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Vasquez v. Snow – Case Brief Summary (Federal Court)

In Vasquez v. Snow, 616 F.2d 217 (5th Cir. 1980), also a section 1983 case, an arrest warrant was issued for a robbery suspect the police knew only as "Sotelo." The police could not find Sotelo because he had "too many friends, and he was staying with all of them." Id. at 218.

He moved from house to house, staying a night or two, at most, before moving on. During the investigation, a police detective received a tip that "Sotelo 'had been seen' with some frequency" at Vasquez's house and that he "'maybe . . . was staying there part of the time.'" Id.

A few days later, several police officers conducted warrantless searches of three houses, without success. They then surrounded Bertha Vasquez's house, and an officer knocked on the door and identified himself. Vasquez's sister answered the door.

The officer informed her that he had a warrant for Sotelo's arrest and believed that Sotelo was inside. She refused him entry. When the officer threatened to enter by force, she "capitulated" and let him inside. Id. at 219. The police searched the house for Sotelo, but did not find him.

Vasquez sued two of the police officers who searched her house, alleging that their warrantless entry into her home violated her Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the officers, ruling, as pertinent, that the search was lawful.

The Fifth Circuit reversed. It explained that a police officer with an arrest warrant for a suspect may search the premises of a third party for the suspect if the police officer has a probable cause that the suspect is inside. Specifically, the officer must have "knowledge and trustworthy information of the type that would cause a man of reasonable caution to believe that the suspect" is in the particular place to be searched. Id. at 220.

The court held that the facts known to the police officer who knocked on Vasquez's door did not give rise to a reasonable belief that Sotelo was inside Vasquez's house.

The court emphasized that Sotelo was evading arrest; had been moving from place to place; that the tip stated that Sotelo had been seen at the Vasquez house a few days prior to the search; and that there was "a substantial likelihood that Sotelo was at a location other than the target." Id.

Characterizing the search of Vasquez's house as "at best a shot in the dark," id. at 219, the court pointed out that the conduct of the police on the same day, but before the search, showed that they simply were guessing as to where Sotelo would be found. Vasquez's house was the fourth one searched that day "sans search warrant." Id.

"The police obviously thought that Sotelo might just as easily have been hiding in these other places." Id. "The fourth amendment plainly forbids such wholesale intrusions." Id.