513 F.3d 395 (4th Cir. 2008), 06-4886, United State v. Mowatt

Docket Nº:06-4886.
Citation:513 F.3d 395
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Karim L. MOWATT, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:January 25, 2008
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

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513 F.3d 395 (4th Cir. 2008)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,


Karim L. MOWATT, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 06-4886.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.

January 25, 2008

Argued: Dec. 7, 2007.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Greenbelt. Deborah K. Chasanow, District Judge; Alexander Williams, Jr., District Judge. (8:06-cr-00003-DKC)

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Paresh S. Patel, Office of the Federal Public Defender, Greenbelt, Maryland, for Appellant.

Stacy Dawson Belf, Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney, Greenbelt, Maryland, for Appellee.


James Wyda, Federal Public Defender, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant.

Rod J. Rosenstein, United States Attorney, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

Before MICHAEL and TRAXLER, Circuit Judges, and JAMES P. JONES, Chief United States District Judge for the Western District of Virginia, sitting by designation.


TRAXLER, Circuit Judge:

Karim L. Mowatt appeals his convictions for four drug and weapons offenses, arguing that the primary evidence against him was obtained as the result of an illegal warrantless search of his apartment. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.


On the evening of November 17, 2005, at approximately 9:19 p.m., Officers Russell Chick, Scott Hall, and Armando Parker of the Bladensburg (Maryland) Police Department were dispatched to investigate a report from a private security guard that loud music and the smell of marijuana were emanating from a tenth-floor apartment in a high-crime area. Once on the building's tenth floor, the officers identified the apartment that was the source of the loud music and marijuana odor.1 They decided to knock on the apartment's closed door. Hearing no response, they began pounding on the door, at which time they heard "movement on the inside of the apartment confirming that somebody was walking around." J.A. 34. They also heard an aerosol can discharging. The music was then turned down and someone asked who was there, to which the officers responded, "It's the police. Open the door. We need to investigate something." J.A. 35 (internal quotation marks omitted). After "there was some back and forth" between the person inside (Mowatt) and the officers, Mowatt refused to open the door. J.A. 60. The police then "became demanding," repeatedly "order[ing]" him to open it. J.A. 61.

In response to the officers' repeated demands, Mowatt finally opened the door approximately 12 to 13 inches, but the officers continued to insist that he let them into the apartment. Mowatt asked if the officers had a warrant, and they admitted that they did not. Because Mowatt had opened the door slightly, the officers were able to see him, and they began to suspect from the way he was standing that he was holding something in his right hand behind his back. They ordered him several times to show his hands, and, although Mowatt gradually opened the door slightly more, he did not show his hands. Rather, he adamantly insisted that the officers leave since they did not have a warrant. Concerned about his and his fellow officers' safety, Officer Parker grabbed for Mowatt's right shoulder, prompting Mowatt to "smack[ ] Officer Parker's hand away." J.A. 40. At that point, the officers forced their way into the apartment and wrestled Mowatt to the floor. They later determined he had not been holding anything behind his back.

The officers handcuffed Mowatt, moved him into the living room, and sat him in a

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chair. Officer Chick then proceeded to make a quick sweep of the apartment to ensure that no one else was inside. While doing so, he discovered a loaded .357 revolver on the bedroom floor. As he alerted the other officers, Chick heard what sounded like a struggle in the living room. When Chick emerged from the bedroom, he saw Mowatt, still handcuffed, wrestling with Officer Parker. The two slammed into a refrigerator in the kitchen as they struggled and fell to the ground, allowing the officers to once again subdue Mowatt. Because Mowatt was injured during the struggle, the officers decided to call for medical assistance.

Once the paramedics arrived, the officers noticed that the refrigerator had been knocked open during the tussle. Inside was a small open plastic bag containing several hundred pink pills. Based on his training and experience, Officer Chick concluded that the pills were methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy).

The officers decided at that point to call their supervisor and seek a search warrant. While they did so, they transported Mowatt for processing and additional medical treatment. The affidavit submitted in support of the warrant contained many of the facts concerning how they had come to enter the apartment--although not the fact that they had originally identified themselves and demanded that Mowatt open the door--and what transpired after their entry, including their discovery of the revolver and the pills. Upon executing the resulting warrant, the police recovered the revolver with six rounds of ammunition, the bag containing hundreds of ecstasy pills, as well as several other items, including two semiautomatic assault rifles with several rounds of ammunition, a body armor vest, and almost $20,000 in currency.2

Mowatt was subsequently indicted for one count each of possession with intent to distribute ecstasy, see 21 U.S.C.A. § 841(a)(1) (West 1999); being a felon in possession of a firearm, see 18 U.S.C.A. § 922(g)(1) (West 2000); possession of a firearm in connection with drug trafficking, see 18 U.S.C.A. § 924(c) (West 2000); and being a violent felon in possession of body armor, see 18 U.S.C.A. § 931 (West Supp. 2007).

Mowatt moved to suppress all evidence seized from the apartment, alleging that it was fruit of an unconstitutional warrantless search. Although conceding that warrantless entry is generally justified when exigent circumstances exist, Mowatt argued that the government could not rely on the likelihood that he would destroy the evidence of marijuana possession when he realized that the police were at his door because that exigency was of the officers' own creation. Mowatt maintained that the officers should have first obtained a warrant if they wanted to require him to open his apartment door to allow an investigation of a possible drug crime. He contended that the warrant that the officers eventually obtained was merely fruit of the previous illegal search.

The district court held a hearing on the motion, in which Officer Chick testified. In light of Officer Chick's testimony, the government maintained that the officers' initial decision to knock on Mowatt's door and require him to open it was reasonable in that they were simply attempting to resolve a fairly routine noise complaint. The government suggested that "it's reasonable to at least have face-to-face contact in the setting of a doorway of an apartment" in order to dispose of the noise problem because "there's a lesser expectation of privacy in the doorway" than there

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is with regard to "full b[lown] police activity within a residence." J.A. 91. The government argued that once the officers began to suspect that Mowatt was holding a weapon behind his back and he refused to show his hands, they were justified in attempting to grab him. The government asserted that the officers likely had probable cause to arrest Mowatt for marijuana possession and they at least had reasonable suspicion and a right to ensure that Mowatt did not have a weapon. The government alternatively maintained that even if the initial entry into the apartment was illegal, the evidence recovered via the search warrant was admissible because the officers relied in good faith on the warrant's issuance.

The district court denied Mowatt's motion. The court ruled that the officers had probable cause to arrest Mowatt for marijuana possession and for assault (for striking Officer Parker). The court further decided that once Mowatt realized the officers were present, the risk of destruction of the evidence of marijuana possession constituted exigent circumstances justifying the officers' warrantless entry into the apartment. The court reasoned that it was not necessary for the officers to obtain a warrant prior to approaching Mowatt's apartment because their purpose in knocking on the apartment door was only to resolve the noise complaint, not to investigate a possible drug crime. The court also determined that the officers acted in good faith as evidenced by the fact that they did not seize any items prior to calling their supervisor and obtaining a warrant and...

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