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Fourth Circuit Rules 3 Marijuana Stems Discovered in Single Trash Pull Insufficient for Search Warrant, Suppresses Evidence Found in Residence

by David Reutter

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the suppression of evidence obtained while executing a search warrant based on the discovery of three marijuana stems in a trash pull.  Prince George Police found the phone number of Tyrone Lyles in the cellphone of a homicide victim. They had a “hunch” that Lyles may be relevant to the murder investigation, so they searched Lyles’ trash. They found three marijuana stems, “three empty packs of rolling papers and one document addressed” to Lyles’ residence.

Based solely upon the items found in four trash bags, the state magistrate issued a search warrant for Lyles’ home. It did not have information about the cellphone or even whose address was to be searched. The warrant was broad, allowing a general search and seizure of items in the home unrelated to the crime of marijuana possession. It also authorized a search of “any and all persons suspected to be involved in said illegal activities.” 

Police “found four handguns, ammunition, marijuana, and drug paraphernalia” in Lyles’ home. He was charged in federal court for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He moved to suppress the evidence. The district court granted the motion, finding “that the presence of only three marijuana stems and rolling papers … does not establish a fair probability that additional marijuana will be found within the home.” The Government appealed.

The Fourth Circuit noted that “trash pulls can be used to support a search warrant.” Yet, “it is anything but clear that a scintilla of marijuana residue or marijuana use in a trash can should support a sweeping search of a residence.”

The Court observed that castles are not impregnable, but they should not be lightly breached. Here, the warrant “empowered the police to seize a host of things seemingly unconnected to marijuana possession. It permitted, for starters, the seizure of computers, toiletries, or jewelry, and the search of every book, record, and document in the home.”

When determining the reasonableness of a search warrant, the court considers the “proportionality between the gravity of the offense and the intrusiveness of the search.” As first time marijuana possession in Maryland is a civil infraction “punishable by a fine not exceeding $100,” the “underlying offense . . . [was] relatively minor.”

After reviewing previous cases in which the Fourth Circuit approved of search warrants for residences of suspects believed to be involved in drug trafficking, the Court concluded the “evidence here is simply much weaker” than in those other cases. The Court commented that the present case “is almost singular in the sparseness of evidence” to support the issuance of a search warrant for a residence. Consequently, Court concluded that the “affidavit did not provide a substantial basis for the magistrate to find probable cause to search the home for evidence of marijuana possession.”  

The Court declined to apply the “good faith” exception to the Exclusionary Rule. The standard for invoking the good faith exception is an “objective one. According to the Court, “objectively speaking, what transpired here is not acceptable.” 

“What we have before us is a flimsy trash pull that produced scant evidence of a marginal offense but that nonetheless served to justify the indiscriminate rummaging through a household,” the Court admonished. “Law enforcement can do better.”

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s order granting Lyles’ motion to suppress. See: United States v. Lyles, 910 F.3d 787 (4th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Lyles



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