United States v. Reed

Decision Date01 April 2021
Docket NumberNo. 20-5631,20-5631
Citation993 F.3d 441
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Terry REED, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

MURPHY, Circuit Judge.

This case raises a recurring Fourth Amendment question. Suppose that the police uncover evidence that an individual is illegally selling drugs. When does that evidence create probable cause to search the individual's home for drugs, drug proceeds, or other evidence of drug dealing? We have "struggled" to answer this question in a consistent way because it implicates two competing principles. United States v. Ardd , 911 F.3d 348, 351 (6th Cir. 2018). Under the first principle, probable cause to arrest a suspect for a crime does not necessarily create probable cause to search the suspect's home. So our cases, at times, say that officers need additional evidence of a "nexus" between the drug dealing and the dealer's home. United States v. Brown , 828 F.3d 375, 383–84 (6th Cir. 2016). Under the second principle, the probable-cause test allows officers to make common-sense conclusions about where people hide things. So our cases also say that evidence of a drug dealer's ongoing drug activity can sometimes create this nexus to search the dealer's home. United States v. Sumlin , 956 F.3d 879, 886 (6th Cir. 2020).

It can be difficult to decide which of these principles controls. The judicial disagreement in this case over whether the police had probable cause to search Terry Reed's home proves the point. Relying on the second principle, a magistrate judge held that probable cause existed because an officer's affidavit showed that Reed was a drug dealer engaged in ongoing drug activity. Relying on the first, the district court held that probable cause did not exist because the affidavit lacked other evidence connecting Reed's drug activity to his home. Yet we need not decide who was right. This appeal concerns only whether the district court properly suppressed the evidence discovered during the search despite a state judge's warrant to undertake it. Even when a search violates the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court has held that courts should not suppress evidence if the police reasonably relied on a judge's decision that probable cause justified a warrant. United States v. Leon , 468 U.S. 897, 922–23, 104 S.Ct. 3405, 82 L.Ed.2d 677 (1984). And given our "unsettled jurisprudence" on this nexus question, the police could reasonably rely on the judge's finding that Reed's ongoing drug activity provided probable cause to search his home. United States v. Hodge , 246 F.3d 301, 309 (3d Cir. 2001) (Alito, J.). Without deciding the thornier constitutional question, then, we hold only that the district court should not have suppressed the evidence. We reverse.


Officers with the police department in Memphis, Tennessee, came to suspect Reed of distributing marijuana. Ultimately, on May 17, 2018, Detective Brandon Evans filed three affidavits seeking search warrants for three locations. Evans's first affidavit sought a warrant to search the business "OK Tire" for marijuana, drug paraphernalia, and drug-related records. In this affidavit, Evans described his training and experience and indicated that he had been investigating Reed's drug trafficking. Within the last five days, Evans explained, a confidential informant had made a controlled buy from Reed at the OK Tire and had seen Reed "selling and storing marijuana" there. The purchased substance tested positive for THC. Evans noted that Reed's girlfriend, Dominique Johnson, had witnessed the buy and that a computer search had identified her as the business's owner. Evans added that he had surveilled Johnson and Reed leaving their home on Kate Bond Road and traveling to the OK Tire. He had also seen both of them use their own set of keys to open the business on different occasions. Evans lastly described the informant's reliability: The informant had been responsible for several prior drug seizures and had provided information about drug houses that had been corroborated through additional police work.

Evans's second affidavit sought a warrant to search a home on Orchi Road for the same evidence. In this affidavit, Evans noted that Reed's mother lived at the Orchi Road address and that Reed's driver's license listed it. Evans also indicated that the confidential informant had made a controlled buy from Reed at this home within the last 20 days. Surveilling this buy, Evans watched Reed walk out of the house and sell marijuana to the informant. Evans again explained that the purchased substance tested positive for THC. Aside from the controlled buy, Evans stated that he had watched Reed drive the streets near this home in a maroon Mustang and "conduct hand to hand transactions" with individuals. Within the last five days, Evans added, he saw Reed drive a brown Cadillac Escalade and park it at the home. Evans also watched people pull into the home's driveway. Reed would come out and engage in hand-to-hand transactions with these individuals. Evans noted that "[o]n some occasions" the individuals would "hand Reed money and Reed would in turn hand them a clear bag with an unknown substance." Evans lastly indicated that Reed had four prior felony drug convictions and two prior misdemeanor drug convictions.

