Exigent circumstances to enter motel room and protective sweep proper


Following a bench trial, Hector Gastelum Valenzuela was convicted of possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of actual methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A), 846. Valenzuela appeals the district court’s denial of his pre-trial motion to suppress evidence seized from a motel room, asserting the evidence was obtained by an improper protective sweep in violation of the Fourth Amendment. He claims the protective sweep of the motel room was illegal because: no exigent circumstances existed to justify the warrantless entry into the room; and it exceeded the scope of a proper protective sweep.


The officers knew Juvencio Camargo-Garcia, a co-conspirator, had distributed methamphetamine at the motel that day; watched Camargo leave the motel; and found in his pocket the key for the motel room at issue. The officers suspected that someone was in the room when they tried the key and saw that it was locked from the inside (on finding the door locked from the inside, the officers observed Valenzuela and ordered him to come outside); and they believed there was a possibility of danger to the officers because they thought that there might be a gun in the room on account of their observing Camargo’s wearing an empty holster.

From the doorway, the officers were unable to ascertain whether anyone else was in the room who might attempt to destroy the evidence before a search warrant was obtained. Again, these circumstances created exigency that justified a warrantless entry into the room. See Silva (providing officers’ concern for safety was reasonable and justified warrantless protective sweep); Jones (The possibility that evidence will be removed or destroyed, the pursuit of a suspect, and immediate safety risks to officers and others are exigent circumstances that may excuse an otherwise unconstitutional intrusion into a residence.).

Moreover, the record supports a finding that the protective sweep was properly limited in scope as the officers were lawfully inside the room to sweep for safety and to prevent the destruction of evidence; and, during that sweep, the officers saw drugs in plain view. See Garcia- Lopez (Evidence or contraband seen in plain view during a lawful sweep can be seized and used in evidence at trial.).