By Eric Jones
On June 16, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil removal case Yanez-Marquez v. Lynch. Maria Yanez-Marquez (Yanez) was petitioning to the Fourth Circuit for review of a Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) decision dismissing her appeal from an order for her removal from the United States. The Circuit Court held that the violations of Yanez’s Fourth Amendment rights were not egregious, and thus denied her petition for review.
The Execution of the Search Warrant
In June of 2008, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were granted a search warrant for 402 Harbor Drive, Annapolis, Maryland, because it was suspected that the landlord was harboring illegal aliens. The warrant was to be executed between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., and described the residence as a “single-family home.” The warrant was broad and authorized agents to seize “illegal aliens, travel documents, financial records, and photographs of harbored aliens.” At approximately 5:00 a.m. on June 30, ICE agents knocked on the door of the residence and entered to begin the search. According to Yanez, the agents burst into the bedroom where she and her partner were sleeping, and pointed guns at them while demanding that they “don’t move” in both English and Spanish. Upon being informed that Yanez was pregnant, the agents called a female agent to assist and reassure her. Yanez was never handcuffed or led outside of the dwelling, but was questioned for 5-10 minutes about her identity. As a result of the search, the agents arrested Yanez’s partner, and had her sign several forms indicating that Yanez had been illegally present in the United States since April of 2007. The agents also seized Yanez’s pay stubs, tax returns, and photo albums as they left at 9:15 a.m. The ICE contested Yanez’s statements regarding the timing of the search as well as the force used during the search.
The Removal Proceedings
Yanez was issued a notice to appear before an Immigration Judge (IJ) for removal proceedings. On February 10, 2010, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) filed a submission of intended evidence, including the forms Yanez signed during the search, the warrant itself, and the affidavit supporting the warrant. Yanez filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that during the search, the agents “egregiously violated” her Fourth Amendment rights. The IJ found that, accepting Yanez’s claims as true, her rights had not been “egregiously violated.” Although the execution of a search warrant prior to the time it was granted would constitute a violation of Yanez’s Fourth Amendment rights, the IJ reasoned that being early by a single hour “does not amount to conduct that ‘shocks the conscience,’” and thus was not an egregious violation. As to the force used, the IJ found that Yanez had made no showing of excessive force, noting that agents executing a search warrant are reasonably cautious about dangerous situations. The IJ found that the agents had acted reasonably, had not brandished their guns for longer than necessary to assure their safety, and had gotten a female agent to aid and comfort Yanez as soon as was reasonable. For these reasons, the IJ denied the motion to suppress the evidence. On December 13, 2010, the IJ found that the DHS had satisfied their burden, and ordered that Yanez be removed from the United States and returned to El Salvador.
On appeal to the BIA, the BIA held that the exclusionary rule, which operates to exclude evidence obtained in violation of the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, does not apply in civil removal proceedings unless the violations were egregious. The BIA then, relying on the reasoning of the IJ, held that the violations had not been egregious, and thus affirmed the IJ’s order.
The Applicability of the Fourth Amendment in Civil Removal Cases in the Fourth Circuit
Initially, the Fourth Circuit noted that the question of the applicability of the Fourth Amendment exclusionary principle was a matter of first impression for the Circuit. The Court began by analyzing the Supreme Court of the United States’ ruling in INS v. Lopez-Mendoza, 468 U.S. 1032 (1984). In Lopez-Mendoza, the Supreme Court held that the ordinary Fourth Amendment exclusion, which barred all evidence obtained through any violation of the Fourth Amendment, was inapplicable to civil removal proceedings because the costs of exclusionary principle, including dramatically increased complexity to the streamlined process of removal, outweighed the benefits of the exclusionary principle. Additionally, because civil removal proceedings are not criminal and do not punish but merely prevent continued illegal activity, the Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment protections were not as critical. Four Justices in Lopez-Mendoza vigorously dissented, and the majority opinion opined in dicta that “egregious violations” and “widespread” violations by officers may nevertheless render the exclusionary principle applicable in some instances.
