United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Augusta Division
BRIAN K. EPPS, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff brings this § 1983 case alleging the defendant law enforcement officers violated his Constitutional rights by seizing his briefcase without a warrant from a friend who voluntarily turned over the briefcase despite Plaintiff's instructions not to release the briefcase to anyone. After the seizure, Defendants obtained a warrant authorizing a search of the briefcase and located evidence used to convict Plaintiff in state court of statutory rape, aggravated child molestation, and sexual exploitation of a child. Plaintiff moved to suppress the evidence because of the warrantless seizure of the briefcase, which spawned five decisions ultimately confirming admissibility of the evidence by the Superior Court of Lincoln County, Georgia, the Georgia Court of Appeals, and the Georgia Supreme Court. The Court GRANTS Defendants' motion for summary judgment (doc. no. 62) because the warrantless seizure did not violate clearly established law.
At the time of the underlying criminal investigation, Defendant Edwin Bentley was the Sheriff of Lincoln County, Georgia, and Defendant Jim Wallen was the Chief Deputy. (Doc. no. 1, Compl., p. 4; doc. no. 62-3, Supp. Hring. Tr., pp. 36-37; Compl., p. 5; doc. no. 62-1, Bentley Decl., ¶ 2.) In 2004, Ms. April Quick informed Deputy Wallen that Plaintiff was involved in a sexual relationship with a female under the age of sixteen, and that Plaintiff stored evidence of the relationship in a briefcase held by Ms. Judy Malin, a friend of Plaintiff's who lived in Columbia County. (Supp. Hring. Tr., pp. 38, 56-58.) Ms. Malin, as she later testified, agreed to store the locked briefcase in her home until Plaintiff returned to pick it up, and agreed to Plaintiff's directive that she not release the briefcase to anyone else. (Id. at 38, 62, 65-67, 70.)
Acting on the tip from Ms. Quick, Deputy Wallen telephoned Ms. Malin to inquire whether she would release the briefcase to him, explaining to Ms. Malin that she could face criminal charges "for the briefcase if [she] was involved." (Id. at 71.) Ms. Malin agreed to give Deputy Wallen the briefcase because she was afraid, confused, did not know what was inside the briefcase, and wanted it out of her home. (Id. at 67, 69-71.) At Deputy Wallen's request, Ms. Quick traveled to Ms. Malin's residence in Columbia County and retrieved the briefcase. (Id. at 38, 43, 55, 58.) When Ms. Quick returned with the briefcase, Deputy Wallen gave her twenty dollars for gas money. (Id. at 58, 60.) At the time, "there was no policy covering the protocol for a deputy who sought to obtain an item of property believed to contain incriminating evidence from a person who had possession and control over the item but was not the owner." (Bentley Decl., ¶ 4.)
With the briefcase now in his possession, Deputy Wallen applied for and received a warrant to search the briefcase from the Lincoln County Magistrate Judge, and inside Deputy Wallen found the videos and photographs used to prosecute Plaintiff. (Id. at 39, 41-42; Compl., p. 7.) Plaintiff contends that the briefcase also contained private pictures of his wife which were never returned to him. (Compl., p. 9.) It is undisputed, however, that Plaintiff never pursued any proceeding in state court to obtain these pictures or any other property purportedly not returned to him. (Doc. no. 62-5, Defs.' Stm. of Undisputed Material Facts, ¶ 20.)
II. THE STATE COURT DECISIONS CONSIDERING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO SUPPRESS
The five judicial decisions spawned by Plaintiff's motion to suppress are interesting and key to resolution of the summary judgment motion because of the considerable light they shed on the state of the law at the time of the warrantless seizure. Accordingly, the Court will examine each in turn.
A. Trial Court
While the trial court's initial ruling on the motion to suppress is not included in the current record, the Georgia Supreme Court summarized the ruling as follows:
[T]he trial court denied Wilder's motion to suppress on the ground that Malin had validly consented to the seizure of the briefcase; alternatively, the court held that the evidence was admissible under the independent source doctrine, which authorizes admission of evidence initially discovered through improper means if it was ultimately "obtained... by a means untainted by and unrelated to the initial illegality."
Wilder v. State, 717 S.E.2d 457, 459 (Ga. 2011).
B. Georgia Court of Appeals
The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's initial ruling on the basis of the independent source doctrine only. Wilder v. State, 698 S.E.2d 374, 376-78 (Ga.App. 2010). The Court of Appeals began its decision by explaining that (1) the Fourth Amendment protects briefcases as traditional repositories of private items; and (2) this protection applies even though Ms. Quick seized the briefcase instead of Deputy Wallen because "the State cannot avoid a Fourth Amendment challenge to a search and seizure by asking a private citizen to act on its behalf and seek out evidence." Id. at 377, 378. Avoiding the issue of consent entirely, the Court of Appeals held that the independent source doctrine applied ...