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"Seemingly innocent" activity sufficient to support probable cause for search warrant in light of initial tip and subsequent police surveillance

In United States v. Stearn, 08-3230 (3d Cir. March 9, 2010), the Third Circuit reversed a district court's suppression order after concluding that the searches conducted were supported by probable cause. Based on a tip from a confidential informant that defendants Michael and Joseph Doebley were selling cocaine powder supplied to them by Edward Stearn, police officers began surveillance of the defendants' homes and vehicles. The officers observed two controlled buys of cocaine involving one of the defendants, real estate records, utility bills, and police observation corroborated the informant's statement that defendants' cocaine business operated out of a gym, and the informant demonstrated knowledge of defendants' homes, cars, and daily routines. After the surveillance was completed, officers sought search warrants for five properties and 2 vehicles owned or frequented by the defendants. A magistrate judge issued the warrants and drugs, drug paraphernalia and money were recovered from all but one residence.

The district court granted the defendants' motions to suppress the recovered evidence because it found insufficient evidence of probable cause within the supporting search warrant affidavit. The court found that the affidavit contained no evidence regarding the reliability of the informant and no information connecting any of the searched locations to actual drug dealing activity. Because the court found the affidavit's defects so severe, it perfunctorily declined to apply the Leon "good faith" exception to the exclusionary rule. Finally, the court applied its suppression order to all of the defendants without determining standing as to each individual defendant.

On appeal, the Third Circuit found the district court's across-the-board exclusionary remedy to be a fundamental error. While the government had conceded each defendant's standing to challenge one or more specified searches, it actively disputed each defendant's right to challenge all the searches. The district court's failure to account for the government's defendant-specific concessions resulted in evidence being suppressed against a defendant who did not even challenge its admissibility, much less prove an expectation of privacy therein. Notwithstanding this fundamental error by the district court, however, the Third Circuit was unable to resolve the case on the standing prong alone because of the government's concessions regarding standing for each defendant as to one or more of the searches. Thus, the Court was compelled to determine the constitutionality of each search on a defendant-specific basis.

Turning to the probable cause determination, the Third Circuit found that the district court's probable cause analysis erroneously discounted the reliability of the confidential informant where the informant's tip was corroborated in significant part by independent police observation. Officers corroborated the defendants' drug involvement through two controlled buys, real estate records, utility bills, and the informant's knowledge of the defendants' homes, vehicles, and daily activities. Although there was no direct evidence that the defendants were dealing drugs out of their homes, the Court found circumstantial corroboration of the informant's tip in the defendants' "peculiar shuttling" among their properties and their frequent stops at a gym which police had linked to two drug deals. Finally, the Court found that the district court's refusal to consider Third Circuit precedent stating that it is reasonable, under certain circumstances, to infer that drug dealers often store evidence of drug crimes in their residences resulted from an unduly restrictive parsing of the case law.

Although the Third Circuit ultimately determined that the magistrate judge had a sufficient basis for his probable cause determination, it further held that, even if probable cause was lacking, the extreme sanction of exclusion was not warranted in this case. The Court noted that exclusion is a rare circumstance where a magistrate judge has found probable cause. Here, the district court improperly truncated its good faith analysis based on its erroneous characterization of the "bare bones" nature of the affidavit and its failure to credit circumstantial corroboration of the informant's tip. Furthermore, given the complexity of the district court's probable cause analysis, it was unreasonable to expect that lay officers executing the search warrant would have reasonably believed that the magistrate judge was incorrect in his probable cause determination.

Finally, examining each property in turn, the Third Circuit concluded that the informant's tip, in conjunction with the evidence adduced by officers in subsequent investigation, afforded the magistrate with a substantial basis for determining probable cause existed to search each of the properties at issue. The Court found each residence searched to be part of a network of suspiciously titled homes connected to at least one of the three defendants whose involvement in the drug trade had been confirmed through surveillance and controlled buys. Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court's suppression order and remanded the case for further proceedings.


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