U.S. v. Block

Decision Date20 December 1978
Docket NumberNo. 78-5086,78-5086
Citation590 F.2d 535
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. William E. BLOCK, Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Nelson M. Casstevens, Jr., Charlotte, N. C. (Robert P. Hanner, II, Charlotte, N. C., on brief), for appellant.

Harold J. Bender, Charlotte, N. C., Asst. U. S. Atty. (Harold M. Edwards, U. S. Atty., Asheville, N. C., on brief), for appellee.

Before WINTER, BUTZNER and PHILLIPS, Circuit Judges.

PHILLIPS, Circuit Judge.

William E. Block appeals his conviction on both counts of a two-count indictment charging in one count conspiracy to procure, sell, and distribute heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, and in the other, possession with intent to distribute and dispense heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a) (1). Following jury verdicts of guilty on both counts, the district court consolidated the counts for judgment and imposed a sentence of imprisonment for three years plus a mandatory three year term of special parole. A co-defendant, James Wade McGee, whose involvement with Block is important to consideration of Block's appeal, was convicted in their joint trial as a co-conspirator on the conspiracy count and as an aider and abettor on the possession count, but did not appeal his convictions.

On this appeal, Block assigns as error the admission into evidence of the fruits of what he contends was an unconstitutional search and seizure, and the denial by the district judge of his motion for judgment of acquittal. Concluding that the challenged evidence was unconstitutionally obtained, hence inadmissible, and that its admission cannot be declared by us to have been harmless beyond a reasonable doubt as to either count, we reverse and remand.


For some time prior to October 24, 1975 a critical date in this chronicle law enforcement officers of the Charlotte, N. C. and Gastonia, N. C. police departments and of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation were engaged in a cooperative investigation of suspected organized drug traffic in the Charlotte-Gastonia area. In its course they acquired hard evidence that one James Wade McGee, a friend of the appellant, William E. Block, might be implicated in the traffic when McGee sold a quantity of heroin to an undercover agent. During this time, McGee was a frequent visitor, sometimes apparently for extended periods, in the Gastonia home of Block's mother, Mary E. Block, where Block, then twenty-three years old, occupied a room as his regular place of residence. Acting on information that McGee was then visiting the Block home, seven or eight of the investigating officers, armed with warrants for McGee's arrest, descended on the home at around 4:45 A.M. on the morning of October 24, 1975. Some covered the exits while others presented themselves to Mrs. Block, who came to an exterior door and admitted them into the house when informed that they were searching for McGee under warrants for his arrest. In the course of a general search of the house, some of the officers came to a room that Mrs. Block identified as that of her son William. The officers entered this room, still searching for McGee. Once in it, one of the officers saw, apparently in plain view, some paraphernalia associated with marijuana traffic: plastic containers, triple beam scales, and some marijuana residue. At this point, their interest heightened, the officers' attention turned to a closed footlocker trunk of the army type that sat on the floor within two or three feet of the bed in William's room. Under circumstances hopelessly in dispute on the later conflicting testimony of the officers and Mrs. Block, the officers the proceeded to force open the trunk and seize from within it a quantity of material later identified as heroin. The officers' version was that prior to opening the trunk they obtained from Mrs. Block a voluntarily signed consent form that specifically authorized them to search her son's room and to remove from it any items that could be used as evidence. Such a consent form was in fact signed by Mrs. Block and given to them but, according to her, it was only presented to her after the trunk had been opened and searched and was at that time described to her as a receipt for the items seized. 1 The exact details of the opening of the trunk are also in dispute on the record, but certain critical aspects are clear and not disputed. The officers specifically asked Mrs. Block whose trunk it was, and were told that it was her son William's. The trunk was at that time fastened shut by some means that indicated to the officers that it was locked and that a key was required to open it. They asked Mrs. Block if she had a key and she replied that she did not. At this point one of the officers exerted sufficient force of some kind over a period of several seconds to cause the locking mechanism to come open. 2 Thereupon the trunk was opened and the search and seizure of the heroin effected. It is undisputed that this trunk had been William's private property over a period of around ten years; that during this time it was kept in his room, locked while he was away; and that neither his mother nor anyone else had means of access to its interior nor permission to open it. So far as the circumstances attending William's occupancy of the room itself are concerned, there is again dispute on the record as to whether he occupied as a paying tenant or simply at the pleasure of his mother. 3 But it is undisputed that while the room was considered exclusively his in the familial arrangement, his mother had and exercised unquestioned rights of access to it for cleaning and other household purposes.

