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United States v. Holstick

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

June 4, 2018





         Before the court are (1) the motion to suppress filed by Worldly Dieago Holstick (Doc. # 338); (2) the Government's response (Doc. # 356); (3) the Magistrate Judge's recommendation (Doc. # 429), as amended (Doc. # 522); (4) Holstick's objections to the recommendations filed by Holstick's former counsel (Doc. # 456) and current counsel (Doc. # 627); and (5) the Government's response to Holstick's objections (Doc. # 645). The Magistrate Judge held two hearings on the motion to suppress[1] (Docs. # 344, # 529) and recommends that the motion be denied.

         The court has conducted a de novo review of those portions of the recommendation to which Holstick objects. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). It has read the transcripts of the evidentiary hearings, watched the seized home surveillance video, examined the exhibits, and fully considered Holstick's objections. Having done so, the court finds that the objections are due to be overruled and the recommendations adopted.


         Holstick lodges multiple objections to the Magistrate Judge's recommendations. These objections, all but one of which was raised by Holstick's newly retained counsel, employ mostly new arguments for the suppression of evidence seized from the mobile home. Holstick's prior counsel focused principally on whether exigent circumstances justified the initial warrantless entry into the mobile home. The theory advanced was that, because the officers' initial entry into the mobile home was unlawful, the protective sweep and the subsequent search warrant (which relied on the officers' observations during the initial entry) were unconstitutional and that, therefore, all of the evidence seized from the mobile home was inadmissible as fruit of the poisonous illegal entry.

         Changing the focus, Holstick now challenges (1) the officers' observations (including smells) after the initial entry and protective sweep; (2) the state court's determination that probable cause existed to support the issuance of a search warrant; (3) the scope of the search warrant; (4) the officers' good faith in procuring the search warrant; and (5) the reliability of the seized home surveillance video. The difficulty here is that, because most of the issues Holstick raises are new, they were not fully developed at the suppression hearings or squarely before the Magistrate Judge. However, because the Government has had an opportunity to respond to the objections, the court will address them in the interest of judicial efficiency. The court presumes the parties' familiarity with the facts and, thus, refers to them only as necessary for the analysis. Some of the objections are more colorable than others, but ultimately the objections do not necessitate rejection of the Magistrate Judge's recommendations.

         A. Whether the emergency-aid exception justified serial, warrantless entries into the mobile home

         The emergency-aid exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement permits law enforcement officers to “enter a home without a warrant to render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or to protect an occupant from imminent injury.” Brigham City, Utah v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006).

         Holstick does not object to the Magistrate Judge's finding that “[t]he recent shooting of the child, the 911-call, the witness statements pointing to the trailer, and the obvious bullet holes in the trailer justified the objective reasonableness of conducting a safety sweep of the premises.” (Doc. # 522, at 15); (Doc. # 627, at 11 (Holstick's Objs.) (acknowledging that the officers' warrantless entry into the home was reasonable under the exigent-circumstances exception to the warrant requirement).) The court concurs as well that the emergency-aid exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement permitted the officers to enter the mobile home without a warrant for the purpose of conducting a limited protective sweep to look for potential victims of the drive-by shooting.

         Holstick's new argument, however, is that a finding of exigency does not end the analysis, but rather is the starting point. Hence, his objections highlight events occurring after the initial warrantless entry into the mobile home.

         To begin, Holstick contends that “[e]xigent circumstances no longer existed after the first entry into the trailer” and, that, therefore, the second sweep of the mobile home was unlawful. (Doc. # 456, at 2.) In the amended recommendation, the Magistrate Judge acknowledges that there was a second warrantless entry into the mobile home shortly after the first. He opines that the purpose of the second entry was for a supervisory officer, who was not present during the initial entry and protective sweep, to confirm the officers' findings. (Doc. # 522, at 4.) The amended recommendation, thus, impliedly countenances the second warrantless entry as constitutional.

         Fortuitously, last month, the Eleventh Circuit addressed the issue of law enforcement officers' serial, warrantless entries into a home. See Montanez v. Carvajal, 889 F.3d 1202 (11th Cir. 2018). It held that, because the exigent-circumstances doctrine supported the initial warrantless entry into the home, “[t]he officers could thereafter enter and re-enter the residence to observe the contraband without separately violating the Fourth Amendment, ” so long as the officers “confine[d] their intrusion to the scope of the original invasion.”[2] Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Here, Holstick does not argue or point to evidence that the scope of the sweep on reentry exceeded the scope of the initial sweep. The holding in Montanez is timely for purposes of this case and disposes of Holstick's objection.

         B. Whether there was probable cause for a search warrant for controlled substances based upon the officers' smelling marijuana and observing plastic bags inside the mobile home

         The search warrant authorized the officers to search for marijuana and controlled substances, as well as for drug paraphernalia. That part of the warrant is supported by the attestations in the search-warrant affidavit that, after entering the mobile home to conduct the protective sweep for victims, the officers detected “the strong odor of green marijuana and saw plastic bags commonly used to package marijuana.” (Doc. # 409, at 5, at 3.) Holstick argues that probable cause to search for drugs was lacking because there was no credible evidence that the officers in fact smelled marijuana and saw plastic bags in plain view.

         Generally, a court reviewing the issuance of a search warrant does not conduct a de novo probable cause determination but merely decides “whether the evidence viewed as a whole provided a ‘substantial basis' for the [state court judge's] finding of probable cause.” Massachusetts v. Upton, 466 U.S. 727, 732-33 (1984) (per curiam) (alterations added); Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 238-39 (1983) (“[T]he duty of a reviewing court is simply to ensure that the magistrate had a ‘substantial basis for concluding' that probable cause existed.” (alterations omitted). Suppression of evidence is only required where the affidavit supporting the warrant was “so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence entirely unreasonable.” Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590, 610-11 (1975). Even in those hard cases where the affidavit's demonstration of probable ...

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