480 F.3d 187 (3rd Cir. 2007), 06-1577, United States v. Laville

Docket Nº:06-1577.
Citation:480 F.3d 187
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Appellant v. Kevin LAVILLE.
Case Date:March 16, 2007
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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480 F.3d 187 (3rd Cir. 2007)

UNITED STATES of America, Appellant



No. 06-1577.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit.

March 16, 2007

Argued Dec. 4, 2006.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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John-Alex Romano, Esq., (Argued), United States Department of Justice, Criminal Division, Washington, D.C., Angela P. Tyson-Floyd, Esq., Office of the United States Attorney, USVI, Counsel for Appellant.

Natalie N. Tang How, Esq., (Argued), USVI, Counsel for Appellee.

Before McKEE, BARRY and STAPLETON, Circuit Judges.

BARRY, Circuit Judge.

What is required for a finding of probable cause within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment can be a difficult question, made more difficult when, as here, there is a misunderstanding as to what one of our decisions has held. We write to correct that misunderstanding by making clear that state or local law does not dictate the reasonableness of an arrest for purposes of a Fourth Amendment probable cause analysis--a violation of state or local law is not, in other words, a per se violation of the Fourth Amendment. Rather, notwithstanding the validity of the arrest under state or local law, probable cause exists when the totality of the circumstances within an officer's knowledge is sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution to conclude that the person being arrested has committed or is committing an offense. We find that the circumstances surrounding the warrantless arrest before us gave rise to probable cause to believe that an offense had been committed and rendered that arrest reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. We will, therefore, reverse.


In the early morning hours of Tuesday, August 17, 2004, sometime before 7:00 A.M., a boat carrying 32 illegal aliens ran aground on a reef in Christiansted harbor, St. Croix. An eyewitness on the wharf phoned the Virgin Islands Police Department ("VIPD") to report that illegal aliens were exiting the boat and coming ashore.

Officer Aldemar Santos of the VIPD Marine Unit responded to the call between 7 and 8:00 A.M. From the wharf, he confirmed that a boat had indeed run aground in the harbor and that a number of people were still onboard. He also spoke with the citizen who had phoned the police, Mark Sperber, and Sperber pointed out four Hispanic-looking individuals sitting nearby on the boardwalk. Santos approached them and identified himself as a police officer. In response to his questioning, the individuals stated that they were Cubans, that they had come off the stranded boat, and that other aliens were in the vicinity.

Sperber independently advised Santos that other illegal aliens had come ashore and were around the corner. As additional police units arrived, Sperber offered to identify the other aliens. Santos, Sperber, and several uniformed officers walked down the boardwalk and around the corner,

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and Sperber pointed out three black males sitting on a bench. When the men saw the approaching officers, Santos later testified, "they stood up and started walking away really fast." (App. vol. II at 39.)

Hoping to cut the men off, Santos walked down a side street while the other officers continued to follow the three men. On his radio, he heard an officer shout "he's running" and another officer say that one of the men was heading toward a shopping area on Strand Street. Santos proceeded in the direction of the shopping area, where he saw appellant Kevin Laville, who he recognized as one of the men who had been sitting on the bench. Upon spotting Santos, Laville began to run, but stopped when Santos yelled "Police; stop." Santos ordered Laville to put his hands up, patted him down, and placed him in handcuffs.

As they walked back to the police car, Laville stated, in response to Santos's questions, that he was from Dominica and was a crew member on the stranded boat. Laville asked what island he was on, but Santos believed that Laville knew he was on St. Croix. Meanwhile, the other officers apprehended all of the individuals who had come ashore. Later that morning, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") came to the police station and took custody of all of the detained individuals, including Laville.

The next day, utilizing a photo array of all 32 individuals who had been on the boat, four of the Cuban passengers identified Laville and co-defendant Carter Magloire as the boat's operators. That same day, ICE Agent David Levering and Officer Santos conducted a videotaped interview of Laville. After being advised of his Miranda rights, he again stated that he was from Dominica and had helped to operate the boat. He also said that he believed he had landed on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. Five additional passengers subsequently identified Laville as a member of the boat's crew.

