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United States v. Rangle

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Savannah Division

January 18, 2018



         This case involves a challenge to the validity of a search warrant issued by a state magistrate to officers conducting a murder investigation in Effingham County, Georgia. Defendant Jhonathan Rangel, an illegal alien charged with the unlawful possession of a pistol seized during the execution of that warrant, contends that the warrant violated the Fourth Amendment by failing to particularize his residence as a place to be searched and by failing to set forth a probable-cause basis for the search. Doc. 27. His post-arrest statements to law enforcement, he further contends, must be suppressed as the fruit of this illegal search. Id. Because the warrant specifically and clearly described each of the multiple dwellings that the magistrate authorized to be searched, including the mobile home where Rangel had a bedroom, Rangel's particularity challenge is utterly without merit. His attack on the probable cause underpinnings of the warrant fails to acknowledge the deferential standard of review that this Court must utilize when assessing the warrant's validity. Under the appropriate “great deference” standard, Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 236 (1983), the warrant affidavit provided a “substantial basis” for the state magistrate's finding of probable cause to search the property described in the warrant. Even if the state magistrate erred, however, the officers had an objective, good faith belief that the warrant was valid both when it was issued and when it was executed. Because the underlying search was proper, his further motion to suppress any statements made to law enforcement as the tainted product of an illegal search should also be denied as moot.

         I. FACTS

         The essential facts are not in dispute.[1] On August 19, 2017, Garden City police officers discovered the lifeless body of Eliud Montoya, who had been shot in the back of his head and in his back by a small- caliber weapon. Detective Roberto Rodriguez, a Chatham County Officer and the lead homicide investigator, soon identified Pablo Rangel (“Pablo”) and his nephew, Refugio Ramirez, as the chief suspects. Det. Rodriguez then prepared a warrant affidavit seeking authorization to search certain property owned by Pablo in Effingham County, Georgia. The detective had a police sergeant and a police captain “proofread” the affidavit, and he conferred with an assistant district attorney, who opined that there was sufficient probable cause to seek a warrant. Later that same evening, Det. Rodriguez called an Effingham County Magistrate and arranged to meet with her the next morning, a Saturday. During their brief meeting, the detective supplemented his written affidavit with certain sworn, but unrecorded, oral testimony, which is permissible under Georgia law. King v. State, 263 Ga. 741, 743, 438 S.E.2d 620 (1994).

         A. Warrant Affidavit

         Detective Rodriguez sought leave to search Pablo Rangel's rural, 26-acre property for guns, ammunition, shell casings, and other items believed to be pertinent to the murder investigation. Aff. at 1.[2] He described the property to be searched as follows:

275 Milton Rahn Road, Rincon Georgia, 31326. The residence and property can be reached by traveling on Rahn Station Road from Highway 21 for 2 miles making a left onto Milton Rahn Road and traveling 1.2 miles and the residence (tan in color) will be located on the left following [sic] by the mobile home (gray in color). See Exhibit A and B.
Property is owned by Pablo Rangel. Property is listed with having 26.65 acres. Land has multiple dwellings that can not be accessed without driving on a private drive that dead ends on this land. Residence has a newer structure identified as a modular home, as well as multiple trailers as follows. Gray in color mobile home with white trim located at the far end the driveway. Light colored pull behind camper located in the rear of the gray mobile home, tan in color residence with wooden porch on the back located before reaching the gray mobile home. There are currently 8-10 vehicles on the property.

Aff. at 1.[3]

         On the next two pages, Det. Rodriguez set out the facts offered in support of a probable cause finding. In brief, those facts were these:

• The previous day, August 19, 2017, someone had murdered Eliud Montoya by shooting him once in the back of the head and twice in the back. Aff. at 2, 3.
• The gunshot wounds appeared to have been inflicted by a small caliber (possibly a .22 caliber) weapon. Id. at 3. Montoya, whose nose had also been broken, did not exhibit any wounds suggesting that he had fought with his assailant. Id. at 3.
• Montoya appeared to have been working on a large tree-service work truck at the time of the murder. Id. at 2. The investigators saw no evidence that Montoya had been robbed, for his personal vehicle was parked next to the work truck and no items appeared to be missing. Id. at 3.
• Montoya's mother arrived at the scene and informed Det. Rodriguez that Montoya's boss, Pablo Rangel, had killed him. Id. at 2. She reported that the two men had had a falling out at work on August 17, 2017. She stated that Montoya had filed a complaint against Rangel with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and that there were documents that would support her statement. Id.
• When Det. Rodriguez interviewed Montoya's wife at their nearby residence, she independently confirmed the information furnished by his mother. Id. She also furnished documentation reflecting his employment by Wolf Tree Experts, as well as a manila envelope from the EEOC containing four legal statements from that company's employees, including one by Montoya. Id. Those statements advised the EEOC that the employees were in the United States illegally and that they had been mistreated and taken advantage of by their supervisor, Pablo Rangel, who withheld some of their pay. Id. Inside Montoya's vehicle the investigators found further documentation reflecting a work conflict between Montoya and Pablo. Id. at 3.
• Joel Reyes, one of the EEOC complainants accusing Pablo Rangel of mistreatment, confirmed the truthfulness of his notarized statement to the EEOC. Id. at 3. He advised that Pablo would provide the employees with a Social Security Number and phony personal identifiers so that they could be added to the company payroll. Id. Pablo did not want Montoya to share this information with anyone. Reyes had warned Montoya to leave Pablo alone, for he was going to have him killed. Id. Reyes did not believe that Pablo Rangel would kill Montoya but that he had family members who were willing to do so. Id.
• The investigators learned that Refugio Ramirez, one of Pablo Rangel's nephews, lived in a trailer on Pablo's property. Id. at 3. A 2014 police report revealed that Ramirez had been arrested for possession of a concealed weapon, a .22 magnum SuperX pistol. Id. Ramirez, who worked with the same tree service company as the murder victim, currently had an outstanding arrest warrant from Chatham County.[4]

         The search warrant that Det. Rodriguez prepared reflected the same property description as the warrant affidavit. Warrant at 1. Again, that property description stated that Pablo Rangel's 26.65-acre tract could “not be accessed without driving on a private drive that dead ends on this land.” Id. When the detective appeared before the magistrate, he testified under oath that he had been unable to view Pablo's property himself, because he had been assured by local officers that anyone driving down the secluded private drive would certainly be spotted, thus tipping the investigators' hand. Instead, he relied upon information furnished by Effingham County deputies who had previously been on the property. The detective further explained to the magistrate that he was seeking authorization to search each of the structures and vehicles ...

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