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United States v. Melton

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, London

April 8, 2019

RICKY MELTON, Defendant.


          Robert E- Wier United States District Judge.

         Defendant Ricky Melton-facing controlled substance and firearms charges (DE #20)- moved to suppress items seized and statements allegedly made during (or derived from) execution of a July 4, 2018 search warrant at 999 Collins Fork Road in Manchester, Kentucky. DE #119. The United States opposed. DE #134. Judge Ingram held an evidentiary hearing on February 8, 2019, [1] see DE #150 (Minutes), and (after thorough analysis) recommended denial, see DE #152 (R&R). Defendant timely objected (DE #155), and the United States responded to Melton's objections (DE #159).

         The Court, independently reviewing the matter but agreeing with Judge Ingram, DENIES suppression. The state judge had a substantial basis for warrant issuance. The warrant was adequately particular, and law enforcement remained within the warrant's proper scope. Though blemished, the warrant application, accepted by a neutral, warrant-issuing judge, provides good faith cover for the police. For these reasons, the search and resultant statements avoid exclusion.

         The Court reviews de novo portions of the R&R to which Melton specifically objects. See United States v. Quinney, 238 Fed.Appx. 150, 152 (6th Cir. 2007) (citing United States v. Curtis, 237 F.3d 598, 603 (6th Cir. 2001)); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) (directing district judges to “make a de novo determination of those portions of the [magistrate judge's] report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made”); Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(b)(3). The Court is not required to “review . . . a magistrate[] [judge]'s factual or legal conclusions, under a de novo or any other standard, when neither party objects to those findings.” Thomas v. Arn, 106 S.Ct. 466, 472 (1985). Where parties do not object to the R&R, they waive any right to review. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(b)(2); United States v. White, 874 F.3d 490, 495 (6th Cir. 2017) ("When a party . . . fails to lodge a specific objection to a particular aspect of a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, we consider that issue forfeited on appeal."); see also United States v. Branch, 537 F.3d 582, 587 (6th Cir. 2008) (noting that "[t]he law in this Circuit is clear" that a party who fails to object to a magistrate judge's recommendation forfeits his right to appeal its adoption). Melton objects to three of Judge Ingram's findings: (1) that the warrant described the residence with constitutionally sufficient particularity (and, relatedly, that the warrant properly authorized law enforcement's search of surrounding structures/vehicles on Melton's property); (2) that the supporting affidavit adequately demonstrated probable cause; and (3) that, regardless of the first two conclusions, the Leon good-faith exception precludes exclusion of the evidence.

         I. Warrant Particularity and Scope of Search

         At the outset, Melton and the United States agree that two aspects of the warrant's premises description lacked the ideal degree of clarity-first, the warrant references a double-wide trailer, while Melton's property instead houses a single-wide trailer, and second, the photograph attached to the affidavit does little to aid identification of the residence. See DE #119-4 at 1 (warrant's description of residence); DE #119-3 at 10 (photograph accompanying affidavit). However, the parties also agree that several other (in the Court's view, more critical) aspects of the description were indisputably correct: the fact that the property was Melton's residence, its address (street name, number, city, and zip code), the listed specific travel directions to the property, identification of auxiliary structures on the property (including “a large metal garage” and “two camper trailers”), and the notation that the residence was “located under a hill[.]” DE #119-3 at 1. Judge Ingram found that, as a whole, the warrant described the premises with sufficient particularity and that the auxiliary structures were properly within the scope of the permissible search. See DE #152 at 6-7. Melton first argues that the Fourth Amendment is unambiguous and case law is thus irrelevant to (or perhaps violative of) the particularity dictates. DE #155 at 2-3. The Fourth Amendment guarantees, in pertinent part, that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. In context, Melton advocates for a hyper-technical reading of the word “particularly”-which binding precedent expressly rejects in favor of a practical approach. The proper inquiry “‘is not whether the description is technically accurate in every detail' . . . but rather whether the description is sufficient ‘to enable the executing officer to locate and identify the premises with reasonable effort, and whether there is any reasonable probability that another premises might be mistakenly searched.'” United States v. Durk, 149 F.3d 464, 465 (6th Cir. 1998) (quoting United States v. Prout, 526 F.2d 380, 387-88 (5th Cir. 1976) and United States v. Gahagan, 865 F.2d 1490, 1496 (6th Cir. 1989)); see also United States v. Crumpton, 824 F.3d 593, 612 (6th Cir. 2016) (quoting Knott v. Sullivan, 418 F.3d 561, 568-69 (6th Cir. 2005)). Particularity is not the same as perfection.

