When federal charges arise from drugs recovered through a search warrant, most defendants and lawyers believe the case is “open and shut,” meaning – there is no way a judge will find that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. But that’s not always true.
On October 18, 2022, the United States District Court, Eastern Division, of the Southern District of Michigan granted a motion to suppress in favor of defendant Phillip Granger. The Detroit field office of the DEA began investigating a Drug Trafficking Organization run by Gary Lee Major. Through the investigation, DEA agents learned Watkins was a Detroit-based narcotics dealer who received large shipments of cocaine via a Mexican based source supplied to Major.
Agents began closely monitoring Watkins’ movements and conversations. Eventually, agents sought a search warrant for six locations connected to Watkins, including a Santa Rosa home. The Santa Rosa home was owned by Watkins, but the current resident of the property was Phillip Granger. Surveillance of the property revealed a vehicle registered to Granger in the driveway. In addition to stating the property was owned by Watkins, the affidavit for the search warrant included a conversation between Watkins and Granger that took place on May 19, 2016.
During the phone conversation Granger and Watkins made vague references to the backyard of the property. Saying “I got that thing” and “it’s a little bag back there.” The overall conversation was short and included no references to drug activity taking place on the property and especially not inside the home. Not only was the evidence in the affidavit limited and vague, but the search warrant obtained by the agents was not executed until six weeks later on July 7, 2016.
Motion To Suppress Evidence - Search Warrant
In Granger’s motion to suppress, he argued that the affidavit failed to provide probable cause to believe evidence of a crime would be found at his home. He further asserted that the evidence the officers relied on for probable cause was stale. Because the warrant affidavit lacked sufficient indicia of probable cause to justify reliance, the officers cannot rely on the good faith exception and the unlawfully seized evidence and statements must be suppressed as fruits of an unlawful search.
The District Court granted Granger’s motion to suppress. The court found that the affidavit failed to reference any criminal activity in relation the Santa Rosa residence and lacked any statement form the affiant as to why he believed the residence could possibly be related to the alleged crime. The court went on to say that even if the magistrate believed the phone call provided enough evidence that they were discussing drugs, it still would not support an assertion that drugs may be found inside the residence. In simpler terms, the court stated that simply communicating with or occupying a residence owned by a suspect in a criminal drug investigation is not enough to allow a search warrant of the residence.
In addition, the court said the search was unconstitutional because it relied on stale information. In the context of drug crimes, information goes stale very quickly because drugs are usually sold and consumed in a prompt fashion. Thus, because the phone call occurred on May 19th and officers did not seek a search warrant until July 7th, any evidence obtained from the phone call would have gone stale at that time.
Evidence Excluded - Unconstitutional Search
Finally, the court stated the government could not prevent the evidence from being excluded because the officers did not act in good faith. The court found this warrant was so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence entirely unreasonable. Therefore, the suspected narcotics, firearm, paraphernalia, and several incriminating statements made by Granger as a result of the unconstitutional search had to be thrown out and could not be used against him at trial.
After the court granted Granger’s motion to suppress, in December 2022, the government ultimately decided to drop all charges against him with prejudice. If you believe you may have been the subject of an unconstitutional search, call criminal defense attorney Joe Edwards at (614) 309-0243.