case law update

Sixth Circuit: A Car Registration Alone Is Not Enough for Warrant to Search Residence

Last week, the Sixth Circuit found that a warrant to search an individual’s home could not be based on criminal activity linked to a car registered at that address.

On March 30, 2011, DEA Agent Jeremy Fitch applied for a warrant to search Ricky Brown’s residence. In his affidavit to support the search warrant, Agent Fitch recounted facts related to the March 8, 2011 arrest of Brown, Marzell Middleton, and Steven Patrick Woods.

On March 8, 2011, a cooperating witness provided information to DEA agents concerning the heroin trafficking activities of Middleton and two cell phone numbers DEA agents could use to contact Middleton. At the direction of DEA agents, the witness made a series of recorded phone calls to Middleton in order to set up a purchase of heroin.

Middleton agreed to deliver the heroin to the witness at a predetermined location. Middleton also informed the witness that he was waiting for someone to arrive and he would leave in ten minutes. Soon after, a Yukon Denali towing a black cargo trailer arrived and three men entered Middleton’s residence. The three men then exited Middleton’s residence and entered two separate vehicles – a Chevrolet Silverado and the Denali.  

DEA agents arranged for troopers to execute a traffic stop of the Silverado and Denali. The troopers first stopped the Silverado, which Woods was driving. Woods verbally consented to a search of the Silverado. The search revealed a black power tool case with heroin inside. The troopers then stopped the Denali, which Middleton was driving and in which Brown was a passenger. Both Middleton and Brown were arrested for the attempted delivery of heroin transported by Woods. A search of the vehicle revealed four cell phones.

A task force officer obtained a search warrant for Middleton’s residence and the warrant was executed on March 9, 2011. The search discovered approximately 90 gross grams of heroin. During the search, the officers found a different GMC Yukon registered to Brown and parked on the street in front of Middleton’s residence. While a dog alerted to drugs inside the GMC Yukon, the affidavit failed to mention whether any were found therein.

Using his affidavit relaying this information, Agent Fitch obtained a warrant to search Brown’s home. The search was conducted on March 31, 2011, revealing guns and ammunition, a digital scale, cash, and an apparent drug ledger. DEA agents did not find any heroin, but found 60 grams of marijuana.

Brown moved to suppress the evidence seized during the search of his home. The district court denied the motion to suppress and found that the affidavit was sufficient to establish probable cause. Brown appealed his case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, contending that the district court erred by denying his motion to suppress.

In order for a search warrant to meet the requirements of the Fourth Amendment, an affidavit supporting the search warrant must demonstrate a nexus between the place to be searched and the evidence sought. The court of appeals stated that if an affidavit fails to include facts that directly connect the residence with the suspected drug dealing activity, it cannot be inferred that drugs will be found in the defendant’s home – even if the defendant is a known drug dealer.

Here, the government contended that the magistrate judge was entitled to infer that evidence of drug trafficking would be found at Brown’s residence because he was a known drug dealer. The court of appeals stated that in some cases it has permitted judges to infer a fair probability finding of evidence in a residence even though the affidavit did not state that such evidence was observed directly. However, a suspect’s status as a drug dealer, alone, cannot give rise to probable cause that there are drugs in his home.

The court of appeals found that DEA Fitch’s affidavit contained no evidence Brown distributed narcotics from his home, used it to store narcotics, or that any suspicious activity had taken place there. The fact that a car was registered to Brown’s home and parked in front of Middleton’s residence did not establish the necessary nexus required to support the search warrant.

Further, the court of appeals found that the good-faith exception did not apply to the evidence seized from Brown’s residence. In order for the good faith exception to apply, DEA Fitch’s affidavit needed to contain a “minimally sufficient nexus” between the suspected illegal activity and Brown’s residence. The officers arrested Brown on March 8, 2011, and seized his car on March 9, 2011. However, the officers waited 22 days to file for a warrant to search Brown’s residence. Except for a passing reference to Brown’s car registration, the affidavit was void of fact connecting the residence to the alleged drug dealing activity therein.

Read the full case: United States v. Brown


This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

Tags: Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA, case law update, search warrant, michael j sgarlat


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