Following the footlocker search and seizure, the officers departed, their original search for McGee unsuccessful. It is apparently the case that when the search of October 24, 1975 was undertaken, Block's possible complicity with McGee or others in the drug traffic under investigation was not suspected. A few days after the search and seizure however, the searching officers brought Special Agent Landrum of the Drug Enforcement Administration of the United States Department of Justice into the investigation, making available to him the fruits of the search, including of course the information identifying Block as owner of the footlocker. From this point Landrum directed an investigation that resulted eventually in the federal indictments and convictions under consideration here. Just after the search in 1975, for quite cogent reasons, it was decided by the Government officers to delay seeking indictments against Block and McGee to see if others possibly involved with them might be implicated. Focus of the ensuing investigation under Landrum's direction was a so-called "El Paso Connection" that was believed to involve sources in El Paso regularly supplying narcotics to dealers who transported them into the Charlotte-Gastonia area for distribution. This investigation turned up two persons whose testimony eventually became critical in the cases against Block and his co-defendant McGee. One was Debra Davidson, a young college student from Gastonia, whom the investigating officers learned had been arrested on drug charges by Texas officers in El Paso on October 17, 1975. She informed the officers and later testified in Block's trial that she had traveled to El Paso on that occasion from Charlotte, N. C. specifically to pick up some marijuana for one Jerome Wilson; that Wade McGee had flown on the same flight; that while in El Paso she had on two occasions seen McGee in the company of her own drug supplier, a man named Steve Lochhead (named as a co-conspirator in Block's indictment); and that on one occasion when she purchased heroin from Lochhead, McGee, with her consent, injected heroin into her arm to test its quality. The other informant was a drug dealer named Hudman. Hudman informed the officers and later testified at Block's trial that he, Hudman, had been involved in the "El Paso Connection" at times prior to 1975 in partnership with the man Jerome Wilson named by Debra Davidson as her principal, and with one David Wells. Most critically he informed them, and later testified, that in October 1975, on a visit to Gastonia he, Hudman, met Block who told him that Block and McGee were buying heroin from Lochhead in El Paso through an arrangement set up by Hudman's sometime partner, David Wells, for which Block and McGee had paid a substantial sum.

With the case thus developed against Block he was indicted some two years after the research of October 24, 1975 and brought to trial. By pre-trial motion Block sought to have suppressed the evidence obtained in the footlocker trunk search; the motion was denied after a pre-trial hearing; and he again objected to its introduction at trial. At the ensuing trial the Government's case against Block was based upon the testimony of Davidson and Hudman earlier summarized, that of two of the officers who participated in the footlocker trunk search and who described its conduct and its product in terms earlier summarized, and that of a crime laboratory chemist who identified the seized footlocker contents as heroin prior to its introduction in evidence.


When challenged by the pre-trial suppression motion, the Government undertook to justify the warrantless footlocker search, hence the admissibility of its evidentiary fruits, solely on the basis of consent by Block's mother to the search. On the question whether the consent was effective for this purpose the Government had the burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence, Bumper v. North Carolina, 391 U.S. 543, 88 S.Ct. 1788, 20 L.Ed.2d 797 (1968), and in the judgment of the district court carried it, as the motion was denied and the evidence later admitted. In this we conclude the court erred.

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    • United States
    • Virginia Court of Appeals
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    ...he opened the backpack. Also, the backpack itself was closed, although not locked or otherwise sealed shut. Cf. United States v. Block, 590 F.2d 535, 541 (4th Cir. 1978) (although mother could consent to search of house, she could not consent to search of locked footlocker found in her son'......
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