Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Clear-Error Standard of Review Applies to a District Court’s Determination of Recklessness Under Franks

In United States v. Brown, No. 09-3643, the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s opinion granting the defendant’s motion to suppress a sample of his DNA pursuant to Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154 (1978).

Two men wearing masks from the movie “Scream” robbed a bank in Western Pennsylvania at gunpoint and fled to a nearby school district building, where they stole a school district van. Police found the van abandoned by the road only a half-mile from the school district building. A “Scream” mask with DNA material was later found in the van. Witnesses reported seeing a silver Volkswagen Jetta driving in the area that morning. The Jetta was described as having white license plates; one witness specifically stated that the Jetta had Maryland plates. A bank teller recognized one of the robbers’ voices as belonging to a regular customer. His acquaintance informed a State Trooper that he had a nephew (Mr. Brown) who had a silver Jetta and visited the area frequently. Further investigations revealed that Mr. Brown, a Maryland resident, may have been visiting the area on the date of the robbery, and left his uncle’s house for a few hours that morning in his silver Jetta.

The Trooper and an FBI Agent sought a warrant to obtain a DNA sample from Mr. Brown in the hopes it would match the DNA found on the “Scream” mask. The Agent never interviewed any of the witnesses. The Trooper filled him in via telephone and provided him with his written reports from the investigation. The Agent never read the witness statements and did not review the investigation reports in detail. The resulting affidavit contained an abbreviated version of the facts of the case. It also contained an averment that witnesses reported seeing the stolen school district van meet up with a silver Jetta with possible Maryland registration. The Agent failed to cross-check the affidavit’s contents with the investigation reports and never asked the Trooper to check the affidavit for accuracy. An Agent in Maryland took the affidavit to a United States Magistrate Judge, who issued the warrant. Mr. Brown’s DNA matched the DNA on the “Scream” mask.

The averment mentioned above turned out to be false. The Trooper testified at the Franks hearing that he never told the Agent that various witnesses saw the van meet up with the Jetta. The District Court granted Mr. Brown’s motion to suppress, finding that the Agent had acted with reckless disregard for the truth and that, in the absence of the “meet-up” between the vehicles, the affidavit lacked probable cause. On appeal, the government conceded falsehood and materiality under Franks and Mr. Brown conceded that the Agent’s actions were not knowing and intentional. The only issue on appeal was whether the Agent’s conduct evinced a reckless disregard for the truth.

The Third Circuit first held that the recklessness determination under Franks is subject to the clear-error standard of review. The Court explained that unlike First Amendment “actual malice” cases (from which Franks recklessness is derived) which are subject to de novo review, the exclusionary rule does not implicate a constitutional right. Rather, the recklessness inquiry goes to whether a violation of the Fourth Amendment requires exclusion of the evidence.

Applying the clear-error standard of review, the Third Circuit held that the District Court properly concluded that the recklessness standard had been met in this case. The Court reiterated that pursuant to Wilson v. Russo, 212 F.3d 781, 788 (3d Cir. 2000), “[a]n assertion is made with reckless disregard when ‘viewing all the evidence, the affiant must have entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his statements or had obvious reasons to doubt the accuracy of the information he reported.’” In doing so, the Court held that “a court may properly infer that an affiant acted with reckless disregard for the truth where his affidavit contains an averment that was without sufficient basis at the time he drafted it.” The Court reasoned that where a law enforcement officer lacks sufficient grounding to support his averment, “it constitutes an ‘obvious reason[] for doubt’ under Wilson, 212 F.3d at 788, allowing the court to infer that an affiant acted with reckless disregard for the truth.”

The Agent basically admitted on the stand that he had no basis for his assertion that the two vehicles met up. Nor was there any basis for such an averment in the materials the Trooper provided to him. Therefore, the District Court did not clearly err in finding that the Agent’s conduct rose to the level of recklessness under Franks.

Christofer Bates, E.D. Pa.

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