Wrong Address Leads Cops to Stumble Upon Cocaine - Criminal Law - U.S. Sixth Circuit
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Wrong Address Leads Cops to Stumble Upon Cocaine

The cops arrived on Hendricks Avenue in Memphis to serve an arrest warrant on Phyllis Brown, who resided at 3171 Hendricks. When the arrived, however, they were surprised to find that there was no 3171. There were, however, two 3070s.

If you are the officers in this situation, what do you do? The Sixth Circuit's Judge Sutton, in a light-hearted opinion, suggested using Google Maps -- sorry, but there's no street view for either address -- or checking to see which side of the street had odd-numbered houses.

Instead, the officers went to the house that appeared occupied. The lady who answered the door promptly slammed it in their faces. When the door was eventually re-opened, the officers declared that they had a warrant for "this address."

Except they didn't. They had a warrant for the house across the street, which was the real 3171. Instead of finding Phyllis, they found freebase, a.k.a. cocaine. Lots of it. The homeowner, Steven Shaw, was arrested, charged, and pleaded guilty to cocaine possession charges, leading to a sentence of 126 months in prison.

Was this a reasonable search and seizure?

The court took issue with the 50/50 guess that prompted the initial encounter. The officers tried offering other reasons why the search was reasonable, which the court rejected:

  • The house was occupied. The court noted, “It is quite possible, indeed, that the opposite is true - that fugitives generally do not spend a lot of time at home."
  • A woman answered the door, and the subject of the warrant was a woman. According to the court, “The apparent choice not to learn what Phyllis Brown looked like before serving this arrest warrant amounts to one more self-imposed shroud of ignorance that made other potential clues look more salient than they were."
  • The door slamming was suspicious. The court countered, “Perhaps the officers could think that this reaction showed the woman was up to no good, but it does not make her Phyllis Brown, ... it does not make the house 3171 Hendricks, and it does not by itself justify entry."
  • The officers saw scales in the house. Still no dice. “This criminal-trespassing arrest warrant had nothing to do with drug dealing, and the officers do not claim that the observation of the scale gave them exigent circumstances to enter the house."

The majority opinion can be summed up as this: Officers' laziness will not excuse the violation of Shaw's Fourth Amendment rights.

The dissent on the other hand felt that the honest mistake was a good enough reason to uphold the conviction and warned, "My colleagues raise the bar by creating an impossible and unique standard for the Fourth Amendment: because the officers got it wrong and "could have" done more to get it right, the Fourth Amendment is violated and the exclusionary rule applies. This absolutist approach is naive and contrary to the Constitution. If accepted by our circuit, it will devastate practical law enforcement."

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