WHAT FACTORS WILL BE CONSIDERED WHEN DETERMINING IF A SEARCH FALLS WITHIN THE SCOPE OF THE SEARCH WARRANT?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
United States v. Fagan, 577 F.3d 10 (1st Cir. 2009).
This case answers the following question:
What factors will be considered when determining if a search falls within the scope of the search warrant?
The issue in this case is whether a storage closet in the hallway outside of the apartment was appurtenant to the described premises in the search warrant. As long as the officers executing the warrant have an objectively reasonable basis, in light of the known characteristics of the location and the evidence at hand, for concluding that a structure is appurtenant to the premises specified in the search warrant, that structure may validly be searched under the purview of the warrant.
In this case, police officers were executing a search warrant for a three-story tenement, where the warrant authorized a search of the third-floor apartment and cellar. In the bedroom of the third-floor apartment, officers found Fagan and his daughter. In the bedroom, officers found a loaded handgun and a key to a padlock. On Fagan, the officers found a plastic bag containing 3.14 grams of crack cocaine and $358 in cash. The officers found more drugs in the living room, pantry, and rear hallway. On the third-floor landing, the officers noticed a closet door that was padlocked shut. Using the key, the officers had found in the bedroom, the officers were able to unlock the closet door and search the closet. Inside the closet, officers found two digital scales, “wampum cards” from Foxwoods Resort Casino, and paperwork from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. The wampum cards and the paperwork contained Fagan’s name. Fagan moved to suppress the evidence seized from the storage closet arguing that the warrant did not give the officers authority to search the storage closet. The district court denied the motion and convicted Fagan. Fagan appealed to challenge the denial of his motion to suppress the evidence seized from the storage closet.
As long as the officers executing the warrant have an objectively reasonable basis, in light of the known characteristics of the location and the evidence at hand, for concluding that a structure is appurtenant to the premises specified in the search warrant, that structure may validly be searched under the purview of the warrant. Determining whether an officer could reasonable conclude that a certain structure was included in the scope of the warrant depends on the facts of each case. However, there are some guidelines that the court has established to help determine the reasonableness. These factors include the proximity of the structure to the described premises, the location’s layout and the context-specific relationship between the structure and the premises specified in the warrant, and extrinsic evidence, including evidence discovered during valid portions of the search, suggesting that the structure is appurtenant to the premises in the warrant.
In this case, the storage closet was located on the third-floor landing eight feet away from the door of the apartment, and the other units in the building were removed from the third-floor and the third-floor landing. Further, the key found in Fagan’s bedroom opened the padlock on the door to the storage closet.
Fagan argued that there was no confirmation from the landlord acknowledging that the storage closet belonged to Fagan, therefore the officers did not know whether other tenants had access to the closet. However, this is not necessary. If the officer has an objectively reasonable basis for believing that the structure is appurtenant to the premises, he may search the structure under the scope of the original search warrant. The officer is not required to stop to consider lease agreements, question landlords, or speak to other occupants of the building.
For these reasons, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the ruling of the district court. The court held that the district court did not err in denying Fagan’s motion to suppress the evidence.