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United States v. Lawson

United States District Court, D. Maine

August 15, 2018




         Defendant Lamale Lawson is charged with possessing a firearm as a felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a) (2018). Lawson has moved to suppress all evidence obtained when agents from the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency (“MDEA”) searched a bedroom closet in the apartment of his girlfriend, “N.N.” (ECF No. 15). For the reasons that follow, I deny the motion.


         In March 2016, Special Agent Josh McDonald, of the MDEA, began investigating Lawson's alleged involvement in trafficking drugs and firearms. See ECF No. 16 at 1. Special Agent McDonald and other agents learned that Lawson would occasionally stay at N.N.'s apartment, and agents made two controlled purchases of heroin from Lawson at N.N.'s housing complex. Special Agent McDonald also learned that Lawson would use N.N.'s vehicle in the course of his alleged drug trafficking. After obtaining a search warrant for the location data associated with Lawson's cell phone, Special Agent McDonald confirmed that Lawson had taken N.N.'s car to New York in late July 2016. See Id. at 1-2. Using the same location data, on July 31, 2016, MDEA agents intercepted Lawson in the same vehicle, driving northbound in Maine. See Id. at 2. Although a search of Lawson and the vehicle revealed no drugs, Lawson was arrested that day on state drug trafficking charges based on the prior controlled purchases, as well as a federal charge as a felon in possession of a firearm.

         Also on July 31, Special Agent McDonald and two other officers spoke with N.N. at her apartment. See Id. N.N. told the agents that Lawson stayed with her and kept some of his property in her apartment, and she then signed a written consent form that granted the agents permission to search her entire bedroom. See id.; see also ECF No. 15 at 2. She took the agents to her bedroom, which had two closets with sliding doors. See ECF No. 16 at 2, July 27 Hearing Tr. at 16:18-18:13. N.N. pointed to the left-side closet and, as testified to by Special Agent McDonald, said “that's where he [keeps] his stuff.” Tr. at 22:6-22:9. Special Agent McDonald slid open the unlocked closet door, shined a flashlight on the floor, and immediately recognized a gun case. See id. at 23:5-23:23. Special Agent McDonald observed that the case was slightly open, and what appeared to be a silver handgun was visible. See id. at 24:12-24:20. N.N. told the agents that she did not know the gun was in the closet. See Id. at 25:25-26-2.

         After the agents discovered the gun, N.N. pointed them towards a safe, which was located under her bed, and told them that it belonged to Lawson. See ECF No. 16 at 2. She told the agents that “if he [Lawson] had drugs, they would be in the safe.” Id. at 2-3; see also Tr. at 27:4-27:7. Special Agent McDonald then bent down and visually confirmed that there was a safe under the bed. See Tr. at 26:18-26:22.

         After discovering the handgun and safe in N.N.'s bedroom, the agents applied for and obtained a search warrant, which was issued by a Judge of the State of Maine District Court.


         The Fourth Amendment guarantees “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. Lawson argues that the warrantless closet search was unreasonable. It follows, Lawson contends, that both the evidence discovered during the initial closet search, and the search that followed the issuance of the search warrant (which was supported in part by the evidence discovered during the initial search) must be suppressed.[1]

         “[U]nder the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments [] a search conducted without a warrant issued upon probable cause is per se unreasonable . . . subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.” Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 219 (1973) (internal quotation marks omitted and emphasis added). It is “well settled that one of the specifically established exceptions to the requirements of both a warrant and probable cause is a search that is conducted pursuant to consent.” Id. Thus, officers do not need a search warrant when a person with the authority to consent does so freely and voluntarily. See United States v. Jones, 523 F.3d 31, 37 (1st Cir. 2008).

         Lawson's argument proceeds in three ways: First, he argues that N.N. lacked apparent authority over the closet in which he kept his personal property; second, he argues that even if N.N. did have apparent authority, the closet was outside of the scope of the search that she had consented to; and third, he argues that if the fruits of the closet search are suppressed and thus excised from the warrant affidavit, the mere presence of a safe in N.N.'s bedroom, along with her statement indicating that if Lawson had drugs, he would keep them in the safe, were insufficient grounds for issuing a warrant. I consider each argument and conclude that the officers acted within the scope of the consent they obtained from N.N., who was a person with authority over the searched area. Accordingly, I need not and do not reach Lawson's argument with respect to whether the search warrant would have issued in the absence of evidence obtained during the initial closet search.

         A. Apparent Authority

         “[T]he consent of one who possesses common authority over premises or effects is valid as against the absent, nonconsenting person with whom that authority is shared.” United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 170 (1974). Here, the parties agree that N.N. was the lessor of the apartment, and the officers were aware of that fact. They further agree that N.N. signed a written consent form permitting officers to search her entire bedroom, which is where the relevant closet was located. See ECF No. 16 at 2; see also ECF No. 15 at 2.

         “As with other factual determinations bearing upon search and seizure, determination of consent to enter must be judged against an objective standard: would the facts available to the officer at the moment . . . warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that the consenting party had authority over the premises?” Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177, 188 (1990) (internal quotation marks omitted). Common authority exists where people mutually use a ...

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