         The sole error in the warrant's description-misidentification of Melton's residence as a double-wide rather than single-wide trailer-is functionally insignificant against the backdrop of accurate details provided. Given the correct (and comprehensive) travel directions, street address, and listing of identifiable auxiliary structures on the property, there was ample information to enable the executing officer to locate the property with ease, and there was no reasonable probability that another property would be mistakenly searched.[2] See United States v. Howard, 621 F.3d 433, 456 (6th Cir. 2010) (considering misidentification of a residence as a “single parcel” when, in fact, the residence consisted of two mobile homes a “minor, technical inaccuracy”); see also Durk, 149 F.3d at 466 (finding a warrant with a transposed house number and incorrect directional descriptor of “east” versus “west” but with otherwise accurate details valid); accord United States v. Pelayo-Landero, 285 F.3d 491, 496-97 (6th Cir. 2002) (same). And, notably, as the executing officer in Melton's case (Detective Raleigh Benge) was also the affiant, the risk of an errant search was further reduced (compare DE #119-3 at 1 with DE #119-4 at 5-6). See, e.g., Durk, 149 F.3d at 466 (noting as significant that “the executing officer in this case was also the affiant”); Crumpton, 824 F.3d at 612 (finding a warrant valid where, despite an incorrect address, it “include[d] other specific descriptors that remove[d] the probability that the wrong location could be searched, especially when the warrant affiant participate[d] in the execution of the search”); accord United States v. Hang Le-Thy Tran, 433 F.3d 472, 480 (6th Cir. 2006) (same). Nor does the blurry photograph detract from the sufficiency of the description. It is perhaps largely unhelpful, but not inaccurate, and Melton offers no authority (and the Court independently locates none) requiring a photograph of the premises at all. The trailer as depicted would surely be recognizable on approach.

         Melton next objects to the scope of the search, which (per the inventory) extended beyond the main single-wide trailer to a camper, gray storage shed, blue Ford Ranger truck, and green garage on the property. See DE #119-4 at 6-11. Although Melton objects generally to the R&R's conclusion that these were all within the warrant's parameters, he does not dispute any of Judge Ingram's factual bases or substantively engage with the required analysis. First, the warrant expressly permitted executing officers to search “any and all vehicles located on the premises[]” and “any and all persons on the premises[.]” DE #119-3 at 1-2; DE #119-4 at 2. Despite Melton's untethered characterization of this as “form language[, ]” see DE #155 at 4, there are several case-specific references to vehicles and additional structures on the property: “The residence has a gravel driveway that leads into a parking lot that contains numerous vehicles. There is also a large metal garage located on the property along with what appears to be two camper trailers.” DE #119-4 at 1. The warrant further specifically authorizes the search of “any storage contrainer [sic] or outbuilding located on the property[.]” Id. at 2.[3] And, the supporting affidavit explicitly states that the informant conducted drug transactions with Melton inside the garage on the property. See DE #119-3 at 6. As Judge Ingram noted (and is undisputed), the shed, garage, camper, and truck were all commonly accessible from the gravel driveway and encircled within the tree line along the perimeter of the bounded property. See DE #152 at 10; see also DE #134-9 (aerial photograph of the property).

         Melton (cursorily) argues that the warrant's identification of the “residence of Ricky Melton” necessarily limits its scope to the dwelling itself (despite the warrant's explicit inclusion of auxiliary buildings and vehicles). Considerable authority compels the opposite conclusion- that a “residence” identified by street number is broadly construed as including all structures within its curtilage. See, e.g., United States v. Paull, 551 F.3d 516, 523 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting United States v. Watkins, 179 F.3d 489, 506 (6th Cir. 1999) (Boggs, J., concurring)) (“Our law presumes . . . that ‘a warrant for the search of a specified residence or premises authorizes the search of auxiliary and outbuildings within the curtilage.'”)); id. at 524 (quoting Watkins, 179 F.3d at 506) (“The weight of the authority is clear that when searching for small portable items such as drugs and records, there is no need to provide separate probable cause or identification of auxiliary structures.”); United States v. Biles, 100 Fed.Appx. 484, 491 (6th Cir. 2004); United States v. Carmack, No. 08-cr-50-GFVT, 2009 WL 8753386, at *2 (E.D. Ky. Jan. 13, 2009), aff'd, 426 Fed.Appx. 378 (6th Cir. 2011) (collecting cases). Here, the warrant textually extends to outbuildings and vehicles on the premises to be searched.[4]

