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United States v. Suggs.

No. 19-1487. D.Colo. Judge Baldock. Fourth Amendment—Particularity Requirement—Severability Doctrine—Good Faith Exception to Exclusionary Rule.

May 31, 2021

A pedestrian wanted to cross a street at the same time a vehicle driver wanted to turn right. They had a verbal altercation, and the driver pulled out a gun and shot at the pedestrian. The bullet missed, and the vehicle sped off. The pedestrian called 911.

Based on the vehicle description received from witnesses, law enforcement focused its investigation on defendant. An officer applied for an arrest warrant and a search warrant. The search warrant application requested authority to search defendant’s home for enumerated items on attachment B, including “any item identified as being involved in crime.” The district court issued a search warrant for defendant’s home that incorporated attachment B, but the officer’s affidavit, which detailed the circumstances of the shooting and the investigation, was not expressly incorporated in the warrant.

Defendant was arrested at a gas station close to his home. Officers then went to defendant’s home to execute the search warrant. Officers conducted a protective sweep, and in the process, shined a flashlight in the window of an SUV parked under the carport and saw two guns and ammunition. Upon searching the residence, officers found a box of ammunition that matched the ammunition used in the shooting. Officers procured a warrant to search the SUV and located several firearms and ammunition.

Defendant was charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon under 18 USC § 922(g)(1). Defendant moved to suppress the evidence found from searches of his home and the SUV, asserting that the warrant violated the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement. The district court denied the motion, and the jury convicted defendant.

Defendant argued on appeal that the search warrant lacked particularity, rendering the search of his home unconstitutional and requiring suppression of the evidence discovered as a result. A search warrant must describe the items to be seized with as much specificity as possible. A warrant may satisfy the particularity requirement if it constrains the search to evidence of a specific crime in a way that sufficiently narrows language that, on its face, sweeps too broadly.  Here, the warrant targeted some particular items but included the catch-all phrase “any item identified as being involved in crime.” The warrant did not reference any specific offense, so the catch-all phrase cannot be read to authorize a search only for evidence related to the vehicle shooting. Accordingly, the warrant to search defendant’s home did not meet the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement. And while a supporting affidavit can cure a lack of particularity, the particularity in the officer’s affidavit could not cure the warrant defect here because the warrant did not expressly incorporate the affidavit.

The Tenth Circuit also considered whether the severability doctrine could save the warrant. Under this doctrine a court can sever a warrant’s offending portion to suppress evidence collected under it and admit evidence collected under the valid portions. But blanket suppression is still required if the warrant’s invalid portions so predominate that the warrant authorizes a general exploratory rummaging in a person’s belongings. Here, some categories of items to be searched for and seized under the warrant are valid and distinguishable from the categories of the warrant that are invalid, but the valid portions of the warrant do not make up the greater part of the warrant. Accordingly, the warrant empowered officers to search for evidence of any crime, and it is therefore invalid and non-severable.

Lastly, the Tenth Circuit considered whether the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied. Because the trial court did not make any factual findings on this issue, the Tenth Circuit concluded that a remand was appropriate to determine the issue.

The denial of defendant’s suppression motion was vacated and the case was remanded.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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