COA rules officers’ show of ‘power and influence’ did not force defendant to allow entry

An Evansville man argued that when he answered his front door and saw half a dozen police officers on his porch, he had to let them into his house. But while the Court of Appeals of Indiana did not find any constitutional violation, it did fault the officers for failing to turn on their body cameras and record the encounter.

Leon Casillas was the target of a “knock and talk” by two detectives who received a tip that he was selling heroin from his home. The detectives, accompanied by other officers, did not have a search warrant, nor did they advise Casillas of his Miranda rights when he answered his front door.

Instead, the law enforcement personnel talked to Casillas on his front porch then entered the house, where they saw drugs and a digital scale. The officers then obtained a search warrant and found 80 grams of heroin, about 3 grams of methamphetamine, syringes, suspected drug ledgers and other items commonly associated with drug dealing inside Casillas’ home.

Casillas testified at trial that the drugs were for his personal use. He said he only admitted to selling heroin because he felt pressured by the interrogating officers.

Casillas was subsequently convicted of Level 2 felony dealing in a narcotic drug and Level 6 felony possession of methamphetamine. Also, he was found to be a habitual offender and was sentenced to an aggregate of 25 years.

On appeal, Casillas challenged the constitutionality of the police entry into his home. He claimed he never consented, but when he answered his front door, he discovered “five or six officers” on his front porch.

Casillas pointed to the officers’ admission that their purpose was to lead him “down that road to cooperate.” He contended an average person in that situation would feel intimidated, so he “simply acquiesced” after the officers “brandished their power and influence.”

The Court of Appeals rejected the state’s argument that Casillas waived his objection to the evidence by failing to timely object at trial. But it also was not convinced by Casillas’ argument.

“… (A) substantial police presence does not in and of itself render a person’s consent involuntary,” Judge Melissa May wrote for the court, citing Smith v. State, 713 N.E.2d 338, 343 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999), trans denied. “… Casillas was not physically restrained before or while police entered his house.

“Both Detective (James) Budde and Detective (Brandon) Garland denied brandishing their weapons, threatening Casillas, or telling Casillas he had to allow them to enter his house,” May wrote. “It is unclear whether the officers informed Casillas they were there in connection with a drug investigation, but it was clear they were visiting Casillas in their professional capacity. The officers’ clothing identified them as law enforcement personnel, and they conveyed to Casillas they were there to obtain information from him.”

In an extended footnote, the appellate panel called attention to the lack of body camera footage. The two detectives told the Vanderburgh Circuit Court they were operating as Drug Enforcement Agency task force officers when they knocked on Casillas’ door and, as such, they were prohibited from utilizing body cameras.

The Court of Appeals called the policy, which has since been reversed, “particularly unwise.” Although a copy of the purported policy was not provided, the appellate panel held the policy did not excuse the failure of all the officers on the scene to record the interaction with Casillas on his porch.

“The State submitted body camera footage taken by Detective (John) Montgomery of the interrogation of Casillas conducted after officers entered his house,” May wrote in the footnote. “Moreover, while the footage itself is not part of the appellate record, Detective Garland testified during the evidentiary hearing on Casillas’s motion to suppress that Detective Montgomery used his body camera to record portions of the operation before and after the officers gained entry into Casillas’s house.

“This gap in footage is unfortunate,” May concluded, “because when critical portions of law enforcement interactions go unrecorded, public confidence in police action diminishes.”

The case is Leon Casillas v. State of Indiana, 21A-CR-2182.

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