United States v. Winsor – Case Brief Summary (Federal Court)

United States v. Winsor, 846 F.2d 1569 (9th Cir. 1988) (en banc), involved a systematic search of a multiple dwelling building.

A bank robber fled the scene of the crime, with the police in pursuit. Officers saw him enter a two story residential hotel.

They surrounded the hotel and obtained permission from the hotel manager to search for the suspect. One of the officers involved in the search had a surveillance photograph from a prior bank robbery, thought to have been committed by the same man, that showed the robber and an accomplice who was acting as a "look-out."

The police carried out a room-by-room search of the hotel. At each room, with guns drawn, they knocked on the door and announced, "Police. Open the door."

After searching all the rooms on the first floor and some on the second floor (about 15 to 25 total), the police knocked on the door to room 213. The defendant's brother opened it.

The police officer with the surveillance photo immediately recognized him as the robber and held him at gunpoint while the other officers entered the room and searched it. There, they found the defendant, who was the "look-out" in the surveillance photo, and evidence of the robbery.

Before trial, the defendant challenged, without success, the police entry into room 213, on Fourth Amendment grounds. He was convicted of possessing proceeds from a bank robbery.

On appeal, a panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed. It explained that "hot pursuit" alone could not justify the police entry into room 213 because, while "'hot pursuit may excuse police from the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement,'" it may not "'excuse the absence of the requisite degree of suspicion before effecting a search.'" Id. at 1571 (quoting United States v. Winsor, 816 F.2d 1394, 1396 (1987)).

The government conceded that the police did not have probable cause to believe that the bank robbery suspect was inside room 213 when they entered that room. It argued, however, that the police had "reasonable suspicion . . . to believe that the suspect would be in . . . one of the rooms that had not yet been searched" and that reasonable suspicion (as opposed to probable cause), coupled with the "important law enforcement interests," outweighed the "minimal intrusion on the defendant's privacy rights." Id.

In a rehearing en banc, the Ninth Circuit disagreed.

It held that to lawfully conduct a warrantless search of a dwelling based on exigent circumstances the police must have probable cause to believe the suspect is inside that dwelling; reasonable suspicion that the suspect is inside the dwelling is not enough.

The en banc court concluded that the suppression motion should have been granted, and reversed the conviction.

In Winsor, the defendant lived in the hotel room that was illegally entered and searched.