On September 14, 2004, a federal grand jury returned a three-count indictment charging Laville and Magloire with conspiracy to bring in illegal aliens in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(v)(i) (Count 1); bringing in illegal aliens for financial gain in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(2)(B)(ii) (Count 2); and bringing in illegal aliens in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(i) (Count 3). The District Court later severed Laville's case from that of Magloire, and Magloire was tried and convicted on Counts 2 and 3.

Laville filed pro se motions to suppress the identifications and any evidence obtained as a result of his arrest, including statements made to Officer Santos and ICE. On August 16, 2005, the District Court held a suppression hearing at which Laville was represented by counsel. Officer Santos and ICE Agents Levering and Kirk Thomas testified to the circumstances of Laville's arrest, his post-arrest statements, his identification by various passengers, and his ICE interview.

On February 2, 2006, the District Court granted Laville's motion to suppress his post-arrest statements to the VIPD and ICE, but denied his motion to suppress the identifications. The government timely appealed.


We have jurisdiction over this interlocutory appeal of a suppression order pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3731. In reviewing a suppression order, we exercise plenary review over the District Court's legal conclusions, and we review the underlying factual findings for clear error. United States v. Delfin-Colina,

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464 F.3d 392, 395-96 (3d Cir.2006). 1

A. Laville's Post-Arrest Statements to Officer Santos

The District Court found that Officer Santos arrested Laville without a warrant, and that at the time of the arrest probable cause to believe Laville was an alien smuggler was lacking. At most, the District Court found, there was probable cause to believe only that Laville had entered the United States illegally in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1325--a misdemeanor. Citing, but misreading, our decision in United States v. Myers, 308 F.3d 251 (3d Cir.2002), the District Court concluded that because the validity of an arrest is determined by the law of the state where the arrest occurred, it need look no further than Virgin Islands statutory law to determine the reasonableness of Laville's arrest under the Fourth Amendment. Under 5 V.I.C. § 3562(1), a misdemeanor must be committed in the presence of the officer in order to justify a warrantless arrest. Because the crime of illegal entry was completed before the officers arrived, the District Court reasoned, Santos had no authority under Virgin Islands law to conduct a warrantless arrest. Accordingly, there was a per se violation of the Fourth Amendment, and the Court suppressed Laville's post-arrest statements.

Because the government, too, misreads Myers, it does not challenge the District Court's conclusion that an arrest that is invalid under territorial law--or state or local law--is unreasonable per se under the Fourth Amendment. Instead, the government argues that Laville's arrest was lawful because the crime of illegal entry had not been completed before the officers arrived or, alternatively, that illegal entry is a continuing offense. We need not address these arguments, however, because the reasonableness of Laville's arrest under the Fourth Amendment does not depend on whether it was lawful under territorial law.

B. Our Holding in Myers

We are compelled, at the outset, to clarify what we did and did not hold in Myers. Myers concerned a police officer's entry into an apartment in response to a report of possible domestic violence involving a person with a gun, and the subsequent arrest of the defendant because of the officer's suspicion that a crime was underway. We concluded that the officer was justified in entering the apartment but lacked probable cause to arrest the defendant once inside. Myers, 308 F.3d at 265. In reaching this conclusion, we painstakingly examined all of the circumstances within the officer's knowledge at the time of the arrest. We did not consider these circumstances in isolation, but necessarily measured them against the potential offenses for which the defendant could conceivably have been charged. We found that the circumstances surrounding the arrest were insufficient to justify a reasonable belief that any offense had been committed. Id. at 284 (Alarcon, J., dissenting) ("The Majority has concluded that Officer Azzarano did not have probable cause to arrest Myers for any crime.").

One of the state-law crimes we considered was the misdemeanor offense of simple assault. In discussing that offense, we noted a Pennsylvania statute authorizing

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warrantless arrests for misdemeanors only when they are committed in the presence of the arresting officer or when specifically authorized by statute. Noting that the validity of...

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