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United States v. Wheeler

United States District Court, D. Kansas

February 14, 2018



          Daniel D. Crabtree United States District Judge.

         On March 14, 2017, law enforcement officers had a “parole absconder” arrest warrant for defendant Jaiquan Jahai Wheeler. They executed the warrant at a motel room rented by Mr. Wheeler's wife, where Mr. Wheeler was visiting. During the execution of the arrest warrant, law enforcement officers also searched the motel room twice without a search warrant. Although Mr. Wheeler's papers refer to the search effort at the motel room as a single search, his arguments functionally divide this search into two searches. The court thus refers to two distinct searches throughout this order. The first search began with Mr. Wheeler's arrest and terminated when all law enforcement officers except the FBI officers left the motel room. The second search began when Officer Salmon, a task force officer with the FBI, sought consent from Mr. Wheeler's wife to search the room. In his Motion to Suppress (Doc. 15), Mr. Wheeler seeks to suppress evidence found during both warrantless searches of his wife's motel room.

         The parties submitted their initial motion and response (Docs. 15 & 18). And Mr. Wheeler filed a Supplement to his motion (Doc. 23). The court held a hearing on the motion on November 15, 2017. At the end of that hearing, the parties requested time to submit supplemental briefs. The court granted their request. Mr. Wheeler has submitted the supplement to his motion (Doc. 35). And the Government has responded (Doc. 37). After reviewing the parties' briefs and analyzing the evidence presented, the court now is ready to rule. For reasons discussed below, the court denies Mr. Wheeler's motion.

         I. Background[1]

         In the early morning hours on March 14, 2017, law enforcement officers from the Kansas Department of Corrections (“KDOC”), the Topeka Police Department (“TPD”), the Shawnee County Sheriff's Department, and the United States Marshals Service stacked outside Room 371 of the Econo Lodge at 2950 South Topeka Boulevard in Topeka, Kansas. These officers had a “parole absconder” arrest warrant for Jaiquan Jahai Wheeler, the defendant here. And they had information that he was staying in Room 371 with his wife, Kendra Collins. This information proved correct, as Mr. Wheeler had arrived there around three that morning and was asleep in this room rented by Ms. Collins. Doc. 30 at 7 (Tr. of Nov. 15, 2017 Mot. Hr'g).

         Once the entry team was in place, KDOC Special Agent Richard Westgate, the officer assigned to Mr. Wheeler's warrant, knocked on the door and announced their presence. Officers suspected that Mr. Wheeler already knew they had approached because the drapes on the motel room had moved as someone peered out while the officers gathered there. For a tense two minutes, officers waited for Mr. Wheeler to open the door in response to Special Agent Westgate's announcement. But Mr. Wheeler did not come to the door, offering the excuse that he needed to get dressed before opening the door. Meanwhile, the drapes were pulled back at least once more as someone peered out from inside the room. Officers testified that they smelled the odor of marijuana emanating from the room as they stood outside it. Id. at 30 (Officer Scott Koch testifying that he smelled marijuana as he approached the motel room), 66 (Deputy Sheriff John Peterson testifying that he smelled marijuana as he approached the motel room), 95 (Deputy Sheriff James Ward testifying that he smelled marijuana as he moved toward the motel room), 156 (Special Agent Joe Cox testifying that he smelled marijuana as he “went up to the [motel room] door.”), 186 (Special Agent Westgate testifying that “[e]ven prior to walking into the motel room, I could smell a strong odor of marijuana coming from the room.”).

         After two minutes had passed without Mr. Wheeler opening the door as directed, the officers used a keycard to open it. Id. at 20, 72. Then, officers flooded the room; some gained control of Mr. Wheeler and Ms. Collins, while others conducted a protective sweep of the room. The officers who gained control of Mr. Wheeler and Ms. Collins immediately handcuffed them and moved them to the covered walkway just outside the room. Deputy Sheriff John Peterson from Shawnee County was the first man in the stack of law enforcement officers who entered the motel room, and he swept the room and the bathroom. During this sweep, he saw a bag of ammunition on the vanity and noticed that ceiling tiles as well as the top of the toilet tank were out of place. He testified that they looked like they had been disturbed recently. Id. at 76-77. KDOC Special Agent Joe Cox testified that he, too spotted the bag of ammunition on the vanity during this protective sweep. Id. at 147.

