219 F.3d 326 (4th Cir. 2000), 99-4462, United States v. Gwinn

Docket Nº:99-4462.
Citation:219 F.3d 326
Party Name:UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. DENNIS BLANE GWINN, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:July 13, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

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219 F.3d 326 (4th Cir. 2000)



DENNIS BLANE GWINN, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 99-4462.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

July 13, 2000

Argued: April 7, 2000.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, at Beckley.

Robert C. Chambers, District Judge. (CR-98-164-5)

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ARGUED: Hunt Lee Charach, Federal Public Defender, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellant. Miller Allison Bushong, III, Assistant United States Attorney, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Mary Lou Newberger, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Michael W. Strong, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellant. Rebecca A. Betts, United States Attorney, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellee.

Before WILKINSON, Chief Judge, NIEMEYER, Circuit Judge, and HAMILTON, Senior Circuit Judge.


NIEMEYER, Circuit Judge:

In this case, we must decide whether Dennis Gwinn's partially clothed condition when arrested -- without shoes and shirt -- presented an exigency that justified police officers' reentry into Gwinn's trailer without a warrant to retrieve his boots and a shirt. The officers had just completed a lawful entry and protective sweep of the trailer and were preparing to transport Gwinn to the regional jail.

The district court denied Gwinn's motion made under the Fourth Amendment to suppress a gun found in his boots, applying a general standard of reasonableness. While we affirm the district court's ruling, we reject its rationale and affirm on the basis that Gwinn's partially clothed condition in the particular circumstances of this case presented the police officers with an exigency justifying their reentry into the trailer and their temporary seizure of Gwinn's boots without a warrant.


West Virginia State Police in Rainelle, West Virginia, responded to a 911 dispatch during the early evening hours of May 10, 1998, which indicated that "a domestic altercation [was] in progress on Backus Mountain Road [in Meadow Bridge, West Virginia] with weapons involved." The 911 dispatcher had received a call from Anna Terry who stated:

[M]y daughter is living up there with a guy named Dennis Gwinn, and she just called me real fast and told me to call the police. . . . And she told me that he's got a gun in there by the door and he told her he was going to kill her.

Terry also told the 911 dispatcher that her daughter had her baby with her.

State Trooper Ron Thomas was dispatched to respond to the call and was later joined by State Police Sergeant Scott Moore and another trooper. When Trooper Thomas arrived at 485 Backus Road, a remote location in Fayette County, he pulled his cruiser to within 25 yards of a small, "single-wide" trailer with a front porch. He drew his weapon from its holster and yelled for Dennis Gwinn to come out. Gwinn exited the trailer, wearing only a pair of blue jeans. Trooper Thomas conducted a pat-down search of Gwinn, handcuffed him, and placed him in the back seat of his cruiser. Trooper Thomas then asked Gwinn "where his wife was at so [Thomas] could speak to her." Gwinn responded that the woman was his girlfriend, not his wife, and that she was inside the trailer.

Trooper Thomas then entered the trailer -- the door was open and the screen door shut -- where he found Diane Harrah, crying and holding her baby. Sergeant Moore, who had just joined Trooper Thomas,

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conducted a protective sweep of the trailer while Thomas questioned Harrah. Harrah reported that Gwinn was drunk and had prevented her from leaving the trailer. She related that Gwinn had gone to the bedroom, obtained a pistol, and brandished it, telling her that "if you try to leave, I'll kill you." She described the handgun as a blue-colored pistol but did not know where Gwinn had put it. She had last seen him with it in the living room. Trooper Thomas and Sergeant Moore searched for the handgun, but discovered instead a loaded shotgun under the couch. They failed to find the handgun.

The officers left the trailer, placed the shotgun in the trunk of Trooper Thomas' cruiser, and prepared to transport Gwinn to the "regional jail." Because Gwinn was wearing no shirt or shoes, Trooper Thomas went back into the trailer and said to Harrah, "Where's his shoes? And we need to get a shirt for him." Harrah directed Thomas to Gwinn's boots in the living room, and she then went back to the bedroom to retrieve a shirt. While Harrah was getting the shirt, Trooper Thomas picked up Gwinn's mid-calf work boots, which "seemed awful[ly] heavy," and heard something "flop inside." When he opened the boot and looked inside, he discovered a pistol. He showed it to Harrah, and Harrah identified it as the weapon with which Gwinn had threatened her earlier that evening.

Gwinn was charged as a felon in possession of a Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver and a Winchester 12-gauge shotgun, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922. Gwinn moved to suppress the evidence of the two guns because they were obtained pursuant to a warrantless search. The district court granted the motion with respect to the shotgun and denied the motion with respect to the handgun. In denying Gwinn's motion to suppress the .38 caliber handgun, the court concluded that "the second search and seizure indeed were proper based on the plain view doctrine." The court, relying on United States v. Jackson, 131 F.3d 1105 (4th Cir. 1997), found that Trooper Thomas was lawfully in a place from which the handgun could be plainly viewed; that he had a lawful right of access to the handgun; and that its incriminating...

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