from the United States District Court for the Western
District of Michigan at Grand Rapids. No.
1:15-cv-00078-Gordon J. Quist, District Judge.
Nicholas Bostic, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellants.
T. Froehlich, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL,
Lansing, Michigan, for Appellee.
Before: BOGGS, BATCHELDER, and BUSH, Circuit Judges.
K. BUSH, Circuit Judge.
appeal requires us to determine the extent of the Fourth
Amendment's requirements for an affidavit supporting a
warrant to search the residence of an individual suspected of
committing a crime involving the use of a computer.
issue figures prominently in Plaintiffs Julie and Jesse
Peffer's appeal of the district court's grant of
summary judgment in favor of Defendant Mike Stephens, a
detective sergeant with the Michigan State Police, as to the
Peffers' 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim. This claim arises
from a search of the Peffers' home in Reed City,
Michigan, and from the seizure of computer equipment and
other items and documents from this residence pursuant to a
warrant issued on the basis of Sergeant Stephens's sworn
affidavit. According to the Peffers, the affidavit (which was
incorporated into the warrant by reference) failed to support
a finding of probable cause for the search and seizure
because it did not sufficiently allege any criminal activity
or any connection between such activity and the house.
district court granted summary judgment for Sergeant
Stephens, holding that the warrant was supported by probable
cause and that, in the alternative, Sergeant Stephens was
entitled to qualified immunity. For the reasons explained below,
the district court granted summary judgment, we review the
facts "in the light most favorable to the nonmoving
party." Tennial v. United Parcel Serv., Inc.,
840 F.3d 292, 301 (6th Cir. 2016). Briefly stated, the
relevant facts are these:
March 2011, Mr. Peffer met Tom Beemer at Beemer's
medical-marijuana dispensary, where Mr. Peffer was purchasing
medical marijuana. By June 2011, Mr. Peffer had become a
caregiver for several medical-marijuana patients, for whom he
grew marijuana sufficient to cover their medical-marijuana
needs. Based on his understanding of state law, when Mr.
Peffer's marijuana plants produced more marijuana than
was needed for his patients, he would sell the excess to
Beemer to be sold at Beemer's dispensary.
to Mr. Peffer, Beemer became a confidential informant for
both the Central Michigan Enforcement Team and the Traverse
Narcotics Team ("CMET" and "TNT, "
respectively). Beemer attempted to persuade Mr. Peffer to
sell him more marijuana than was allowed under the Michigan
Medical Marihuana Act, an offer that Mr. Peffer declined. On
June 13, 2012, having become suspicious of Beemer's
actions, Mr. Peffer agreed to meet with him. While en route,
Mr. Peffer was the subject of a traffic stop executed by
Officers Coon, King, and Edinger. The officers found fifteen
ounces of marijuana in Mr. Peffer's vehicle. At that
time, Mr. Peffer had six patients, which he understood to
allow him to possess a total of fifteen ounces of marijuana,
based on a calculation of 2.5 ounces of marijuana per
patient. As of June 1, however, he had only three patients
who were medical-marijuana eligible, thereby lowering the
quantity of marijuana he could possess under Michigan law to
7.5 ounces. The officers arrested and charged Mr. Peffer with
possession with intent to distribute and conspiracy to
February 22 and 25, 2013, the Mecosta Osceola Office of Child
Services and the Reed City Public School District received
typewritten letters, both dated February 21 and purporting to
be from Jason Coon of CMET. Coon was one of the officers who
had arrested Mr. Peffer, though he was not identified as such
in the letters. Although not identical, the letters were
similar in content. They suggested that a Mr. Thomas A.
Beemer had been engaged in the distribution of controlled
substances but had "in exchange for immunity/leniency in
sentencing . . . agreed to become a confidential
informant." The letters went on to express concern for
the welfare of Beemer's children.
Coon denied writing or sending the letters. Sergeant Lator,
who was assigned to investigate the letters, suspected that
the sender was someone with whom Officer Coon had interacted
during his time assigned to CMET. Based on his CMET
experience, Officer Coon thought Mr. Peffer to be the primary
suspect. Trooper Glentz, who later assumed responsibility for
the investigation, followed up with Officer Coon. The latter
justified his suspicion of Mr. Peffer on the grounds that
Beemer had been instrumental in setting up a sting operation
that resulted in Mr. Peffer's arrest before the
suspicious letters were sent, and that Mr. Peffer had lived
in Reed City.
West, who assisted in the investigation, identified five
possible suspects, two of whom were the Peffers. Two of the
other suspects had been arrested in circumstances similar to
Mr. Peffer's, based on information received from Beemer.
The third suspect had been arrested on his way to sell
cocaine to Beemer, and, although the record does not directly
indicate that Beemer provided information that led to that
arrest, the substantial similarities among the four arrests
suggest this to be the case.
March 29, 2014, Trooper Glentz received two packages in the
mail, each of which contained what appeared to be marijuana
seeds. The packages had been returned for insufficient
postage to Trooper Glentz's residence, which was the
return address on the packages. Trooper Glentz denied that he
sent the packages.
