Questionable Entry and Dubious Arrest Defeat Qualified Immunity

Sauceda v. City of San Benito, 2023 WL 5211650 (5th Cir. 2023)

The Sauceda and Cortez families were neighbors and apparently had a long-running feud. During a party at the Cortez house, Ricardo Sauceda allegedly made a rude gesture in the direction of Marco Cortez, who was on the other side of the street. Cortez called the police.

Officer Lopez responded. He viewed a cell phone video taken by Cortez, though the video did not show Sauceda committing any crime and did not clearly show what gestures (if any) Sauceda was making. Officer Lopez approached Sauceda as he stood in his front yard and spoke to him from behind the chain-link fence that enclosed the property. Sauceda denied Cortez’s accusations and said Cortez had called the police in retaliation for Sauceda previously filing police reports against the grandfather of the Cortez family.

Officer Lopez then asked Sauceda for his driver’s license; Sauceda declined to produce it. He told Officer Lopez he was just minding his own business and said, “I’m not going to give you anything,” as he began to walk away. Officer Lopez pushed open the gate into Sauceda’s yard. Sauceda told Officer Lopez he needed a warrant and pushed back on the gate. They went to the ground and Officer Lopez drew his baton and swung it. He claimed he did not strike Sauceda, though Sauceda asserts he did.

Other officers arrived in response to Officer Lopez’s call for help. Sauceda struggled to stand up, telling the officers he hurt his back; he asked the officers to call an ambulance. Once Sauceda was released from the hospital, he was taken to the police station for booking. The prosecutor dismissed all charges. Sauceda sued Officer Lopez, other officers and the city. The trial court granted qualified immunity to the defendants and Sauceda appealed.

The appellate court held Sauceda raised genuine issues of fact as to whether Lopez had the authority to enter Sauceda’s property without a warrant. The court clearly stated it was not ruling on whether there was probable cause to arrest Sauceda for disorderly conduct based on rude gestures allegedly made outside of Officer Lopez’s presence, based only on Cortez’s uncorroborated testimony and denied by Sauceda.

“Any arrest that Lopez made when he opened Sauceda’s gate and grabbed his hand could not have been lawful.”

The court held that Sauceda’s front yard was indisputably within the curtilage protected by the Fourth Amendment. “Curtilage” is treated as part of the home itself for Fourth Amendment purposes. The curtilage is “the area into which extends the intimate activity associated with the sanctity of a man’s home and the privacies of life” (Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170 (1984)). The scope of the curtilage is determined by considering the proximity to the home, whether it is fenced or otherwise enclosed, the nature of the use of the area and the efforts the resident takes to screen the area from public view (United States v. Dunn, 480 U.S. 294 (1987)). Sauceda’s yard is at the front of a single-family home on a normal-sized lot in a residential neighborhood. It was enclosed by a tall chain-link fence. There are bushes behind the fence that obscure parts of the yard from street view. The only apparent access point is a gate, which Sauceda closed before Officer Lopez forced it open.

Officer Lopez asserted that he lawfully entered the property based on the hot pursuit exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. The court held no warrant clause exception applied to justify Officer Lopez’s entry onto Sauceda’s property. The court also made short work of Officer Lopez’s claim that he could have arrested Sauceda for failure to produce identification: “A person’s mere refusal to identify themselves to a police officer is not a crime under [Texas law] unless that person has already been lawfully arrested.” Further, the court opined, “Any arrest that Lopez made when he opened Sauceda’s gate and grabbed his hand could not have been lawful. Lopez had no legal justification to enter Sauceda’s property without a warrant.” Because Sauceda raised genuine issues of material fact as to his claim of false arrest against Officer Lopez, the trial court should not have granted summary judgment.

No matter what the outcome of this case when decided by a trial, the takeaway for officers is to always consider whether there is a lawful basis for entering property, whether into a business, residence or onto the curtilage.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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