In this case, the Fourth Circuit held that the exclusionary principle must apply to all egregious violations of the Fourth Amendment because “[t]o hold otherwise would give no effect to the language used by the Supreme Court in Lopez–Mendoza expressing concern over fundamentally unfair methods of obtaining evidence.” The Circuit Court further held that refusing to apply the exclusion “would ignore the fact that eight justices in Lopez–Mendoza seem to have agreed that the exclusionary rule applies in removal proceedings in some form.” Thus, in the Fourth Circuit, an petitioner in a civil removal case must show not only that her Fourth Amendment rights were violated, but also that those violations were “egregious.”
The Standard for “Egregiousness” of a Fourth Amendment Violation
The Lopez-Mendoza Court stated “egregious violations of Fourth Amendment or other liberties that might transgress notions of fundamental fairness and undermine the probative value of the evidence obtained” might be reason to apply the exclusion. Despite the use of “and” by the Supreme Court, the Fourth Circuit held that a petitioner can succeed if she can show either (1) egregious violation or (2) a violation that undermines the probative value of the evidence. To hold otherwise, the Circuit explained, would dramatically reduce the application of the rule because nearly all evidence obtained through egregious violations is physical evidence, which has the same probative value regardless of the manner of acquisition. Examples given by the Circuit of egregious violations included “a stop based on Hispanic appearance alone,” “repeatedly ignor[ing a] detainee’s request for counsel,” and “a nighttime warrantless entry into the aliens’ residence.”
The Fourth Circuit rejected the Ninth Circuit’s standard for egregiousness, which focuses on the “bad faith” of the agents, and embraced the “totality of the circumstances” test used by the Second, Third, and Eighth Circuits.
Yanez’s Alleged Fourth Amendment Violations
Yanez’s first allegation of egregious violation of her Fourth Amendment rights was that the warrant listed her residence as a “single-family home,” when it was in fact a multi-unit dwelling. The Fourth Circuit explained that the warrant is sufficiently tailored when an agent executing it can “reasonably ascertain and identify the intended place to be searched.” In holding that the warrant used to search Yanez’s home was adequate, the Circuit emphasized that the premises had been under ICE surveillance and agents had no reason to believe multiple families dwelled there, it was a small single-story home, and the premises had just one mailbox. Thus, because the outward appearance is reasonably identified by a description of a “single-family home,” the Fourth Circuit rejected Yanez’s first argument.
Yanez next argued that, upon entry, the agents should have known it was a multi-family dwelling because “the bedroom door was locked,” which transforms it into a separate dwelling. However, because it is not unusual for a bedroom door to be locked and there was no other indication in the home that it was a multi-unit dwelling, the Circuit held that the ICE agents had not made any mistake in proceeding with the warrant, and even if they had, it was an innocent and reasonable mistake.
Yanez’s final argument was that entering the home at 5:00 a.m. constituted a “nighttime search,” which fell outside of the warrant and implicates higher scrutiny because of the heightened intrusion. The Fourth Circuit agreed that because a daytime search is defined as between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., the search of Yanez’s residence was by definition a nighttime search. The Fourth Circuit went on to hold that nighttime execution of a daytime warrant is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, absent consent or exigent circumstances. Thus, because there was no consent given by either Yanez or the judge who issued the warrant, nor were there any additional facts which may have constituted exigent circumstances justifying a nighttime search, the Fourth Circuit held that the ICE had violated Yanez’s Fourth Amendment rights by executing the search. However, when considering the totality of the circumstances, the Circuit held that this violation was not egregious.
Facts to support a finding of egregiousness included the fact that it was a nighttime search and the fact that the search was of Yanez’s home, where her privacy interests are strong. Supporting the non-egregiousness of the search included the fact that no ICE agents threatened, coerced, or physically abused Yanez, nor did they offer or promise her anything in exchange for cooperation. Additionally, Yanez was not handcuffed, nor was she removed from the home. Furthermore, there was no evidence of diminished capacity, the questioning was not particularly lengthy, and there is no evidence that the agents were motivated by racial considerations. Finally, the Circuit explained that presence of a valid search warrant for the premises reduces the harm of the intrusion, and the agents executing the warrant did not use force beyond that necessary to secure their safety. The Fourth Circuit thus held that the nighttime search, while a violation, was nevertheless not an egregious violation of Yanez’s Fourth Amendment Rights.
The Fourth Circuit Denied Yanez’s Petition for Review
Because the alleged violations of Yanez’s Fourth Amendment rights were all either not violations at all or not egregious, the Fourth Circuit denied Yanez’s petition for review of the IJ’s order for her removal from the United States.