Ninth Circuit: Two-Hour Detention of Elderly Woman for Rice-Sized Piece of the Moon is Unreasonable

In Davis v. United States of America, 15-55671, 2017 WL 1359482 (9th Cir. Apr. 13, 2017), federal agents secured a search warrant to seize lunar material belonging to a 74-year-old woman. The agents became aware of the material after the woman emailed NASA asking for assistance in finding a buyer; the woman’s former husband worked for NASA and received the rice-sized piece of material (in a paperweight) as a gift from Neil Armstrong, and the woman was hoping to sell the memorabilia for money to help pay medical bills for her severely disabled son. The agents set up a sting operation, and upon meeting her and her 70-year old husband in a Denny’s, they seized the paperweight and escorted the woman to the parking lot, where she urinated in her clothing. Agents interrogated the woman in the parking lot for nearly two hours. The woman sued alleging the detention was unreasonably prolonged and degrading. The Ninth Circuit agreed, holding there was no law enforcement interest for detaining the unarmed, elderly woman for two hours in a public parking lot, wearing urine-soaked pants, when they already had the item they sought to seize. The agents’ knowledge, before the sting, that the woman believed she possessed the paperweight legally and wanted to sell it legally because of financial hardships further underscored the unreasonableness of the detention.