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United States v. Aiken

United States District Court, D. Maine

December 5, 2016




         Defendants Marquis Aiken and Joshua Bonnett are charged with possession with intent to distribute a mixture or substance containing cocaine base, and aiding and abetting such conduct, in violation of 21 U.S.C.A. § 841(a)(1) (2015) and 18 U.S.C.A. § 2 (2015). ECF No. 1. They seek to suppress all evidence obtained as a result of the search of Room 218 of a motel in Lewiston on November 7, 2014. ECF No. 49; ECF No. 53. The United States Magistrate Judge recommended that the motions to suppress be denied on the merits, ECF No. 142 at 1, to which the Government and the defendants have each filed objections. ECF No. 150; ECF No. 151; ECF No. 152. I have carefully reviewed and considered the Magistrate Judge's recommended decision and the parties' objections, and have made a de novo determination of the matters objected to, in accordance with 28 U.S.C.A. § 636(b)(1) (2015). For the reasons discussed below, I conclude that the defendants' motions to suppress should be granted.


         I make the following findings based upon my review of the evidentiary record.

         At 7:00 a.m. on November 7, 2014, Thomas Pappas, a Maine State Trooper and agent with the state drug task force, received a tip from a reliable informant that drug trafficking activity was taking place at a motel in Lewiston, Maine. ECF No. 104 at 34:14-35:2. Pappas had been to the motel many times on drug-related calls, and he knew it was common for out-of-state drug dealers to stay there. Id. at 35:17-22. The tip from the informant indicated that a man and woman in Room 216 had large bags of crack, cocaine, or heroin. Id. at 36:13-19.

         Pappas and Nicholas Gagnon, another drug task force agent, went to the motel and learned the identity of the individual who was registered as the occupant of Room 216. Id. at 37:14-20. That individual was known to Agents Pappas and Gagnon as a drug and gun trafficker in the Lewiston, Maine area. Id. at 37:24-38:3. The agents confirmed that the individual was subject to bail conditions authorizing random searches, and they decided to search him and his room for evidence of bail violations. Id. at 39:6-15.

         Wearing plain clothes, the agents knocked on the door of Room 216 at approximately 9:00 a.m. Id. at 41:4-8, 42:3. Receiving no response, they continued to knock, progressively more loudly, for up to two minutes. Id. at 41:12-24. As they knocked on the door to Room 216, the door of the adjacent room, Room 218, opened slightly. Id. at 43:3-5. The agents detected the smell of burnt marijuana emanating from Room 218. Id. at 43:13-14. They observed that the security bar lock remained in place on the door to Room 218. Id. at 43:8. Pappas did not recognize the man at the door, and he told the man that he wasn't there for him. Id. at 43:24-44:4.

         The agents continued to knock on the door of Room 216. Another confidential informant known to the agents opened the door of a room farther down the hallway, and told the agents that there were drugs in Room 216. Id. at 45:6-14. The agents did not hear any sounds coming from Room 216. As they continued to pound on the door to Room 216, the door to Room 218 again opened, this time fully, and the agents again detected the smell of burnt marijuana. Id. at 48:4-15; 101:3-7. Pappas saw defendant Joshua Bonnett standing in the doorway of Room 218, with his left hand behind the door. Id. at 49:1-4. Standing behind Bonnett inside the room was defendant Marquis Aiken, id. at 49:8-12, who was about five or ten feet from where Pappas was standing, id. at 51:4-14. Pappas and Gagnon did not recognize Bonnett, but they did recognize Aiken, who they had arrested for possession or trafficking in heroin in April, though the charge in that case had been dismissed in July.[1] Id. at 30:17, 129:23-130:6, 188:7-20. Aiken recognized the agents. Id. at 61:3-16. Aiken appeared to the agents to be very nervous. Id . 55:23-56:2, 56:24-57:3.

         Pappas identified himself as a police officer and told the men that he smelled marijuana. Id. at 52:6-7, 53:3-4. Aiken's presence in the motel room led Pappas to suspect that “there was possibly more going on inside that room besides marijuana.” Id. at 52:7-9. He wanted to investigate “what[ was] going on in that room and as to why Mr. Aiken was in that room.” Id. at 53:20-22. Bonnett remained standing at the door with his left hand behind the door, although he eventually moved his hand, dropping an unlit marijuana cigarette, and the agents could see that Bonnett was not holding a weapon. Id. at 199:19-24, 220:24-221:1, 238:17-19, 239:5-8.

