The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Webster on Tuesday, January 5, 2016.
Kansas City police officers became suspicious that Ricky Webster was manufacturing and distributing crack cocaine out of his residence and obtained a no-knock search warrant. The Kansas City officers executed the warrant, with a five-minute lead on their entry by three members of the Selective Crime Occurrence Reduction Enforcement (SCORE) unit, special officers whose role was to enter and secure residences prior to the execution of search warrants. The police officers discovered more than 100 grams of crack cocaine, drug paraphernalia, a small amount of marijuana, and numerous pills during the search. They also found eighteen firearms, two of which were located in close proximity to drugs. Webster was indicted on numerous charges, and he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy count and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime and agreed to a sentence of 180 months in exchange for the government agreeing to forego filing for a sentence enhancement on Webster’s prior felony drug conviction, which would have required a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence.
Prior to accepting the plea agreement, Webster informed the court he had recently become aware that his wife had filed a complaint with the Kansas City police, claiming that the SCORE officers had stolen several items of personal property during the search, including a Flip camcorder, a Playstation, an iPhone, and $100 in cash. Webster asked for a continuance so he could discuss the theft with his attorney and reconsider the plea. Webster’s trial counsel informed the court that he believed it was against Webster’s best interest to withdraw the plea, but he nevertheless filed a motion to withdraw the plea after the court granted the continuance. At the next sentencing hearing, the district court denied Webster’s motion to withdraw the plea and sentenced him to 180 months pursuant to his plea agreement. Webster filed a pro se notice of appeal, which the Tenth Circuit dismissed as untimely.
The next day, the Kansas City Police Department and the FBI conducted a sting that caught several members of the SCORE unit stealing personal property during execution of a search warrant. The Flip and Playstation were subsequently discovered at the house of one of the SCORE unit members. Three officers were charged with conspiring to steal property from Webster’s wife and others, and all three pleaded guilty. Based on the indictments, Webster filed a pro se § 2255 petition to vacate his convictions, arguing his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective for failing to file a motion to suppress all evidence seized during the search of his house.
The district court held that the SCORE officers’ theft amounted to flagrant disregard of the scope of the warrant and found that the egregious conduct justified a blanket suppression of all evidence seized during the search. The district court found that defense counsel’s failure to investigate the claims of theft or file a motion to suppress was unreasonable, and therefore Webster was prejudiced by his counsel’s deficient conduct. The district court vacated the judgment entered pursuant to the plea agreement and denied the government’s subsequent motion to reconsider. Webster then filed a motion to suppress all evidence obtained in the search in the reinstated criminal case, which the district court granted. The government appealed the grant of habeas relief and grant of the motion to suppress.
The Tenth Circuit first considered the motion to suppress, reasoning that the grant of habeas relief was contingent on its success. The Tenth Circuit examined precedent requiring blanket suppression pursuant to the exclusionary rule, specifically addressing the cases on which the district court relied in issuing its order. The Tenth Circuit noted that blanket suppression is an extreme remedy only appropriate in the rarest circumstances, and distinguished its prior cases allowing blanket suppression. Here, the district court made specific findings that the police officers were unaware of the SCORE officers’ conduct, whereas in other cases there was a conspiracy among all involved officers. Further, in prior cases, the officers took vast amounts of property in blatant disregard of the scope of the warrant, whereas here the SCORE officers took only a few high-value items. The Tenth Circuit implied that blanket suppression is only justified when officers take numerous items outside the scope of the warrant, rather than when members of the team executing the warrant commit crimes.
Addressing Webster’s argument that blanket suppression was necessary in deterrence, the Tenth Circuit found that there could be no greater deterrent than criminal prosecution. The Tenth Circuit declined to address the habeas petition, since its reversal of suppression negated the basis for the petition.
The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court.