Search, Arrest Warrants On Police Chief Violated Fourth Amendment

Paul Armijo was the Police Chief of the Village of Columbus in New Mexico. The local District Attorney’s office began investigating Armijo on allegations of improper evidence handling, inventory problems relating to both police equipment and evidence, and the mishandling of City funds and impounded vehicles. The most prominent allegation against Armijo was that he may have misappropriated two firearms.

Based on its investigation, the District Attorney’s office sought a search warrant for Armijo’s home. Later, the DA obtained an arrest warrant, and charged Armijo with theft. The charges were later dismissed with prejudice for lack of prosecution.

Armijo sued a variety of defendants, alleging that both the search and arrest warrants violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment. When a federal trial court refused to dismiss the lawsuit, the case was appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Court found that both the search and arrest warrants were clearly illegal. The Court found that “the supporting affidavit detailed evidence of Armijo’s alleged larceny of the two firearms. It offered no evidence linking Armijo to any missing funds, narcotics, or any other police department property. The warrant, however, authorized a search, without any time limitation, for: (1) books and records relating to controlled substances; (2) financial documents, without any subject matter limitation, showing expenditure of money; (3) photographs and video of co-conspirators, weapons, assets, controlled substances, and narcotics; and (4) any and all firearms reported stolen or altered in any way. These general categories far exceeded the evidence offered in the affidavit. While the evidence may have been particularly described, it failed to specify a crime to which the sought evidence related.

“Our precedent clearly establishes a search must be limited to the specific crime for which probable cause exists. Indeed, as the Supreme Court noted almost thirty years ago: ‘The uniformly applied rule is that a search conducted pursuant to a warrant that fails to conform to the particularity requirement of the Fourth Amendment is unconstitutional.’ We conclude a reasonably well-trained officer would have known a search pursuant to such a facially overbroad warrant was illegal under clearly established law. The search warrant affidavit did not provide details of any crime other than the alleged larceny of the two firearms. Yet the warrant inexplicably authorized a broad search for financial transaction documents, drugs, and other firearms. A reasonably well-trained officer would have known the affidavit failed to establish probable cause for crimes not even identified. Under the circumstances of this case, a reasonable officer would have known his actions were unlawful.

“We also agree with the trial court that the arrest warrant lacked probable cause. The affidavit clearly stated that while the Village originally received a bid sheet for six firearms, the Village only paid for four firearms, and Armijo purchased the remaining two firearms for personal use. The affidavit does not discuss any purported investigation into whether Armijo had embezzled certain cash funds from the department and possibly used those cash funds to pay for the remaining two firearms. Nor does the affidavit indicate Armijo was somehow restricted from purchasing these firearms because, for instance, only police departments could legally purchase such firearms.

“The Village argues that the affidavit did establish probable cause because it revealed confusion that existed with regard to the firearms transaction. Confusion, though, does not create a substantial probability that a crime has been committed and that a specific individual committed the crime. As the only evidence contained in the affidavit regarding payment for the two firearms at issue indicates that Armijo, not the Village, paid for the firearms, the affidavit does not establish probable cause for Armijo’s arrest for either larceny of the two firearms, or, alternatively, for embezzlement of the firearms.”

Armijo v. Perales, 688 F.3d 685 (10th Cir. 2012).