United States v. Williams

Decision Date21 November 2018
Docket Number1:18-CR-00085 EAW
Citation350 F.Supp.3d 261
Parties UNITED STATES of America, v. Milton WILLIAMS, Jr., Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of New York

Dominic H. Saraceno, Buffalo, NY, Leslie Ellen Scott, Federal Public Defender Office, Buffalo, NY, for Defendant.

Laura A. Higgins, U.S. Attorney's Office, Buffalo, NY, for Plaintiff.

DECISION AND ORDER

ELIZABETH A. WOLFORD, United States District Judge

INTRODUCTION

Defendant Milton Williams, Jr. ("Defendant") stands accused by way of a nine-count Indictment returned on April 4, 2018, with four counts of distribution of a quantity of cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(C) (Counts 1 through 4); possession with intent to distribute cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(C) (Count 5); possession with intent to distribute marijuana, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(D) (Count 6); maintaining a drug-involved premises, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 856(a)(1) (Count 7); possession of firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking crimes, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(i) (Count 8); and possession of defaced firearms, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(k) and 924(a)(1)(B) (Count 9). (Dkt. 12).

Presently before the Court are the Government's and Defendant's objections (Dkt. 34; Dkt. 36) to the August 21, 2018 Report and Recommendation issued by United States Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy (Dkt. 33) which concluded that the search warrant for Defendant's residence lacked probable cause, but nonetheless denied Defendant's motion to suppress (Dkt. 21) based upon the good faith standard set forth in United States v. Leon , 468 U.S. 897, 104 S.Ct. 3405, 82 L.Ed.2d 677 (1984). This Court has conducted, as it must, a de novo review of the suppression motion. Because the officers executing the search of Defendant's residence reasonably relied on the search warrant in good faith, this Court denies Defendant's motion to suppress and does not reach the issue of whether the warrant was supported by probable cause. See United States v. Ganias , 824 F.3d 199, 209 (2d Cir. 2016) ("Because we conclude that the agents acted in good faith, we need not decide whether a Fourth Amendment violation occurred.").

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Defendant was initially charged by way of criminal complaint on January 19, 2018, with possession with intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana; possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime; and possession of defaced firearms, all stemming from a search by law enforcement that occurred on December 12, 2017. (Dkt. 1). A grand jury returned an Indictment on April 4, 2018, charging Defendant with nine counts of firearms and drug trafficking crimes. (Dkt. 12). The undersigned referred the case to Judge McCarthy for all pre-trial matters pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (B). (Dkt. 14). On June 4, 2018, Defendant filed pretrial motions, including a motion to suppress evidence recovered from the search of his residence on December 12, 2017. (Dkt. 21). Judge McCarthy held oral argument on the motions on July 16, 2018 (Dkt. 26) and directed the parties to provide additional materials relevant to Defendant's motion to suppress, including the opportunity to review audio recordings of a confidential informant and an affidavit from Defendant relating to his expectation of privacy in the search location (1364 Pierce Avenue, upper apartment). (Dkt. 27). Judge McCarthy further directed the Government to provide an unredacted transcript of in camera testimony supporting the search warrant, and to provide Defendant with a redacted version, or an explanation as to why it believed it was unable to provide this information. (Id. ).

On August 21, 2018, Judge McCarthy issued a Report and Recommendation concluding, among other things, that Defendant's motion to suppress should be denied. (Dkt. 33). Judge McCarthy found that while the search warrant lacked probable cause for the search of Defendant's residence at 1364 Pierce Avenue (id. at 4-6), the search was valid pursuant to the Leon good faith exception, in that the affidavit was not "so lacking in probable cause for the search of the residence so as to render reliance upon it unreasonable" (id. at 6-8).

Both the Government and Defendant have filed objections and responses to Judge McCarthy's Report and Recommendation. (Dkt. 34; Dkt. 36; Dkt. 40; Dkt. 41). The Government objects to Judge McCarthy's finding that the search warrant lacked probable cause. (Dkt. 34). In the alternative, the Government contends that should the Court agree with Judge McCarthy's conclusion that the search warrant lacked probable cause, the Court should adopt Judge McCarthy's recommendation that the Leon good faith exception applies. (Dkt. 41). Defendant objects to Judge McCarthy's finding that the Leon good faith exception applies and argues that the evidence must be suppressed. (Dkt. 36; Dkt. 40).

