United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division
For Clinton Michael Crabtree, Defendant: Robert Adam Thomas, LEAD ATTORNEY, The Thomas Firm, LLC, Mobile, AL.
For Jessica Sharon Howard, also known as Tabatha Amber Miller, Defendant: T. Jefferson Deen, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, LEAD ATTORNEY, T. Jefferson Deen, III, P.C., Mobile, AL.
For USA, Plaintiff: George F. May, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. Attorney's Office, Mobile, AL.
WILLIAM H. STEELE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
This matter is before the Court on the defendants' motions to suppress. (Docs. 13, 22). The government has filed a response and the defendants replies, (Docs. 25-27), and the motions are ripe for resolution.On or about November 3, 2014, law enforcement officials executed a search warrant at an apartment complex in Saraland, Alabama, specifically, Apartment # 98 of the North Pointe complex located at 205 Shelton Beach Road, which was then rented by defendant Howard. The warrant, however, described the premises to be searched as " [a] single family dwelling ... located off of Patillo Road in Mount Vernon, Alabama[,] said to be occupied by a known white male, Daniel Oneal Newburn," with GPS coordinates provided. (Doc. 13 at 1, 7). The two locations are approximately 15 miles apart as the crow flies.
The defendants argue that the warrant was invalid and the search unconstitutional. The government responds that the warrant was valid and the search constitutional under the circumstances, and that, even if not, the " good faith exception" recognized in United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 104 S.Ct. 3405, 82 L.Ed.2d 677 (1984), renders the seized evidence admissible.
" [N]o Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." U.S. Const. amend. IV (emphasis added). " 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" because such a search is constitutionally unreasonable. Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551, 559-60, 124 S.Ct. 1284, 157 L.Ed.2d 1068 (2004) (internal quotes omitted). The place to be searched was an apartment in Saraland rented by defendant Howard and, as the government concedes, the location specified in the warrant -- a house in Mount Vernon, some 15 miles away and occupied by another individual -- is " completely unassociated with" the place to be searched. (Doc. 25 at 7). The warrant thus did not describe the place to be searched at all, much less with particularity. The warrant therefore did not satisfy the Fourth Amendment. Groh, 540 U.S. at 557, 558 (a warrant that " did not describe the items to be seized at all " suffered from " facial invalidity" ) (emphasis in original). Because the warrant failed to satisfy the constitutional particularity requirement, the search conducted pursuant to that warrant was an " unreasonable searc[h]" under the Fourth Amendment and thus unconstitutional. Id. at 563 (" Because
petitioner did not have in his possession a warrant particularly describing the things he intended to seize, proceeding with the search was clearly 'unreasonable' under the Fourth Amendment." ).
The government gamely attempts to extricate itself from its predicament. According to the government, federal deputy marshals arrived at Howard's apartment to execute an arrest warrant on defendant Crabtree. While in the apartment, the marshals observed drug paraphernalia and what they believed was methamphetamine and a gun. A Saraland police officer was summoned to the apartment, and she promptly prepared an affidavit and search warrant, presenting them to a state judge the same evening. The officer's affidavit correctly identified Howard's apartment as the place to be searched, but she failed to plug that information into her warrant template. As a result, the warrant presented to the judge and signed by him without alteration still carried a description of the premises made the subject of her most recent previous search. The officer then returned directly to the apartment and executed the warrant. (Doc. 25 at 1-4).
According to the government, under these circumstances the warrant satisfied the particularity requirement. The government cites United States v. Burke, 784 F.2d 1090 (11th Cir. 1986), for two propositions: (1) that " [t]he Fourth Amendment requires only that the search warrant describe the premises in such a way that the searching officer may 'with reasonable effort ascertain and identify the place intended,'" id. at 1092 (quoting United States v. Weinstein, 762 F.2d 1522, 1532 (11th Cir. 1985)); and (2) " [i]n evaluating the effect of a wrong address on the sufficiency of a warrant, this Court has also taken into account the knowledge of the officer executing the warrant, even where such knowledge was not reflected in the warrant or in the affidavit supporting the warrant." Id. at 1093 (citing Weinstein). The government concludes that, because the executing officer knew what address was actually intended as the place to be searched, the warrant was sufficiently particularized. (Doc. 25 at 4-5).
Burke, however, does not condone a warrant's utter lack of description of the place actually intended to be searched (as is the case here), with the void to be filled by the officer's awareness of the intended target. On the contrary, Burke explicitly " requires ... that the ... warrant describe the premises." 784 F.2d at 1092. If, and only if, the warrant contains such a description may the officer rely on personal knowledge and other information to eliminate ...