid warrantless seizure of incriminating evidence that the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment in arriving at the place from which the evidence could be plainly viewed."). Accordingly, whether the officers were justified in searching the crawlspace without a warrant is the sole and dispositive question before us.


         On appeal, the government makes the same arguments that it made to the magistrate judge to justify the crawlspace search-along with a few new ones. First, the government reiterates that the crawlspace might have contained additional captives, adding that "Cooks-the person keeping [the hostages]-had been doing something mysterious with the hole." Second, and for the first time on appeal, the government contends that Cooks could have placed a "confederate" in the hole "for the purpose of ensuring the confederate's escape, possibly with evidence, or for the purpose of destroying evidence." Third, the government asserts-also for the first time on appeal-that "Cooks might have placed something dangerous under the floor, such as an explosive device." Finally, the government renews its position that the search of the crawlspace was within the permissible scope of a lawful protective sweep.

         We needn't reach the question whether the search can be justified as a part of a protective sweep or based on either of the government's newly articulated theories. As explained below, we agree with the district court that the search was justified under what has come to be known as the "emergency-aid" aspect of the exigent-circumstances doctrine.


         The exigency umbrella "encompasses several common situations where resort to a magistrate for a search warrant is not feasible or advisable, including: danger of flight or escape, loss or destruction of evidence, risk of harm to the public or the police, mobility of a vehicle, and hot pursuit." United States v. Holloway, 290 F.3d 1331, 1334 (11th Cir. 2002). We are principally concerned here with "risk of harm to the public"-sometimes called the ...

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