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Sixth Circuit Rules Relying on Search Warrant Based on ‘Bare Bones’ Affidavit Objectively Unreasonable, Grants Motion to Suppress

by David Reutter

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held a search warrant failed to establish a fair probability that drugs would be found at the searched residence on the date of the search.

Before the Court was the appeal of Tyrone Christian, who was convicted by a federal jury of possessing a controlled substance with intent to distribute, being a felon in possession of a firearm, and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime. Christian’s motion before trial to suppress evidence obtained by a search warrant was denied.

Christian pursued the claim on appeal. The search warrant was issued by a state magistrate on September 3, 2015. The four-page affidavit contained a page of facts that showed: (1) search warrants were executed at Christian’s residence in the past; (2) Christian has a history of years’ old drug convictions; (3) he engaged in one sale of drugs at the residence eight months prior to the application for a search warrant; (4) unidentified subjects of unknown reliability reported that Christian was selling drugs in the more recent past; and (5) a man with no connection to Christian was found to be in possession of drugs after leaving “the area of the residence on the date of the search warrant affidavit.”

On appeal, Christian argued the warrant was not supported by probable cause because each of the affidavit’s supporting facts was either stale or failed to establish a sufficient nexus between the evidence sought and the residence.

The Sixth Circuit assessed the significance of each piece of evidence relied upon to obtain the warrant and then the totality of all the evidence to support the warrant, and after doing so, the Court concluded that the facts alleged in the affidavit in support of the warrant application were insufficient to support the issuance of a search warrant.

It first considered the man in the area who was found to be in possession of 20 grams of heroin after a traffic stop. The Court found the warrant application contained no evidence that the man entered Christian’s residence much less bought drugs there. Allowing such “speculation that drug activity near a residence is related to that residence [would] significantly lower [] the burden for the government to show probable cause in communities where drugs are prevalent.”    

The Court further found that the affidavit failed to address the credibility and reliability of the confidential informant and the informant who made the controlled buy. The Court said there was no evidence that “the police corroborated any of the information obtained from the unidentified subjects.” Absent any indication of veracity, reliability, or corroboration, that evidence was a accorded little weight.

The January 2015 buy was found to be stale evidence, for it failed to show “reliable evidence of continuous and protracted drug activity.” Christian’s “old criminal convictions” likewise could not support the determination of continuous drug activity at the time of the search. “Our legal system has long developed a strong policy against using propensity evidence to suggest an inference that an individual who has once committed a crime continues to engage in criminal activity,” the Sixth Circuit admonished.

After rejecting each point of evidence in the affidavit to support the search warrant, the Court found the totality of the evidence failed to establish a fair probability that drug activity was occurring at Christian’s residence when the search warrant was executed.

Based on the facts of this case, the Court rejected the application of the Leon good-faith exception established by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984), which holds that evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment may nevertheless be admitted if the evidence was collected in “good-faith reliance on a search warrant that is subsequently held to be defective.” However, the good-faith exception is inapplicable where “a reasonably well trained officer would have known that the search was illegal despite the magistrate’s decision.” United States v. Hodson, 543 F.3d 286 (6th Cir. 2008).

Police may not invoke the good-faith exception when relying on a search warrant that is “so lacking in indicia of probable cause that a belief in its existence is objectively unreasonable.” United States v. Laughton, 409 F.3d 744 (6th Cir. 2005). It is objectively unreasonable to issue a search warrant based upon a “bare bones affidavit … that merely ‘states suspicions, beliefs, or conclusions, without providing some underlying factual circumstances regarding veracity, reliability, and basis of knowledge.’” United States v. McPhearson, 469 F.3d 518 (6th Cir. 2006).        

The Court concluded that the affidavit in support of the search warrant in this was bare bones, and thus is was objectively unreasonable for the police to rely on the warrant to search Christian’s residence.

Accordingly, the Court held that the motion to suppress should have been granted, reversed the judgment of the district court, and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: United States v. Christian, 893 F.3d 846 (6th Cir. 2018). 

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United States v. Christian



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