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Consent search upheld, with thorny questions of revocation and authority avoided by resort to independent-source doctrine

The Third Circuit, in U.S. v. Price, No. 06-4503 (3/3/09), has upheld the denial of a motion to suppress evidence found in a defendant's home, which was searched after state agents gained consent -- under disputed circumstances -- from the defendant's wife. The case ultimately boiled down to whether the consent was voluntarily given, and the court held that it was. The court avoided some difficult issues of revocation and authority by relying on the independent-source exception to the exclusionary rule.

The defendant was arrested at work on a state warrant stemming from the sale of methamphetamine to an undercover agent. After the defendant expressed concern that his young children would be left at home alone, the agents placed him in custody, went to the house, got the mother's telephone number from the children, and summoned her to the scene. Although the agents had information that the defendant operated a meth lab in his basement (and in fact discovered meth paraphernalia on the defendant at the time of his arrest), they declined to seek the defendant's consent to search his home and instead sought it from the wife at the house. The agents told the wife that they wanted to search the house (1) to make sure it was safe for her and the children, and (2) to look for a stolen ATV. They did not tell her that they were looking for a meth lab, that incriminating evidence could be used against her and her husband, or that she had the right to refuse consent.

The wife consented to a search of the house, and let an agent into a locked bedroom where he found meth paraphernalia. She then told the agent to stop searching the house, and he obliged but asked if he could look in the basement -- where the agents thought the meth lab was all along. She said she would allow it, except for the fact that the basement door was locked, she did not have a key, and did not want the door kicked in. An agent then picked the lock, and evidence of meth manufacturing was found.

The wife was then asked to sign a written consent-to-search form, which she refused to do. The agents advised her that the house was unsafe and applied for a warrant, reciting what they saw in the basement as well as other information they obtained during the search of the house and prior to the defendant's arrest. The warrant issued, and the evidence in the basement was seized.

The Third Circuit held that the wife's original consent was voluntary because (1) police do not have to tell a subject that she has the right to refuse consent; (2) the atmosphere was not coercive; and (3) the agent's half-truth about the reasons for the search did not vitiate voluntariness.

The Court dodged what it viewed as the more difficult questions of revocation and authority to search the basement through reliance on the independent-source doctrine. In these circumstance, independent source requires findings that the police would have applied for a warrant absent the constitutional violation and that the warrant would have issued. The Court ruled that, based on everything they knew before entering the basement, the agents would have applied for the warrant even if they had not entered the basement first. The Court also ruled that the warrant application, purged of the evidence from the basement, still established probable cause.

Finally, the Court upheld the terms of an appeal waiver in the defendant's plea agreement and declined to entertain his argument that the government wrongfully withheld a motion for a third-point reduction under U.S.S.G. 3E1.1(b).

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