         Melton next challenges whether the (undisputed) facts support a finding that the outbuildings and vehicle were within the curtilage of the Collins Fork Road residence. The Court considers (to the extent these factors illuminate “whether the area in question is so intimately tied to the home itself that it should be placed under the home's ‘umbrella' of Fourth Amendment Protection”): (1) the proximity of the area to the home; (2) whether the area is included in an enclosure surrounding the home; (3) the nature of the area's uses; and (4) whether the homeowner has taken steps to protect the area from the view of passersby. United States v. Jenkins, 124 F.3d 768, 772 (6th Cir. 1997) (quoting United States v. Dunn, 107 S.Ct. 1134 1139-40 (1987)). The curtilage inquiry is commonsense and practical. See Id. (quoting Oliver v. United States, 104 S.Ct. 1735, 1743 (1984)).

         The unchallenged photographic evidence demonstrates that the campers, shed, garage, and vehicles were all in close proximity. See DE #134-9 (aerial photograph); DE #134-8 (photograph showing the blue truck parked in front of the single-wide trailer); DE #134-6 (showing two campers parked directly adjacent to the single-wide trailer). The gravel drive identified in the warrant's description commonly connected all auxiliary structures and vehicles. See DE #134-9; DE #119-4. The affidavit indicated fluidity of use between the garage and residential trailer, stating that the informant observed Melton walk from the garage to the residence and back to obtain additional cash during the course of a single drug transaction (which, also, further highlights the proximity of the structures). See DE #119-3 at 6. And, as Judge Ingram pointed out, trees surround the entire property and bound the structures and vehicles. DE #152 at 10; DE #134-9. Additionally, it does not appear that any of the auxiliary structures or vehicles were separated from the dwelling or hidden from view relative to the dwelling, and the photographic and video evidence, in fact, indicate the opposite. Accordingly, the surrounding structures and vehicles on the property- which the warrant scope expressly included-were within the curtilage of the Melton residence. Moreover, the accompanying affidavit[5] indicated the garage's intimate connection to the suspected drug activity; thus, given all circumstances, executing officers were authorized to search the other structures (and vehicles) for portable evidence of drug activity. See Paull, 551 F.3d at 524.

         II. Probable Cause

         Judge Ingram concluded that the supporting affidavit-which relied on information obtained from a confidential source of information (SOI#1)-was sufficient to establish probable cause under proper review standards. See DE #152 at 5. Melton argues that: (1) there was neither sufficient indication of SOI#1's reliability nor adequate independent corroboration of SOI#1's statements; and (2) regardless, the SOI's reports lacked the necessary detail to establish probable cause.

         Probable cause assessment is limited “to the four corners of the affidavit; information known to the officer but not conveyed to the magistrate is irrelevant.” United States v. Brooks, 594 F.3d 488, 492 (6th Cir. 2010) (citing United States v. Pinson, 321 F.3d 558, 565 (6th Cir. 2003)). To establish probable cause, “an affidavit must show a likelihood of two things: first, that the items sought are ‘seizable by virtue of being connected with criminal activity'; and second, ‘that the items will be found in the place to be searched.'” United States v. Abernathy, 843 F.3d 243, 249 (6th Cir. 2016) (quoting United States v. Church, 823 F.3d 351, 355 (6th Cir. 2016)). Where, as here, the objects of the search are contraband or drugs, the first prong is satisfied, and the affidavit need only demonstrate “‘a fair probability' that the drugs ‘will be found in a particular place.'” Church, 823 F.3d at 355 (quoting Illinois v. Gates, 103 S.Ct. 2317, 2332 (1983)). This “fair probability” showing requires “more than mere suspicion” but “less than prima facie proof[.]” Abernathy, 843 F.3d at 249. “Whether the affidavit gives rise to this fair probability ‘depends on the totality of the circumstances.'” Brooks, 594 F.3d at 493 (quoting United States v. Frazier, 423 F.3d 526, 531 (6th Cir. 2005)). Judge Ingram appropriately viewed the record through a lens that ensures deference to the issuing court, ...

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