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United States v. Hall

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Valdosta Division

February 5, 2019




         Before the Court is Defendant Uriah Wade Hall's Motion to Suppress Illegally Obtained Evidence. (Doc. 21, 25). Defendant argues that evidence obtained at his residence, n methamphetamine, marijuana, and a firearm, should be suppressed under the “fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine” because (1) the arresting officers illegally detained Defendant without reasonable suspicion or probable cause; (2) law enforcement officers illegally searched Defendant's vehicle; (3) law enforcement officers illegally seized personal property from Defendant's vehicle; and (4) law enforcement officers illegally entered Defendant's residence without a search warrant. After conducting an evidentiary hearing, and after thoroughly reviewing the arguments of Defendant and the Government, the Court finds based on a totality of the circumstances that the law enforcement officers lacked objectively reasonable suspicion to detain Defendant. Accordingly, any evidence of criminal wrongdoing discovered subsequent to the detention is fruit of an unconstitutional intrusion. The Court therefore GRANTS Defendant's motion to suppress.

         I. FACTS

         Around 11 o'clock on the morning of March 14, 2017, Lieutenant Rob Picciotti, who is employed with the Special Operations Division of the Lowndes County Sheriff's Department and also a member of the FBI Task Force in Valdosta, Georgia, began his daily patrol in an SUV with Staff Sergeant Tyler Greene, Sergeant Kenny Busby, and Investigator Steve Exum. (Doc. 28, p. 10-11, 41). The officers were not assigned a specific area to patrol. (Id. at p. 12). Rather, they “work[ed] within the county and the outlying areas.” (Id.).

         Several times throughout the day, the officers patrolled through Webster Street, which “is located on the southern end of the east side of Valdosta.” (Id.). According to Lieutenant Picciotti, the area around Webster and Charlton Streets is known to be a “high crime area” predominated by the Gangster Disciple gang and is patrolled several times a day. (Id. at p. 12-13). Of particular interest to Lieutenant Picciotti on the night in question were the adjoining rooming houses located at 402 and 404 Webster Street. (Id. at p. 12). Several months prior, sometime in the fall of 2016, “[t]he area itself had been identified . . . as a location where a number of narcotics deals were occurring in the yards of the two rooming houses either from dealers that were arriving there or persons that were residing at the home.” (Id.). Lieutenant Picciotti was involved in serving a search warrant on a Mr. Robert Wimberly, who at that time lived at 404 Webster Street and was suspected of selling methamphetamine. (Id. at p. 13). While awaiting Mr. Wimberly's arrival at the residence to serve the warrant, Lieutenant Picciotti encountered “a couple of gentlemen that were out in front of 402 that were heavy drinkers, older gentlemen that lived there, and we began speaking on and off in times when I would patrol through there and they would identify things to me that were occurring in the area.” (Id.).

         While Lieutenant Picciotti and the other law enforcement officers passed by the property located at 402 and 404 Webster Street several times on March 14, 2017, they found no cause to stop at the residence. Lieutenant Picciotti remarked that they had observed cars in the driveway, “but I had not seen anybody standing outside that I wanted to speak to. . . . 402 had a lot of guys out front that were drinking that I saw coming and going, but nothing that led to me, hey, you know, who are these people that I want to go up and speak to.” (Id. at p. 40). Then, sometime around 9 or 10 o'clock that evening, Lieutenant Picciotti “observed two silhouettes in the driveway.” (Id. at p. 14, 40). He did not know who the individuals were, or even whether they were male or female. The two people were standing fifteen to twenty yards from the front side of the residence next to a car with the doors open. (Id.). Lieutenant Picciotti stated, “I wanted to go out and see who the people were that were visiting. I hadn't noticed any activity in the driveway of 404 throughout the day. I wanted to see who that was in the driveway - if they were affiliated with the house.” (Id.). The law enforcement officers pulled their SUV into the driveway and parked about a car's length behind the other cars in the driveway. (Id. at p. 36-37). The officers exited the vehicle en masse, activated their body worn cameras, and approached the two figures. (Id. at p. 14). It was dark, so the officers approached with flashlights. (Id. at p. 43). They each also wore a vest that identified them as law enforcement officers. (Id.).

         When the officers first saw the two individuals by the driveway, they were standing on either side of the vehicle. (Id. at p. 14). As the officers approached, the person on the passenger side of the vehicle, who identified himself as Tony Hall, Defendant's father, sat down in the passenger seat. (Id.). Lieutenant Picciotti casually approached Defendant, who appeared to be folding a pair of jeans. (Gov't Ex. 1, Picciotti, 0:08). Picciotti then asked whether the two individuals “stayed” at that address. (Gov't Ex. 1, Picciotti, 0:08-10). Defendant replied in the negative, stating that they live on Magnolia Street. (Gov't Ex. 1, Picciotti, 0:10-15). Picciotti then remarked that law enforcement had received a tip about drug use in the parking lot of a rooming house. (Gov't Ex. 1, Picciotti, 0:10-20).