         Officers continued their protective sweep and looked under the beds to ensure no one was secreted there.[2] Once they had secured the room, the KDOC officers-Special Agent Westgate, Special Agent Cox, and Deputy Director Richard Sackhoff-began to search the motel room. Deputy Sheriff Peterson and Deputy Sheriff Ward, from Shawnee County, assisted them with the search. Deputy Sheriffs Peterson and Ward testified that the KDOC officers led the search under the authority granted by Mr. Wheeler's parole agreement. Id. at 77, 95. The officers testified that this search produced two bags of marijuana found inside the toilet tank in the bathroom, an electronic scale found behind an ironing board, a box of ammunition found in the drawer of the nightstand, and a handgun found in Ms. Collins's purse-all located inside the motel room. Id. at 102-04 (Deputy Sheriff Ward testifying that he found two bags of marijuana inside the toilet tank and an electronic scale behind the ironing board), 121-123 (Deputy Director Sackhoff testifying that he found a box of ammunition in the nightstand and a firearm in Ms. Collins's purse).

         While this search was conducted, Officer Patrick Salmon and Special Agent Ian Knooiheuizen from the FBI arrived. And at some point, Ms. Collins was brought back into the room. When the search was complete, all evidence was left in the room and the searching officers left. Officer Salmon and Special Agent Knooiheuizen stayed in the room with Ms. Collins. Officer Salmon asked Officer Scott Koch to stay as well. He wanted to use Officer Koch's body camera to record the interaction with Ms. Collins. Id. at 37. Once the room was clear of all law enforcement officers except Officer Salmon, Special Agent Knooiheuizen, and Officer Koch, Officer Salmon explained Mr. Wheeler's arrest warrant to Ms. Collins. He then explained that the officers who were in the room had found some contraband in plain view.[3]And then, Officer Salmon asked Ms. Collins to consent to a search of her entire room. Ex. 1 (Koch #2.mp4 at 01:00-03:23)

         She asked what would happen if she didn't give her consent. Officer Salmon explained that he would hold the room and apply for a search warrant. He explained that her consent was the quicker way, but she was free to decline consent. And Officer Salmon also explained that he didn't want her to consider whether they could secure a search warrant when she decided whether to give her consent. She ultimately agreed to consent. Id. at 03:23-04:35. But she had to use the bathroom before she signed the consent form and so, Officer Koch searched the bathroom before Ms. Collins used it.

         After she used the bathroom, Officer Salmon filled out the consent form and read it to Ms. Collins. Ms. Collins was confused about why she had to sign the form-saying that she had never had to sign a form when she had consented in the past. Officer Salmon explained that the FBI liked to get consent verbally and in writing. Ms. Collins then said she understood and signed the consent form. Id. at 07:28-11:15.

         Officer Koch then searched the room. Officer Koch testified that he found the two bags of marijuana inside the toilet tank, a bag of ammunition on the vanity, an electronic scale found behind the ironing board, a handgun found in Ms. Collins's purse, and a full box of ammunition found in the nightstand.[4] Doc. 30 at 30-31. He also testified that he found an empty box of ammunition in the trashcan. It matched the bag of ammunition found on the vanity. Officer Koch also found a small bag of marijuana inside the pocket of a red jacket. Id. at 31, 59.

         Mr. Wheeler now seeks to suppress evidence discovered during these searches of Ms. Collins's motel room.

         II. Analysis

         Mr. Wheeler seeks to suppress this evidence because the searches, he argues, violated the Fourth Amendment. The issues raised by his argument begin with the requirement that Mr. Wheeler must establish that he has standing to object to the searches. See United States v. Marchant, 55 F.3d 509, 512 (10th Cir. 1995) (“In order to challenge the lawfulness of a search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, a defendant must first establish his or her standing to do so.”).

         A. Standing

         To have standing, Mr. Wheeler must demonstrate that the searches affected his individual constitutional rights. United States v. Rhiger, 315 F.3d 1283, 1285 (10th Cir. 2003). To make this showing, he must “show that he had a subjective expectation of privacy in the premises searched and that society is prepared to recognize that expectation as reasonable.” Id. (citation omitted). “It is settled that a motel guest is entitled to constitutional protection against unreasonable searches of his or her room.” United States v. Owens, 782 F.2d 146, 149 (10th Cir. 1986) (first citing Stoner v. California, 376 U.S. 483, 490 (1964); then citing United States v. Anthon, 648 F.2d 669 (10th Cir. 1981)). But here, Ms. Collins is the motel guest because she had rented the room from the motel. And the Tenth Circuit has not expressly recognized an expectation of privacy for unregistered guests in a motel room. See United States v. Creighton, 639 F.3d 1281 (10th Cir. 2011) (“We assume for the sake of argument that an individual like Defendant who, unbeknownst to management, shares a hotel space with a room's registered occupant to engage in criminal activity has an expectation of privacy in the room at least commensurate with the registered occupant's.”).

