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Suppression Denial Tossed Where Warrant Affidavit Failed to Establish PC: Sanders

The Sixth Circuit indicated that there was not enough information to establish probable cause but also that no good faith exception applied.

Facts:  Controlled Buys and Search Warrant, but No Evidence of Credibility of Confidential Informant

On April 24, 2019, an Officer with the Lexington Police Department applied for a warrant relating to Sanders. In the affidavit in support of the warrant, the officer stated that a confidential informant (“CI”) advised the officer that Sanders was selling heroin/fentanyl from an apartment in Yellowstone Parkway in Lexington, Kentucky. Acting on this information the officer set up a controlled purchase.

The officer provided the CI with money for the buy, and the CI proceeded to a predetermined location to purchase heroin from Sanders. Sanders arrived at the location and officers watched the CI enter and exit Sanders’ vehicle. Following the buy, the CI provided the officer with a quantity of suspected heroin/fentanyl and advised he obtained it from Sanders. Other officers followed Sanders’ vehicle which drove to the Yellowstone Parkway apartment.

The officer then set up a second controlled buy. The second purchase went down the same way as the first, with the CI and Sanders meeting as a predetermined location and the CI advising the officer that he purchased the heroin from Sanders inside Sanders’ vehicle.

Based on this information, the officer applied for a warrant to search the apartment, the vehicle, and Sanders’ person. The affidavit in support of the warrant included the officer’s averment that he received a tip from a CI that the defendant was selling heroin from his apartment. But the affidavit contained no information pertaining to the CI’s reliability.

The judge granted the officer’s warrant application and officers executed the search warrant the next day. The search of the apartment revealed controlled substances, drug paraphernalia, and firearms. Sanders was indicted for possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. The indictment did not charge Sanders with distributing the drugs sold to the CI during the two controlled buys.

Suppression Hearing Denied, Sanders Pleas but Appeals

Sanders moved to suppress all evidence and statements obtained from the execution of the warrant and requested a Franks hearing to challenge the accuracy of the officer’s surveillance referenced in the affidavit. The district court denied the motion without a hearing, determining that probable cause existed and, in the alternative, the good faith exception to suppression applied. Sanders pled guilty, but preserved his right to appeal the suppression issue.

On appeal, Sanders argued that the affidavit in support of the search warrant lacked probable cause and failed to set forth a nexus to the apartment. The Sixth Circuit noted that for a search warrant application to be valid, it must show more than that a person connected with a property is suspected of a crime-it must also establish that there is reasonable cause to believe that the specific “things” to be searched for and seized are located on the property.

Here, the officer included few facts that support a nexus between the drug evidence officers sought and the apartment to be searched, and the court of appeals concluded that the affidavit contained an insufficient nexus between the drug activity and the apartment. Further, the affidavit gave no indication as to the veracity or reliability of the CI who provided the tip.

In determining that probable cause supported the search warrant, the district court improperly relied on United States v. Sumlin, 956 F.3d 879 (6th Cir. 2020), to draw an inference about nexus. Based on Sumlin, the district court reasoned that a sufficient nexus required for probable cause existed because the affidavit contained claim that (1) a person is an active drug dealer, (2) the residence belonged to the drug dealer, and (3) drug dealers tend to store drugs in their home.

Sixth Circuit:  Affidavit did not link house to Crime, No Good Faith Exception Existed

However, the Sixth Circuit found the district court’s reading of Sumlin to be incorrect and an oversimplification of complex caselaw. The court of appeals found that the four corners of the affidavit made no indication that caused the affiant to believe that evidence of drug trafficking would be located at the apartment.

Concluding that the affidavit failed to establish a nexus between the drug activity and apartment, the court held that the police lacked probable cause to search the apartment. It next turned to the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule announced in United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984). Leon outlined four circumstances in which an officer’s reliance on a warrant that lacked probable cause would not be objectively unreasonable: (1) when the affidavit supporting the search warrant contains information that the affiant knows (or is reckless in not knowing) contains false information; (2) when the magistrate who issued the warrant wholly abandoned his neutral and detached duty; (3) when the affidavit is so lacking in indicia of probable cause that a belief in its existence is objectively unreasonable; or (4) when the warrant is so facially deficient that it cannot reasonably be presumed to be valid. At issue in this appeal was the third limitation on the good faith exception.

The court held that a review of the information presented in the affidavit shows a clear lack of factual circumstances that would support a minimally sufficient nexus. Because a reasonable officer would know that the CI’s tip should be given little weight, if any, due to its minimal trustworthiness and reliability, the court held that no reasonable officer would believe that the affidavit established probable cause to search the apartment.

Finding the affidavit in support of the search warrant lacked probable cause and did not fall into a good faith exception, the court reversed the district court’s denial of the motion to suppress and vacated Sanders’ conviction and sentence.

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