Court: DEA violated Vilonia man’s rights with warrantless search

LITTLE ROCK — The state Court of Appeals on Wednesday sided with a Vilonia man who argued that drugs and firearms a federal agent seized from him were the fruit of an illegal search and should not have been admitted as evidence against him.

The appeals court ruled that a federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent violated Elfido Gutierrez’s constitutional rights when he entered the man’s home without a warrant.

Gutierrez argued that evidence seized from his home on Oct. 14, 2010, should have been suppressed.

DEA Agent Jon Vannatta went to the residence while trying to find Gutierrez’s nephew, Alonzo Gutierrez, for whom he had an arrest warrant. Vannatta testified that Alonzo Gutierrez had been seen standing outside the residence a day earlier.

Vannatta and other officers entered the residence and found that Alonzo Gutierrez was not present, but they did find firearms in the home and cocaine and methamphetamine on Elfido Gutierrez.

Elfido Gutierrez was charged with possession of cocaine, possession of methamphetamine, simultaneous possession of drugs and firearms and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that Vannatta had no cause to enter his home without a warrant.

Vannatta testified that he saw a broken window on the back of the residence and broken glass lying on the ground, and he suspected that a kidnapping had occurred. The state argued that a warrantless search is permissible when an officer has cause to believe a person may be in imminent danger.

A Faulkner County circuit judge denied Gutierrez’s motion. Gutierrez then pleaded guilty to the charges, on the condition that he be allowed to appeal the denial of his motion, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that the evidence should have been suppressed.

“There was no basis for believing that a kidnapping was under way that morning,” Judge Robin Wynne wrote in the court’s opinion. “This is exactly the type of ‘potential or speculative harm’ that this court has rejected as exceeding the scope of the imminent danger exception.”

The court also noted that the officers conducted surveillance at the residence for over an hour before they entered it, and that Vannatta admitted in his testimony that he did not want to be “sitting out there all day waiting to see if anything was going to happen.”