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United States v. Saunders

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

August 27, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
JAMES ALBERT SAUNDERS, III, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION (DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR A HEARING PURSUANT TO FRANKS V. DELAWARE AND MOTION TO SUPPRESS EVIDENCE)

          Henry E. Hudson, Senior United States District Judge

         This case was before the Court on August 6, 2019, on the Defendant's Motion for a Hearing Pursuant to Franks v. Delaware ("Motion," ECF No. 13) and Motion to Suppress Evidence ("Motion to Suppress," ECF No. 14). In his memorandum supporting his Motion, the Defendant maintained that information contained in the challenged search warrant affidavit (the "Affidavit") contained material misrepresentations that were either false, in reckless disregard for the truth, or omitted material facts. The United States responded that any errors of fact in the Affidavit were either unintentional or superfluous to a finding of probable cause.

         After hearing oral argument, the Court denied both of the Defendant's Motions and briefly articulated its findings. The Court concluded that the pivotal question was whether or not there was deliberate recklessness or intentional falsehood on the part of the affiant. Upon review of the evidence, the Court concluded that the errors of fact in the Affidavit were arguably the product of negligence, but did not amount to intentional falsehood. This memorandum provides a more detailed explanation of the Court's reasoning.

         The Affidavit at issue had three central components supporting probable cause to conduct a search of the apartment occupied by the Defendant. First, it disclosed that on September 4, 2018, Richmond City Police "received a narcotics complaint from a citizen stating that the listed address of 3308 Cliff Ave is a narcotic house." (Def.'s Mot. 3, ECF No. 13.) The second paragraph stated that

On 09/05/2018, Utilizing criminal intelligence databases, combined with personal observation, this Affiant has identified residents and possible suspects living at 3308 Cliff Ave as Jamar L Blount DOB XX/XX/1986 SSNXXX-XX-0154. A trash pull was attempted on this address and the cans were not out. Mr. Blount has several narcotic arrests for PWID of schedule I/II.

(Id.) And lastly, the Affidavit disclosed that

On 09/19/2018, this affiant responded to 3308 Cliff Ave to conduct trash pulls. While searching through the trash this affiant located a large amount of plastic baggies with twisted and torn off corners. Inside of some of the plastic baggies, I observed white residue inside believed to be a schedule I/II narcotic. The amount of plastic baggies is consistent with distribution and sale of narcotics.

(Id.)

         Integral to the Defendant's Motion was his contention that the affiant, Christopher Brown, a Richmond City Police Officer, intentionally made false statements and omitted relevant information in drafting the Affidavit supporting the issuance of the search warrant. The Defendant urged the Court to conduct a Franks hearing to allow the Defendant to further develop his contention that the Affidavit contained material misrepresentations. Specifically, that the affiant, utilizing criminal intelligence databases combined with personal observation, identified Jamar L. Blount ("Blount") as residing at 3308 Cliff Avenue. Counsel for the Defendant presented documentary evidence revealing that Blount had been in the continuous custody of either the Richmond City jail or the Virginia Department of Corrections from January 10, 2013, up to and including the date of the Affidavit. Counsel for the Defendant also pointed out that the criminal intelligence database utilized by Officer Brown, which indicated the Blount resided at 3308 Cliff Avenue, was several years old and arguably outdated. The database, however, had a notation that Blount had last been seen on September 4, 2018, but did not indicate by whom. In Defendant's view, the inaccurate representation in the Affidavit that Blount resided at 3308 Cliff Avenue was a knowing and intentional falsehood on the part of Officer Brown.

         While not contesting the inaccuracy of the statement in the Affidavit as to Blount's residence at 3308 Cliff Avenue, the United States argued that the evidence did not support the requisite finding that the inaccuracy was a deliberate falsehood, or made in reckless disregard for the truth. This Court agreed noting that search warrant affidavits do not require the same level of exactitude as other legal documents. See United States v. Ventresca, 380 U.S. 102, 108 (1965).

         A critical prerequisite to entitlement to a Franks hearing is a demonstration by a defendant of "a substantial preliminary showing that a false statement knowingly and intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth, was included by the affiant in the warrant affidavit . . . ." Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154, 155-56 (1978). As this Court noted on the record, there may have been a plausible argument that Officer Brown was negligent in not reviewing the records of the Richmond City Sheriffs Office and the Virginia Department of Corrections to determine if Blount was in custody. But there was no indication, or representation by counsel, that Officer Brown was aware of such information or intentionally withheld it from the magistrate issuing the search warrant. See United States v. Blauvelt, 638 F.3d 281, 289-90 (4th Cir. 2011), cert, denied, 565 U.S. 823 (2011). The record is insufficient to support a finding that Officer Brown intended to mislead the magistrate. See United States v. Lull, 824 F.3d 109, 115 (4th Cir. 2016).

         The Defendant also argues that Officer Brown's statement "[u]tilizing criminal intelligence databases, combined with personal observation, this Affiant has identified residents and possible suspects living at 3308 Cliff Ave as Jamar L Blount...", was an intentional false representation. (Def.'s Mot. 3 (emphasis added).) The Defendant maintains that this information was deceptive because there was no evidence that Officer Brown personally observed Blount at that location. However, records taken from the Richmond City Police Department database simply indicate that Blount was in fact seen at that location on September 4, 2018. The paragraph of the Affidavit containing that statement does not specifically state that Officer Brown saw him at that location, although it could be interpreted that way. It could also be reasonably read as saying some unidentified person observed Blount there. Undoubtedly, the Affidavit could have been crafted more artfully, but Officer Brown is a police officer and not an attorney. This Court therefore concluded that the Defendant had failed to make a substantial preliminary showing that a false statement was knowingly and intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth, included by the affiant in the Affidavit. For that reason, the Defendant's Motion for a Franks Hearing was denied.

         Alternatively, the United States argued that even if the information concerning Blount residing on the premises is excluded, the balance of the Affidavit would be sufficient to demonstrate probable cause, eliminating the need for a Franks hearing. Franks, 438 U.S. at 155-56; United States v. White, 850 F.3d 667, 672-73 (4th Cir. 2017), cert denied, 137 S.Ct. 2252 (2017). Likewise, inaccurate information in a search warrant affidavit will not invalidate the warrant if there is otherwise sufficient information to support probable cause. United States v. Allen, 631 F.3d 164, 172 (4th Cir. 2011).

         The government's secondary argument relies solely on the first and third paragraphs of the material facts portion of the Affidavit at issue. The first paragraph indicates that a citizen described 3308 Cliff Avenue as a narcotics house, and the third paragraph indicates that Richmond Police conducted a trash pull at 3308 Cliff Avenue and "located a large amount of plastic baggies with twisted and torn off corners. Inside of some of the plastic baggies, [the affiant] observed white residue inside believed to be a schedule I/II ...


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