Evans's third affidavit sought a warrant to search Reed and Johnson's home on Kate Bond Road for financial records and drug proceeds (but not for drugs). In this affidavit, Evans again recounted his experience investigating drug crimes and the informant's controlled buys from Reed at the other two locations. Evans noted that Johnson had active utilities in her name at the home on Kate Bond Road and that she and Reed had lived together at different homes in Memphis. Evans also indicated that he had watched Reed and Johnson leave this home in the brown Cadillac Escalade. The informant had likewise confirmed to Evans that Johnson and Reed lived together.

A state judge decided that probable cause existed to issue search warrants for all three locations (and signed the warrants within a minute of each other). Officers executed the warrants the next day. They seized nothing from the OK Tire and only baggies and a digital scale from the Orchi Road home. But the search of the home on Kate Bond Road uncovered two guns, about 18 rounds of ammunition, 18.7 grams of marijuana, 2.1 grams of THC wax, and $5,636 in cash.

After the search, Reed waived his rights under Miranda v. Arizona , 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966). He confessed that the guns and drugs belonged to him and that he had been selling marijuana.

The government indicted Reed on five counts: one count of possession with the intent to distribute marijuana, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) ; two counts of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) ; and two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Reed moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of his home on Kate Bond Road, including his statements to police. He argued that the affidavit in support of this warrant failed to identify a "nexus" between his drug dealing and the home so as to raise an inference that drug records or proceeds would be found there. Reed also argued that the affidavit was so deficient that the judge's warrant could not avoid the exclusionary rule under the good-faith exception from United States v. Leon , 468 U.S. 897, 104 S.Ct. 3405, 82 L.Ed.2d 677 (1984).

A magistrate judge recommended that the district court deny Reed's motion. United States v. Reed , 2020 WL 5358310, at *8 (W.D. Tenn. Mar. 4, 2020). The judge noted that an affidavit in support of a search warrant must identify a probable-cause nexus between the place to be searched and the items to be seized. Id. at *5. But the judge concluded that this nexus existed based on our cases stating that officers can reasonably "infer that ‘instrumentalities and fruits’ of drug trafficking may be found inside a known drug dealer's residence." Id. at *7 (citation omitted).

The district court disagreed and suppressed the evidence. United States v. Reed , 2020 WL 3050771, at *7 (W.D. Tenn. June 8, 2020). While acknowledging Reed's status as a "known drug dealer," the court held that Evans's affidavit fell short because it contained no allegations that Reed conducted drug activity at his home on Kate Bond Road. Id. at *1, *2–3. The court next held that Leon ’s good-faith exception did not apply. Id. at *4–5. It reasoned that Evans should have known that the affidavit needed to contain more allegations than "the fact that [Reed], who happens to be a drug dealer, resides" at the home. Id. at *5. This conclusion led the court to suppress both the evidence recovered from the home and Reed's statements after the search. Id. at *5–7.

The government has filed an immediate appeal from the district court's suppression order. See 18 U.S.C. § 3731. It argues only that the district court should have applied Leon ’s good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. We review the question whether Leon applies de novo. See United States v. Frazier , 423 F.3d 526, 533 (6th Cir. 2005).


The Fourth Amendment (applicable to state officers through the Fourteenth Amendment) commands that "no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." U.S. Const. amend. IV. Designed to prohibit the general warrants common at the time of the founding, this text requires that a warrant specifically identify the "place" to be searched and the "things" to be seized. Id. ; see Ashcroft v. al-Kidd , 563 U.S. 731, 742–43, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011). And courts have long held that a probable-cause "nexus" must connect these two...

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