June 24, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Fourth Amendment Search and Seizure Was Lawful

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in United States v. Harris on Friday, November 15, 2013.

Alonzo Johnson was convicted of participating in the contract killing of Neal Sweeney, a Tulsa businessman. While officers worked to build their case against Mr. Johnson, a fair number of facts began pointing to Mr. Harris’s auto shop as a place where evidence might be hidden. So officers secured a warrant to search the shop and, while executing it, came across an illegal gun and drugs belonging to Mr. Harris. As a result, Mr. Harris was convicted of federal charges. Mr. Harris appealed, arguing that the district court should have suppressed the evidence found in his shop or at least granted his motion for a new trial.

Mr. Harris acknowledged that the officers had a warrant for their search and did not contest the manner of its execution. Instead, he argued the warrant was constitutionally defective on its face because it failed to establish a “nexus” between the crime officers sought to investigate and his auto shop.

For a search to qualify as “reasonable” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, the court had to discern some “nexus between the contraband to be seized or suspected criminal activity and the place to be searched.” United States v. Gonzales, 399 F.3d 1225, 1228 (10th Cir. 2005). The Tenth Circuit has held that a “sufficient nexus” is established by a search warrant when the materials supporting it describe “circumstances which would warrant a person of reasonable caution [to believe] that the articles sought are at a particular place.” United States v. Biglow, 562 F.3d 1272, 1279 (10th Cir. 2009). For its part, the Supreme Court has held that “[p]robable cause exists when there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.” United States v. Grubbs, 547 U.S. 90, 95 (2006).

The Tenth Circuit held that, viewed in whole, the information in the record was enough to cause a reasonable person to believe evidence about the murder-for-hire plot could be found at the auto shop. The court held the search here was lawful, the fruits of it were untainted by any Fourth Amendment violation, the evidence presented against Mr. Harris at trial was lawful, and no lawful basis existed to undo the jury’s verdict.

The judgment was AFFIRMED.

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