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In a victory for a Jenner & Block pro bono client who had been sentenced to twenty years in prison for drug-related charges, a federal appeals court recently ruled that law enforcement officers violated the client’s Fourth Amendment rights. The court reversed his conviction and vacated his sentence. Associate Brian C. Haussmann argued the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
The Firm’s client, Gregory McNeal, was convicted in 2005 based on evidence allegedly gathered during covert surveillance set up by agents and officers of the Chicago Police and the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Law enforcement agents alleged they observed co-defendant Keith Collins leaving McNeal’s residence to get in his car holding illegal contraband, or what appeared to be crack cocaine. After agents interrogated Collins, they then returned with him to McNeal’s home with the intent to search the premises and also arrest McNeal.
According to the Firm’s legal team, despite having the opportunity to obtain a search warrant via telephone, law enforcement agents made no attempt to do so. Using a battering ram, agents forcefully made entry into McNeal’s home and used evidence found from that search and seizure against him in trial.
The district court found that the search performed by officers, although without a warrant, was justified by “exigent circumstances” because police were concerned that evidence may be destroyed before they could obtain a warrant. The court also found that McNeal consented to the search.
The Firm in its appeal argued primarily that the forced entry into McNeal’s home without a warrant violated his constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment, that it was not justified by exigent circumstances and that, because of that, any evidence found in the home should not be admissible in court.
Closely tracking the Firm’s argument, the appeals court ruled “In short, if police hear a crime being committed within a house (and spoliation of evidence is a crime), then they can enter immediately, without knocking; if they do not hear a crime (more precisely, if they do not have probable cause to believe a crime is in progress), they have to get a warrant. The government has failed to show that in this case the police had probable cause to believe that evidence was being, or was about to be, destroyed when they entered (United States v. Collins, 7th Cir., No. 05-4708, 12/14/07).”
Mr. Haussmann argued the case before the court and was supervised by Partners Michael A. Doornweerd and Barry Levenstam. Associates Marisa K. Perry, Justin C. Steffen, former summer associate Katherine Neff and paralegal Julie H. Shaw also worked on the appeal.