People For the American Way

Trump Judge Casts the Deciding Vote to Reverse District Court Ruling to Suppress Evidence Obtained in Violation of the Fourth Amendment: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

News and Analysis

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.

In June 2020, Trump Eleventh Circuit judge Elizabeth Branch cast the deciding vote to reverse a district court ruling that suppressed evidence obtained after officers re-entered a home to conduct a protective sweep without a search warrant.  The case is U.S. v. Yarbrough.

In August 2016, Officer Thomas Monroy received an anonymous text message from one of Anthony Yarbrough’s neighbors. The message said that Yarbrough was at home in his yard with other people. Monroy was particularly interested in this message because there was a warrant out for Yarbrough’s arrest and Monroy had difficulty executing the warrant.  Since the message indicated that others were at the house with Yarbrough, Monroy asked Investigator Matt Sims to meet him there.

When Monroy and Sims arrived at the house they saw Yarbrough and two other men. They were all placed in handcuffs without incident.  None of the men were armed and a pat down check revealed they had no contraband on them.  Monroy asked Yarbrough if his wife was in the house, since there was also a warrant out for her arrest. Yarbrough affirmed that she was home.  Monroy approached the house,  yelled her name and announced that he was from the sheriff’s office.  Through a screen door, Monroy saw her run out of one room of the house into another room and shut the door.  Monroy entered the house and followed her into the room, which turned out to be a bathroom.  When he asked her why she ran, she told him she had to use the bathroom.  Monroy placed her in handcuffs and walked her outside.

Monroy claimed he thought that someone ‘could possibly’ still be in the house, but he was not certain.  He went back inside the house and performed a protective sweep of the house. He noticed two shotguns in the master bedroom and a mint tin with a crystal-like substance on the dresser.  The sweep took less than a minute.  He took the firearms outside, cleared them, and put them in his police car.  Monroy left the mint tin in the bedroom and did not search any drawers or closed containers.

Yarbrough moved in district court to suppress the evidence obtained after he and his wife were handcuffed because the officers did not have a warrant to search the property.

The district court granted Yarbrough’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained after officers re-entered their home to conduct a “protective sweep” without a search warrant. The government appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.

In 2-1 decision, the majority held that the totality of the circumstances showed that the officer had a reasonable suspicion that a “dangerous person might have been in the house and that the protective sweep was justified.”

Judge Ursula Ungaro, a George H.W. Bush appointee, strongly disagreed. She explained that law enforcement officers have the authority to conduct protective sweeps along with valid arrests only when they have “an objectively reasonable belief that the area to be swept harbors an individual posing a danger to those on the arrest scene.” Officer Monroy’s sweep was based on speculation and it was brief. She went on to say that “without specific and articulable facts showing that another individual, who posed a danger to the officers or others, was inside the house, the officers cannot justify a warrantless sweep. The Government failed to prove that the protective sweep met “constitutional muster.””