16, 2014, in exchange for the prosecutor's dropping the
other charges against him, Mr. Peffer pleaded no contest to
the making of false pretenses in relation to his June 13,
2014, Sergeant Stephens was contacted by Lieutenant Abendroth
of CMET, who informed him that a number of fliers of two
types had been mailed to businesses and residences in the
areas of Grand Rapids and Reed City. The first type of flier
contained a picture of Beemer, identifying him as a
confidential informant, an ostensibly official list of
charges against Beemer that had been ordered nolle prossed,
and a request to contact CMET or TNT should readers have any
information concerning Beemer. The second type of flier
contained the same picture and list of charges, but also
included the following message: "Hi, my name is Tom
Beemer. I owned a dispensary in Big Rapids and was shut down
because of the charges listed below. Peter Jaklevic as
prosecutor set me free. Please vote for Peter Jaklevic for
District Judge. Friend of criminals."
Abendroth told Sergeant Stephens that he believed that Mr.
Peffer had authored the fliers, as well as the earlier
letters, because Mr. Peffer was the only individual about
whom Beemer had provided information to both CMET and TNT.
Additionally, the original letters had been sent at
approximately the same time that Mr. Peffer became aware that
Beemer had provided information to the police, and the fliers
dated from around the time of Mr. Peffer's sentencing,
which Jaklevic had attended. Because the other three suspects
were involved only with CMET, but not TNT, Sergeant Stephens
decided not to investigate them further.
31, 2014, Sergeant Stephens obtained a warrant from a
magistrate to search a house located at 21271 Bierri Road in
Reed City. This residence was owned in fee simple by Mr. and
Mrs. Peffer. Sergeant Stephens's affidavit provided
details as to the letters that had been sent, the suspected
marijuana seeds, the fliers, and the potential connections
between Mr. Peffer and the mailings. The warrant authorized
the following personal property to be searched for at the
house and, if found, to be seized and searched: (1)
"records, files, or documents pertaining to Thomas Owen
Beemer and his role as a confidential informant and/or
dismissal of charges in" certain courts, with
"documents" described as including "records or
documents which were created, modified . . . or interpreted
by a computer" and more specifically identified to
include certain computer hardware, computer-related
equipment, peripheral and storage devices, software and other
items used for computer operation, communication, encryption,
and access, as well as electronic mail ("e-mail")
and other electronically stored communications or messages;
and (2) "[a]ny and all mailing items including but not
limited to envelopes, address labels, and stamps that match
the items seized in this investigation." The magistrate
issued the warrant, finding that probable cause existed for
the specified searches and seizures based on the affidavit in
which Sergeant Stephens detailed his assertion of probable
cause that the house "may contain evidence of the crime
of Impersonating a Police Officer and Witness
Intimidation." The warrant did not rely on evidence
related to marijuana cultivation, possession, or distribution
as a basis for finding probable cause for any search or
same day the warrant issued, Sergeant Stephens and five other
officers with CMET and TNT executed the warrant on the Bierri
Road residence. The officers seized a number of items,
including a laptop, two computer towers, two printers, a
digital video recorder, an audio recorder, and a number of
envelopes, stamps, and papers. After the subsequent
investigation of the seized items concluded, prosecutors
declined to pursue any criminal charges against the Peffers.
January 28, 2015, the Peffers sued Sergeant Stephens and
other defendants, alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. §
1983 stemming from the traffic stop of June 13, 2012, and the
home search of July 31, 2014, as well as violations of
Michigan law relating to the State's retention of money
and goods belonging to the Peffers.
pertinent to this appeal, the Peffers alleged that Sergeant
Stephens's affidavit lacked facts sufficient to support
the magistrate's finding that there was probable cause to
search the Bierri Road residence because the affidavit failed
to establish that a crime had been committed or that a nexus
existed between the alleged crimes and the house, in part
because it failed to establish probable cause to believe that
Mr. Peffer had committed the alleged crimes. The Peffers
further alleged that Sergeant Stephens's reliance on the
warrant was unreasonable, rendering qualified immunity
district court rejected both arguments and granted Sergeant
Stephens's motion for summary judgment, and the Peffers
review de novo a district court's grant of summary
judgment. Watson v. Cartee, 817 F.3d 299, 302 (6th
Cir. 2016). Summary judgment is appropriate when "no
genuine dispute as to any material fact" exists and the
moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine dispute of material fact exists
"if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could
return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson
v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).
Fourth Amendment begins: "The right of the people to be
secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against
unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be
violated." U.S. Const. amend. IV. "Where a search
is undertaken by law enforcement officials to discover
evidence of criminal wrongdoing, . . . reasonableness
generally requires the obtaining of a judicial warrant."
Vernonia Sch. Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646, 653
(1995). Here, the parties do not dispute that a search
warrant was required. See generally Kentucky v.
King, 563 U.S. 452, 459 (2011) ("It is a basic
principle of Fourth Amendment law, we have ...