         Lieutenant Picciotti testified that as he was speaking with Defendant, he “pretty quickly smelled an odor of burnt marijuana either coming from the person and/or from the open door of the vehicle.” (Doc. 28, p. 16). He also observed that a sandwich bag with the corners removed fell onto the ground as Defendant was folding his jeans. (Id.). Based on his training and experience, clear plastic sandwich bags with the corners removed are a common tool of drug distribution. (Id. at p. 17). Lieutenant Picciotti commented to Defendant on the missing “bag bottoms, ” which he identified as having fallen out of Defendant's pants and as being observed in the car door. (Gov't Ex. 1, Picciotti, 0:30-42). Defendant responded with the question, “Bag bottoms?” (Gov't Ex. 1, Picciotti, 0:30-32). Lieutenant Picciotti next inquired whether Defendant “used the marijuana, ” informing Defendant that he smelled “a little bit of burnt marijuana.” (Gov't Ex. 1, Picciotti 1:04-06, 1:09-11). Defendant admitted that he does smoke a little bit. (Gov't Ex. 1, Picciotti, 1:08-10). Defendant also admitted that he had smoked marijuana but not at that location as they had just arrived to visit with one of the downstairs residents. (Gov't Ex. 1, Picciotti, 1:10-20). During this exchange, the other officers can be seen looking in and around the car with their flashlights. (Gov't Ex. 1, Busby, 0:01-36; Exum, 0:01-36). One of the officers also runs a check on Defendant's name for any outstanding warrants. (Gov't Ex. 1, Exum, 0:48 -1:04).

         It is unclear from the body camera footage which officer requested permission to search Defendant's car, or even if a law enforcement officer affirmatively posed the question. However, Defendant can be heard saying at one point, “You're welcome to do whatever you want to do.” (Gov't Ex. 1, Picciotti, 0:42-43). The officers then conducted a physical search of Defendant, his father, and the vehicle. No. drugs were found on either individual or in the car. (Doc. 28, p. 45).

         The interaction between law enforcement and Defendant did not conclude once the officers completed the search of the car, though. Lieutenant Picciotti continued to detain Defendant so that he could investigate whether Defendant was truthfully reporting that he was visiting another resident. (Doc. 28, p. 19). Apparently, the downstairs resident denied that Defendant was visiting him and instead claimed that Defendant lived in an upstairs apartment. (Id. at p. 19, 21, 47; Gov't Ex. 1, Exum, 3:17-28). Lieutenant Picciotti confirmed through his testimony that during this time, neither Defendant nor his father were free to leave. (Id. at p. 20, 47). Picciotti justified the continued detention based on the presence of alleged drug packaging material, the odor of marijuana, and the inconsistent statements concerning whether Defendant was visiting a resident of the property or whether he resided at the property. (Id.).

         Lieutenant Picciotti returned to the car to pursue additional information regarding why Defendant and his father were on the property. He stated that he was “trying to, at this point through my arrest, dispel anything dealing with what I'm dealing with under the violation of Georgia Controlled Substance Act. Where it could be originating from, what areas of the home have you accessed through either consent or illegally? Could a crime have occurred other than a BGCS, say like a burglary.” (Id. at p. 23, 48). He wanted to know what other reason the pair may have “to be there if you haven't visited the person you were telling me you were there to see.” (Id. at p. 23).

         Lieutenant Picciotti then noticed that Defendant's father was carrying a set of keys on his belt. (Id. at p. 21). He inquired whether any of the keys would fit any of the doors to the residence. (Id. at p. 22). None of Mr. Hall's keys fit any lock. (Id. at p. 49; Gov't Ex. 1, Exum, 7:09-28). Picciotti then returned to the car where he noticed another set of keys on the seat of the car, which Defendant identified as his father's maintenance keys for the building. (Id. at p. 24-25; Gov't Ex. 1, Busby, 9:30-45). Picciotti took the keys from the car, claiming that the keys “were recovered in the car under the consent search of the car.” (Id. at p. 25).

         Lieutenant Picciotti used the second set of keys to unlock the front door and to enter the building. (Id. at p. 24, 50; Gov't Ex. 1, Busby, 9:58-10:06; Exum, 9:40-10:00). He called “hello” as he started up the stairs from the ground floor to the upstairs apartment. (Id. at p. 25, 50; Gov't Ex. 1, Busby, 10:06-07; Exum, 10:01). Picciotti met another resident of the unit at the top of the stairs, where there was a secondary door. (Id. at p. 25, Gov't Ex. 1, Exum, 10:07-10:29). The man confirmed that he thought Defendant did live in the unit. (Doc. 28, p. 51-52; Gov't Ex. 1, Exum, 10:50-54). He permitted Lieutenant Picciotti to enter the residence so that Picciotti could also speak with another man who lived there and look around the common areas. (Gov't Ex. 1, Exum, 11:30-48). The man, Robert Brown, explained that he, Defendant, and one other person shared the kitchen area but that each had his own locked room. (Gov't Ex. 1, Exum, 11:48-12:07).

         Brown pointed out which door belonged to Defendant. (Govt' Ex. 1, Exum, 12:50-13:16). Lieutenant Picciotti testified that he heard a dog in the room identified as Defendant's and that he also could detect the odor of marijuana emanating from the room. (Doc. 28, p. 28). Lieutenant Picciotti then took the keys that had been used to open the front door and successfully tried ...

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