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Maine Supreme Judicial Court Reverses Denial of Suppression Motion and Vacates Murder Conviction

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine reversed the denial of Bruce Akers’ motion to suppress and vacated his murder conviction.

On June 9, 2016, Akers called the local sheriff’s office and spoke with the sergeant. He told the sergeant he suspected his neighbor of stealing some property that was missing. Akers rejected the sergeant’s offer to come out to his property.

The following evening, the sergeant learned that Akers’ neighbor (characterized in the opinion as the “victim”) was missing. The sergeant and a deputy went to the victim’s residence where the victim’s daughter informed them that the victim and Akers had a long-standing feud related to their properties. The two properties were accessible from the roadway by a short driveway that then branched off into the direction of each man’s property. Near where the driveway branched toward Akers’ property was a sign that read “Private Driveway Please Do Not Enter.”

After walking the victim’s property, the two officers traversed a footpath through the brush to Akers’ property while calling out for Akers. The path led them to a red trailer and a white camper. Hearing a noise from within the camper, the sergeant knocked on the camper’s door but received no answer. He peeked through a window but could see nothing. The officers left.

About five hours later—shortly after midnight of June 11, 2016—the sergeant and two deputies returned to the victim’s property. After determining the victim hadn’t returned, the officers again took the footpath to Akers’ camper and trailer.

The sergeant heard a “thud” coming from within the camper. He lifted a hinged cover from a window of the camper and shined a flashlight inside. He saw Akers in a sleeping bag. The sergeant identified himself and told Akers “I need to talk to you.” Once Akers was outside, he made several incriminating statements in response to the sergeant’s questions that were recorded on the sergeant’s cell phone. The sergeant then read Akers’ his rights pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). After that, Akers said he wouldn’t answer any questions without an attorney present. Akers was arrested and taken to jail.

Based in part on Akers’ statements, a search warrant was issued authorizing a search of his property. The victim’s body was recovered from the property along with a machete with the victim’s blood on it.

Akers moved to suppress the evidence, including his statements. The trial court denied his motion. The jury convicted Akers of murder, and he appealed, arguing, inter alia, that the officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights by conducting two illegal warrantless searches, viz., (1) when they entered the curtilage of his home at approximately midnight on June 11 and (2) when they lifted the window cover on his camper to look inside, and as a result, all fruits of these unlawful searches, including his statements, should be suppressed.

The Court observed the Fourth Amendment states in relevant part that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” At the core of this constitutional guarantee is the right of a man to retreat into his own home and therein be free from unreasonable government intrusion. Caniglia v. Strom, 141 S. Ct. 1596 (2021). This constitutional protection extends to the curtilage (area of land attached to a house and forming an enclosure with it) of a home. Collins v. Virginia, 138 S. Ct. 1663 (2018).

A violation of the Fourth Amendment occurs when a search by the government “violates a subjective expectation of privacy that society recognizes as reasonable.” Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27 (2001). “When the government obtains information by physically intruding on persons, houses, papers, or effects, a search within the original meaning of the Fourth Amendment has undoubtedly occurred.” Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1 (2013). Searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452 (2011). “In the absence of a warrant, a search is reasonable only if the search falls within a specific exception to the warrant requirement.” Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373 (2014).

The Court determined that the actions of the officers in the instant case constituted warrantless searches. They entered the curtilage of Akers’ home, lifted a cover from a window, and peered inside his home with a flashlight. The officers intruded into areas where Akers had a subjective expectation of privacy which society recognizes as reasonable, according to the Court. Kyllo. Further, the searches were conducted without a warrant. The officers left and returned over five hours later, showing that they had more than ample time to secure a warrant but failed to do so. And instead of entering via the driveway and knocking on Akers’ door, they traversed a footpath in the middle of the night and peered through a window. Additionally, while allegedly looking for a missing person, they went to the property next door and asked to speak with Akers after he had explicitly stated he didn’t want the sergeant coming to his property.

Regarding Akers’ statements to the sergeant and deputies, the Maine Constitution requires the State to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the statements were voluntary. State v. Carrillo, 248 A.3d 193 (Maine 2021). In fact, under the Maine Constitution, the State must satisfy a higher standard for establishing voluntariness than under the U.S. Constitution. See State v. Rees, 748 A.2d 976 (ME. 2000).

Akers was awakened in the middle of the night; directed to come out of his home; and confronted by three armed and uniformed officers asking him questions. According to the Court, these circumstances favored suppression. See Kaupp v. Texas, 538 U.S. 626 (2003) (awakening a person in the middle of the night with the words “we need to go and talk” favors suppressing defendant’s confession”). Also favoring suppression was the fact that the sergeant’s questions were accusatory, not asking if Akers had seen the missing person but rather treating him like a suspect, the Court reasoned. See State v. Bryant, 97 A.3d 595 (Maine 2014). It was only after Akers made incriminating statements that his Miranda rights were read to him, noted the Court. Once his rights were read to him, he refused to answer any further questions without a lawyer present. That too, favored suppression. Thus, the Court concluded the State failed to meet its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Akers’ statements were voluntary.

In Utah v. Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2046 (2016), the U.S. Supreme Court instructed that “[t]he exclusionary rule exists to deter police misconduct” and “favors exclusion only when the police misconduct is most in need of deterrence—that is, when it is purposeful or flagrant.” The Court concluded that the officers’ misconduct in the instant case was purposeful and flagrant.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the denial of the motion to suppress, vacated Akers’ conviction, and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: State v. Akers, 259 A.3d 127 (Me. 2021). 

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