BACKGROUND

Defendant's motion to suppress stems from a search warrant executed at his residence, located at 1364 Pierce Avenue, upper apartment, in Niagara Falls, New York. (Dkt. 29). The search warrant authorized the search of three locations for evidence of drug trafficking: (1) Defendant's person; (2) Defendant's residence at 1364 Pierce Avenue; and (3) a 2006 black Land Rover Range Rover, which law enforcement had observed Defendant operating and which was involved in at least two controlled purchases of narcotics. (Id. at 1-3). Acting New York State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch, Sr. signed the search warrant on December 6, 2017. (Id. at 4). In addition to the information contained in the search warrant affidavit, Justice Kloch also received in camera testimony relevant to the search warrant application. (Dkt. 33 at 5). This in camera testimony is not referenced by or incorporated into the search warrant or its application. (Id. ; see also Dkt. 29). As a result, in his Report and Recommendation, Judge McCarthy determined that the in camera testimony could not be considered in connection with any probable cause review (Dkt. 33 at 5), and the Government does not object to Judge McCarthy's ruling on that issue. (Dkt. 34 at 2 n.1). See United States v. Rosa , 626 F.3d 56, 64 (2d Cir. 2010) (holding the court may not "rely on unincorporated, unattached supporting documents to cure an otherwise defective search warrant").

The basic facts contained in the search warrant application are as follows. Utilizing a confidential informant, law enforcement engaged in three controlled purchases of narcotics over the months of October, November, and December 2017. (Dkt. 29 at 3-4). During the first controlled purchase in October 2017, law enforcement observed the confidential informant at the purchase location, where he/she entered a black Range Rover operated by Defendant. (Id. at 3). After a short time, the confidential informant exited the vehicle. (Id. ). Following the controlled purchase, the confidential informant turned over to law enforcement a knotted plastic bag containing a quantity of white powder that the confidential informant stated he/she had purchased from Defendant. (Id. ), A portion of the white powder substance field-tested positive for the presence of cocaine. (Id. ).

During the second controlled purchase in November 2017, law enforcement observed "a black male" exit the residence at 1364 Pierce Avenue, enter a black Range Rover, and proceed directly to the location of the controlled purchase. (Id. ), At the purchase location, the confidential informant entered the black Range Rover and a short time later, exited the vehicle. (Id. ). Following the controlled purchase, the confidential informant turned over to law enforcement a knotted plastic bag containing a quantity of white powder that the confidential informant stated he/she had purchased from Defendant. (Id. ). A portion of the white powder substance field-tested positive for the presence of cocaine. (Id. ).

During the third controlled purchase in December 2017, law enforcement observed the confidential informant at the purchase location, where he/she entered the passenger side of a silver Jeep. (Id. ). After a short time, the confidential informant exited the vehicle. (Id. ). Following the controlled purchase, the confidential informant turned over to law enforcement a knotted plastic bag containing a quantity of white powder that the confidential informant stated he/she had purchased from Defendant. (Id. at 4). A portion of the white powder substance field-tested positive for the presence of cocaine. (Id. ). The search warrant concludes by requesting authorization to search Defendant, his vehicle, and his residence at 1364 Pierce Avenue for cocaine, as well as items which tend to show the possession, storage and sale of cocaine, including money, cellphones, written articles, papers, and ledgers. (Id. ).

A December 12, 2017 search of 1364 Pierce Avenue resulted in the seizure of evidence of drug trafficking and firearms crimes. (Dkt. 21 at 25 ¶ 7; Dkt. 34 at 3). Defendant argues that this evidence should be suppressed.

DISCUSSION
I. Probable Cause for the Search Warrant

The Fourth Amendment guarantees "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. "To establish probable cause to search a residence, two factual showings are necessary—first, that a crime was committed, and second, that there is probable cause to believe that evidence of such crime is located at the residence." United States v. Travisano , 724 F.2d 341, 345 (2d Cir. 1983). Here, the dispute centers not on whether a crime was committed, but rather whether there was probable cause to believe that evidence of the crime would be located at Defendant's residence.

"[P]robable cause to search a place exists if the issuing judge finds a ‘fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a...

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