         Pappas asked both men to step out of the room so that he could conduct a further investigation. Id. at 53:16-22. Aiken, who was dressed only in shorts, began to dress, putting his clothes on and then his shoes. Id. at 107:18-24; 157:8-10. When the two men did not immediately come out of the room, id. at 57:16-17, Pappas told them he was there for an investigation, that he was not going to leave, and that “either you guys come out or I'm coming in.” Id. at 57:19-22. When neither man came out of the room, Pappas and Gagnon entered through the open door. Id. at 58:4-22. Neither Aiken nor Bonnett had given the agents permission to enter the room. Id. at 155:2.

         The encounter-from when the agents first observed Aiken in the room to when the agents directed the men to exit-lasted less than one minute. Id. at 55:4-7. Pappas testified that he entered the room to make sure no one else was present, and to prevent the defendants from fleeing or destroying evidence. Id. at 63:16-17. The agents did not have their weapons drawn or visible when they entered the room. Id. at 53:8-13. When the agents entered the motel room, they understood that they lacked probable cause to arrest Bonnett or Aiken. Id. at 104:3-5, 130:23-131:4, 222:1-4.

         Once inside the room, the agents conducted a security sweep. Id. at 62:23-63:5. They did not observe any weapons or other people inside the room, id. at 65:16-21, but they did observe a bag containing a small quantity of marijuana on one of the beds, as well as a digital scale containing white powder on the top of a nightstand between the two beds, id. at 68:8-12, 166:12-18.

         At this point, Aiken started yelling nonsensically and Bonnett began to cry. Id. at 62:13-20. Due to Aiken's emotional response, Gagnon placed him in handcuffs. Id. at 66:1. After being handcuffed, Aiken stopped yelling. Id. at 208:11-15. The agents also conducted pat down searches of both men for weapons, finding none. Id. at 67:15-22. Bonnett sat on the floor near the desk behind the door, as he had been directed. Id. at 225:6-15, 206:16-18.

         Pappas asked the two men if there were any other drugs inside the room. Id. at 68:2-4. Pappas and Gagnon then pointed to the drawer of the nightstand, and at least one of them asked whether there was crack in the drawer, or how much crack was in the drawer. Id. at 208:25-209:3. Aiken responded by denying that there were other drugs in the room, and he told the agents that they could look in all the drawers. Id. at 71:2-5.

         Pappas opened the top drawer of the nightstand and discovered a bag containing what appeared to be approximately one-quarter to one-half of a kilogram of cocaine base. Id. at 72:16-73:2. He then told the defendants that he intended to obtain a search warrant. Id. at 72:16-18. Pappas left the motel to prepare the warrant application, while Gagnon stayed in the room. Id. at 78:4-9. Two uniformed officers arrived who then brought Aiken and Bonnett to the jail. Id. at 78:12-15. A search warrant was approved, and a subsequent search of the room yielded, in addition to the cocaine base, receipts for bus tickets for Aiken, Bonnett, and another person in whose name the room was registered, and a Pennsylvania driver's license in the other person's name. Id. at 77:3-21.


         The Magistrate Judge filed a previous recommended decision in this case, which recommended that the motions be denied on the basis that the defendants lacked standing to challenge the search. ECF No. 99 at 5-9. I declined to adopt this first decision, and recommitted the matter to the Magistrate Judge for a recommended decision on the merits. ECF No. 135 at 4. After further argument, the Magistrate Judge filed a second recommended decision. ECF No. 142. The Magistrate Judge found that the agents had probable cause to search the motel room, but that the Government had not established the existence of exigent circumstances to justify the warrantless entry. Id. at 2-7. The Magistrate Judge also found, however, that Aiken had consented to the search of the room, and that his consent rendered the search that ensued lawful. Id. at 7-8.

         The Government and the defendants each filed objections to the Magistrate Judge's second recommended decision. ECF No. 150; ECF No. 151; ECF No. 152. The defendants challenge the Magistrate Judge's finding that Aiken's consent was voluntary, and argue that the consent was, in any event, fruit of the poisonous tree because it was a result of the agents' illegal entry. See ECF No. 150; ECF No. 152. The Government objected to the Magistrate Judge's conclusion that there were no exigent circumstances to justify the warrantless entry. ECF No. 151 at 2-5.

