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United States v. Holtzclaw

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

June 4, 2018



          Hon. Marsha J. Pechman, United States Senior District Court Judge

         As part of an investigation into a fatal shooting, law enforcement sought and received a search warrant from a Magistrate in Rowan County authorizing a search of 1508 Lakewood Drive, Salisbury, North Carolina, on December 4, 2016. (Doc. 14-1.) The warrant was issued on the application and affidavit of a detective with the Salisbury Police Department. (Id.) Defendant Aaron Darius Holtzclaw (“Defendant”) challenges the search warrant on the basis that the warrant fails to establish probable cause for the search. (Doc. 14.) Defendant's objection to the warrant is broad, however, the primary focus of the objection is that the affidavit supporting the warrant would not “lead a person of reasonable caution to conclude that evidence of the shooting would be found inside 1508 Lakewood Drive.” (Id. at 5.) For the reasons stated herein, this court concludes that the warrant in question lacked probable cause to search 1508 Lakewood Drive and requests supplemental briefing from the parties on the good faith exception to the warrant requirement.


         A. Probable Cause

         “[P]robable cause to search . . . exist[s] where the known facts and circumstances are sufficient to warrant a man of reasonable prudence in the belief that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found[.]” Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 696 (1996) (citation omitted). “Probable cause to search exists when . . . the totality of the circumstances[] are sufficient to lead a prudent person to believe that the items sought . . . will be present at the time and place of the search.” United States v. Suarez, 906 F.2d 977, 984 (4th Cir. 1990) (citing Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 238 (1983)). “It is established law that a warrant affidavit must set forth particular facts and circumstances underlying the existence of probable cause, so as to allow the magistrate to make an independent evaluation of the matter.” Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154, 165 (1978) (citations omitted). “When reviewing the probable cause supporting a warrant, a reviewing court must consider only the information presented to the magistrate who issued the warrant.” United States v. Wilhelm, 80 F.3d 116, 118 (4th Cir. 1996).

         The parties dispute which facts contained in the warrant are relevant to the probable cause analysis. (See Def.'s Mot. to Suppress (Doc. 14) at 5; Government's Resp. to Def.'s Mot. to Suppress (“Government's Resp.”) (Doc. 17) at 6-8.) Following review of the warrant, it appears to this court that resolution of the challenge to probable cause in this case requires a determination as to what constitutes relevant facts as opposed to unsupported conclusory statements. “Sufficient information must be presented to the magistrate to allow that official to determine probable cause; his action cannot be a mere ratification of the bare conclusions of others.” Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 239 (1983). “Under the Fourth Amendment, an officer may not properly issue a warrant to search a private dwelling unless he can find probable cause therefor from facts or circumstances presented to him under oath or affirmation. Mere affirmance of belief or suspicion is not enough.” Nathanson v. United States, 290 U.S. 41, 47 (1933).

         B. Good-Faith Exception

         In United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984), the Supreme Court established the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. This exception comes into play when officers act in reasonable reliance on a search warrant that is later found to be unsupported by probable cause. Id.

The Court identified four circumstances in which the good-faith exception would not apply: (1) “if the magistrate or judge in issuing a warrant was misled by information in an affidavit that the affiant knew was false or would have known was false except for his reckless disregard of the truth;” (2) if “the issuing magistrate wholly abandoned his judicial role in the manner condemned in Lo-Ji Sales, Inc. v. New York;” (3) if the affidavit supporting the warrant is “so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence entirely unreasonable;” and (4) if under the circumstances of the case the warrant is “so facially deficient - i.e., in failing to particularize the place to be searched or the things to be seized - that the executing officers cannot reasonably presume it to be valid.”

United States v. DeQuasie, 373 F.3d 509, 519 (4th Cir. 2004) (citations and footnote omitted). In considering whether an officer relied on a warrant in good faith, “a court may properly look beyond the facts stated in the affidavit and consider uncontroverted facts known to the officers but inadvertently not disclosed to the magistrate.” United States v. McKenzie-Gude, 671 F.3d 452, 459 (4th Cir. 2011). In any of the four above-listed circumstances, the good-faith exception does not apply, and any evidence gathered pursuant to the deficient warrant must be excluded from trial. United States v. Andrews, 577 F.3d 231, 236 (4th Cir. 2009).


         The particular facts and circumstances described in the affidavit attached to the application for the search warrant begin with a statement that on December 4, 2016, a shooting occurred at the Firewater Restaurant and Lounge; one person was killed. (Mot. to Suppress, Ex. A, Search Warrant (Doc. 14-1) at 6-7.)[1] According to the officer, multiple witnesses identified Defendant as present during the shooting. (Id. at 7.) At some time following the shooting, the affidavit alleges that Defendant was located by law enforcement officers at his residence at 1508 Lakewood Drive in Salisbury. (Id.) While at the residence with the officers, Defendant “stated that he was at Firewater at the time of the shooting.” (Id.) Defendant also stated he was driving a black jeep rental car which “was shot into during the shooting at Firewater.” (Id.) According to the affidavit, “Detectives verified this and observed a bullet hole in the drivers [sic] side of the windshield . . . .” (Id.) While still at the residence, Defendant further stated that “people were making threats to him on social media” but the affidavit does not describe the nature of the threats or what may have been said as a threat. (Id.) Defendant said the phone he uses on social media was broken and then said he lost it. (Id. at 7-8.)

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. ...

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