Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Sixth Circuit Excludes Evidence After Officers Search Wrong House

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently heard an interesting case out of Tennessee involving evidence that was uncovered during the search of a house that occurred after executing an arrest warrant at the wrong address.

The case, U.S. v. Shaw, began when Memphis police officers were dispatched to to arrest Phyllis Brown at her home. The problem was that the woman’s address, 3171 Hendricks Avenue, did not appear to exist. When the officers arrived on the street they discovered that there were two houses across from one another that both listed their address as 3170 Hendricks Avenue. Instead of clarifying the problem through investigation, the police chose to simply approach one of the two houses--the one that appeared to be occupied.

The police knocked on the door and were greeted by a woman. Rather than asking about Phyllis Brown or checking about the confused addresses, they only told the woman that they had a warrant for the address. It turns out the house they had selected was actually 3170.

Unfortunately for the woman at home, she never bothered to question the officers or demand to see the warrant. Instead, she let them in the house where they discovered a substantial amount of cocaine and no Phyllis Brown.

Rather than admit the misidentification with the adress, the government claimed that it had several really good reasons why the officers’ entry into the house was reasonable. They claimed that because it was occupied, a woman answered the door, the officers saw scales inside the house and finally, and because the odds were 50/50 that they had the right house, the execution of the warrant should be deemed reasonable. 

The Sixth Circuit disagreed with the government’s rationale, deciding that none of the justifications were sufficient. Instead, the Court said that the police lacked any reasonable basis for entering the house and that the evidence gathered would be suppressed.

The Sixth Circuit took special care to address the false statements made by the officers to gain entrance to the house. Not only did the officers lie once, saying that they had a warrant to search “this address,” but they continued their lie once inside, saying that they were there looking for the house located at 3170 Hendricks. The officers said their goal in misleading the woman was to then force her to admit that she was actually in 3171 Hendricks. Regardless, the Court said the officers behaved inappropriately and that all evidence derived from searches based on false pretenses will be excluded at trial. 

To read the full opinion, click here.

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