When Officer Christopher Copeland of the San Antonio Police Department began his shift, he was told to be on the lookout for a truck that was registered to Albert Ramirez’s mother. Accordingly, Officer Copeland visited her address several times during his patrol. Upon driving up the second time, he discovered the truck, with Ramirez in the driver’s seat, at an intersection catty-corner to the mother’s house. He then observed Ramirez roll through a stop sign before pulling into his mother’s driveway. Officer Copeland initiated a stop in response to the traffic violation.
But at that point Ramirez was already exiting the vehicle, which was now parked in front of his mother’s chain link fence. A female passenger also exited the vehicle. Officer Copeland observed Ramirez walk toward the gate and toss his jacket over the fence into his mother’s yard and onto the back corner of a closed trash bin. Ramirez then began to walk around the front of the truck, at which point Officer Copeland confronted him, patted him down, placed him in handcuffs, and detained him in the back of his patrol vehicle. Officer Copeland also detained the female passenger. Officer Copeland later testified that he felt it was necessary to secure Ramirez and the female passenger as a safety precaution because they had exited the vehicle without being instructed to do so and because the female passenger attempted to approach the truck multiple times despite being instructed not to.
Officer Copeland advised Ramirez that he had been stopped because he ran a stop sign, to which Ramirez replied, “my bad.” While patting him down, Officer Copeland asked Ramirez whether he had any weapons, and Ramirez responded that he did not. He then asked Ramirez for permission to search the truck, which Ramirez gave. No contraband was found in the truck.
Officer Craig Pair arrived soon thereafter, whereupon Officer Copeland asked Officer Pair to reach over the fence to retrieve the jacket and, searching it, discovered a gun in one of its pockets. Officer Copeland did not ask for consent to search the jacket or to enter the property.
Ramirez was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He moved to suppress the gun, arguing, as relevant here, that he did not abandon his jacket by tossing it over his mother’s fence and that its search therefore violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment. A suppression hearing was held in which the Government’s primary witness was Officer Copeland. Testimony showed that Ramirez had lived at his mother’s house most of his life, including into his adulthood, and that he still came to her house almost daily for meals and to check on and make breakfast for her. Evidence also showed that Ramirez regularly received mail at his mother’s address, including bills, and that his criminal history and his most recent ID both linked him to his mother’s address.
The district court ultimately denied the motion to suppress, concluding that Ramirez abandoned his jacket. With the gun admitted, Ramirez pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 46 months’ incarceration. On appeal, the 5th reversed and granted the motion to dismiss the gun.
A. 4th Amendment search – reasonable expectation of privacy test
It is a Fourth Amendment search if the government intrudes on an area where someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy. See SCOTUS Katz v. U.S., 389 U.S. 347 (1967). If this occurs, law enforcement needs a warrant or an exception to retrieve the jacket (consent, exigent circumstances, etc.)
One of the many ways a criminal suspect can forfeit his reasonable expectation of privacy, and thus Fourth Amendment protection, is by abandonment— examples being a fleeing suspect who abandons contraband by tossing it to the ground as he runs from police and the suspect who abandons an item by insisting that it does not belong to him. But we do not think it can fairly be said that Ramirez manifested an intent to disclaim ownership in his jacket simply by placing it on the private side of his mother’s fenced-in property line.
This would be a different case if Ramirez had dropped his jacket on the public sidewalk and ran away, or if he had insisted before the search that the jacket did not belong to him. It would also be a different case if the evidence demonstrated that Ramirez was not permitted to leave his possessions on his mother’s property. But the Government has not offered any evidence to that effect. To the contrary, the evidence offered at the suppression hearing overwhelmingly showed that Ramirez was welcome on the property.
The authorities cited by the Government all involve the critical additional facts that the challenged evidence was discarded in a public place while the suspect was fleeing arrest. U.S. v. Bush, 623 F.2d 388 (5th Cir. 1980) (holding that defendant had no legitimate expectation of privacy in package containing cocaine he hurled to the ground in a public bowling alley); Jones (holding that defendant abandoned $100 bill and drugs dropped in a parking lot while running from police); United States v. Williams, 79 F. App’x 677 (5th Cir. 2003) (holding that defendant abandoned gun he tossed in a stranger’s backyard while running from police). Ramirez did not flee from Officer Copeland or leave his jacket in a public place.
The Government also argues that Ramirez manifested an intent to abandon the jacket when he walked away from the jacket and towards Officer Copeland. Ramirez, however, did not disclaim ownership of his jacket, did not place it in a public place, and consequently did not walk away in a manner consistent with an intent to abandon it. To the contrary, he tossed it over the fence and onto his mother’s property.
Finally, the Government argues that Ramirez implicitly denied the jacket and the pistol in its pocket when, while being patted down, he insisted that he did not have a gun. It is true that a suspect may relinquish his privacy interest in an item by disclaiming ownership of it. But the Government did not identify, and we have not found, any case holding that a suspect loses his reasonable expectation of privacy in an item by lying about its contents.
While Ramirez’s actions might support the inference that Ramirez intended to conceal his jacket and its contents from Officer Copeland, they do not evince an intent to discard, leave behind, or otherwise disavow an ownership or privacy interest in the jacket. In the absence of alternative arguments from the Government, we hold that Ramirez did not lose his reasonable expectation of privacy in the jacket or its contents, and that Officer Copeland’s search was subject to Fourth Amendment constraints.
B. 4th amendment search – property test
We reach the same conclusion applying the property rights analysis set forth in SCOTUS United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012). In Jones, SCOTUS held that it is also a Fourth Amendment search if police physically intrude on private property to obtain information. Thus, you need a warrant or an exception to the warrant if it is a Fourth Amendment search under Jones.
The Government does not dispute that the Fourth Amendment extends to protect a person’s clothing. Instead, the Government maintains that Ramirez forfeited his property interest in his jacket when he tossed it over his mother’s fence and walked away. Courts treat an owner’s intent as the central question in claims of abandonment. Moreover, absent other evidence, the location in which an item had been left is crucial.
It follows that Ramirez did not abandon his property interest in his jacket by tossing it over his mother’s fence. Ramirez’s placement of his jacket on family property excludes the very idea of abandonment. He put it for safekeeping where he knew he could find it again, and where he could trust that strangers—if acting lawfully—would be unable to get at it.
And so, Ramirez’s jacket enjoyed Fourth Amendment protection under Jones’s property-rights formulation too. We hold that Ramirez did not abandon his jacket by tossing it over his mother’s fence because he did not thereby manifest an intent to discard it.
The Government elected to rely exclusively on its abandonment theory, expressly waiving alternative grounds for affirmance at oral argument. We therefore VACATE Ramirez’s conviction and sentence, as well as the denial of his motion to suppress, and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.