Friday, December 05, 2008

Agent's Assertions Save Warrant Under Leon

US v. Williams Williams and a codefendant, Thomas, were charged with drug crimes. They moved to suppress evidence found at their residences pursuant to state search warrants procured by a DEA agent.

In each case, the affidavit set forth in some detail the fruits of the investigation into Williams and Thomas, including details of controlled purchases, tips from CIs, etc. to establish a conspiracy to distribute narcotics. However, neither warrant affidavit included any evidence that any sales or other drug-related activity took place at either man's residence. Instead, the affidavit's explained that, based on the agent's experience, those involved in the drug trade frequently kept evidence of it (cash, registers, possibly a "stash" of product) in their home. On that basis, the warrants were issued.

The district court granted Williams and Thomas's motion to suppress the fruits of those searches. The Government conceded the lack of probable cause, but relied on the Leon good-faith exception to save the search. The district court disagreed and concluded that the warrants were based on bare bones affidavits that did not clearly demonstrate probable cause to believe there would be evidence at the locations searched. It also concluded that there was no basis on which to determine whether Williams and Thomas were actually residing at those locations.

The Government appealed and the Fourth Circuit unanimously reversed. Applying Leon (and avoiding the question of whether the Government could not argue the probable cause issue it conceded below), the court concluded that the affidavits were not bare boned after all. The court held that warrants to search a home are proper if (1) there is probable cause to support a charge of criminal activity and (2) the reasonable suspicion that drug dealers store evidence in their homes. Thus, it was error for the district court to disregard the agent's experience on the second prong. Had it properly considered the agent's statement, it could not have concluded that the affidavits were bare boned. The court also concluded that the agent's uncorroborated statement that the homes search were the defendants' residence was enough to save the affidavits from being bare boned.

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