         Oral argument on the objections was held before me on September 23, 2016. Under 28 U.S.C.A. § 636(b)(1), I have made a de novo determination of the factual and legal issues raised by the objections. See United States v. Lawlor, 406 F.3d 37, 40 (1st Cir. 2005).


         A search conducted without a warrant is presumed to be unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, “subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.” Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 219 (1973) (quotation omitted). The Government bears the burden of proving that an exception to the warrant requirement applies. See United States v. Dickerson, 514 F.3d 60, 66 (1st Cir. 2008). Here, the Government argues that two established exceptions apply: exigent circumstances and consent. ECF No. 57 at 10, 12.

         A. Exigent Circumstances

         The Government cites three reasons to support the application of the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement in this case: first, the agents' belief that Aiken and Bonnett would destroy evidence in the time it would take to obtain a warrant; second, the agents' concern for their own safety; and third, the risk that one or both of the defendants would flee. ECF No. 151 at 3-5. The exigent circumstances exception applies to situations in which there is “a compelling necessity for immediate action as will not brook the delay of obtaining a warrant.” United States v. Almonte, 952 F.2d 20, 22 (1st Cir. 1991). Four of the commonly recognized categories of exigent circumstances include: “(1) risk to the lives or health of the investigating officers; (2) risk that the evidence sought will be destroyed; (3) risk that the person sought will escape from the premises; and (4) ‘hot pursuit' of a fleeing felon.” United States v. Beaudoin, 362 F.3d 60, 66 (1st Cir. 2004), vacated and remanded on other grounds sub nom., Champagne v. United States, 543 U.S. 1102 (2005). Exigent circumstances “turn upon the objective reasonableness of ad hoc, fact-specific assessments contemporaneously made by government agents in light of the developing circumstances at the scene of the search.” McCabe v. Life-Line Ambulance Serv., Inc., 77 F.3d 540, 545 (1st Cir. 1996) (quoting Hegarty v. Somerset Cty., 53 F.3d 1367, 1378 (1st Cir. 1995)). For the exception to apply here, the Government must show that the agents had probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime was present in the motel room, and that exigent circumstances supported the need for an immediate, warrantless entry. See Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740, 741 (1984). Because the exigent circumstances exception requires the existence of probable cause, I consider that issue first.

         1. Probable Cause

         “Probable cause exists where the facts and circumstances as to which the police have reasonably trustworthy information are sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution in the belief that evidence of a crime will be found.” Robinson v. Cook, 706 F.3d 25, 32 (1st Cir. 2013). Here, the agents were not interested in investigating Room 218 based on the possible presence of a small quantity of marijuana. They understood that at the time they entered the motel room, they could have issued Aiken and Bonnett summonses for possession of marijuana, but that they did not have probable cause to arrest them for possessing marijuana. ECF No. 104 at 153:23-154:5. Rather, they entered the room because Aiken's presence led them to believe that, as Pappas testified, “there was possibly more going on” than marijuana possession and they wanted to question Aiken. Id. at 52:6-9. Because the “application of the exigent-circumstances exception in the context of a home entry should rarely be sanctioned when there is probable cause to believe that only a minor offense . . . has been committed, ” Welsh, 466 U.S. at 753, the information the agents had regarding Bonnett and Aiken's use or possession of marijuana was not, standing alone, sufficient under the Fourth Amendment to justify their warrantless entry, regardless of whether that information would have been sufficient to obtain a search warrant if the same had been presented to a judge.[2]

         When Pappas informed Bonnett and Aiken that if they failed to exit the motel room the agents would come in, the agents had knowledge of the following:

•Their knocking on the door of Room 216 had elicited the interest of an occupant or the occupants of Room 218, who twice opened the room's door to observe the police. ECF No. 104 at 42-44, 47-49.
• The agents smelled burnt marijuana coming from Room 218 when the door was partially opened, indicating that an occupant or the occupants had recently smoked or were smoking marijuana. Id. at 43.
• The door to Room 218 opened a second time and the agents saw and recognized Aiken. Id. at 48-49.
• Aiken appeared to be extremely nervous as soon as he made eye contact with and recognized Pappas. ...

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