         Mr. Wheeler alternatively argues that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the room as an overnight guest there. See Minnesota v. Olson, 495, U.S. 91, 96-97 (1990) (finding that a defendant's status as “an overnight guest is alone enough to show that he had an expectation of privacy in the home that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.”). An overnight motel guest's expectation of privacy is founded on the more general principle that a person has Fourth Amendment protections in a place other than his own home when he has a legitimate expectation of privacy in the premises he is using. See Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128, 142-43 (1978) (“[A] person can have a legally sufficient interest in a place other than his own home so that the Fourth Amendment protects him from unreasonable governmental intrusion into that place . . . [when he has] a legitimate expectation of privacy in the premises he was using.”).

         Here, the court finds that Mr. Wheeler had a legitimate expectation of privacy in his wife's motel room. He came to the room late at night (or early in the morning) and was asleep there when police arrived several hours later. He used his wife's room as a “private place to sleep.” See Olson, 495 U.S. at 99. The Supreme Court has recognized that using a dwelling in this fashion creates an interest that provides Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable governmental intrusion. See Rakas, 439 U.S. at 143 (“[The] capacity to claim the protection of the Fourth Amendment depends not upon a property right in the invaded place but upon whether the person who claims the protection of the Amendment has a legitimate expectation of privacy in the invaded place.”). The court thus concludes that Mr. Wheeler has standing to challenge the reasonableness of the government's searches here.

         B. Fourth Amendment Standard

         The Fourth Amendment[5] to our Constitution forbids unreasonable searches and seizures. California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 390 (1985). When a defendant challenges the reasonableness of a search or seizure, the government bears the burden to prove the reasonableness of that search or seizure by a preponderance of the evidence. United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 177 (1974); United States v. Zubia-Melendez, 263 F.3d 1155, 1160 (10th Cir. 2001). If the court determines that a search or seizure violated the Constitution, the exclusionary rule prohibits admission of the fruits of all evidence seized illegally. See Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 487-88 (1963).

         Mr. Wheeler asserts that the court should suppress the evidence found during the searches of Ms. Collins's motel room because the authorities conducted improper warrantless searches. Doc. 15 at 1. The Supreme Court has held that warrantless searches are “presumptively unreasonable.” See, e.g., Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 459 (2011). But “this presumption may be overcome in some circumstances because the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness.” Id. (internal quotation marks, brackets, and citation omitted). “Accordingly, the warrant requirement is subject to certain reasonable exceptions.” Id. (citation omitted).

         Mr. Wheeler argues that his parole agreement cannot justify the first warrantless search of Ms. Collin's motel room. The government disagrees, and invokes four exceptions to the warrant requirement to justify the search: the protective sweep; the plain view doctrine; the plain smell doctrine; and the special-needs exception. The government also invokes Ms. Collins's consent as a basis justifying the second search.

         Ultimately, the court concludes that both warrantless searches of Ms. Collins's motel room complied with the Constitution. The court explains the reasons for its conclusions, below.

         C. First Search of the Motel Room

         The government combines these four exceptions to the warrant requirement to justify the first search. Namely, the government begins with the argument that officers initially collected a variety of observations under the first three exceptions-the protective sweep, plain view, and plain smell doctrines. These lawfully collected observations-the government contends, provided a basis for the officers to invoke a fourth exception to the warrant requirement-the special-needs exception.

         As overview, the special-needs exception permits certain law enforcement officers to conduct warrantless searches because their duties present special needs that differ from other law enforcement officers. This exception applies when “special needs” of law enforcement officers “make the warrant and probable cause requirement impracticable.” United States v. Warren, 566 F.3d 1211, 1215 (10th Cir. 2009). Probation and parole officers frequently qualify for this exception.

         The underlying Kansas law here recognizes the special needs of parole officers. Specifically, it authorizes Kansas parole officers to conduct warrantless, suspicionless searches of parolees. See Kan. Stat. Ann. § 22-3717(k)(2) (requiring a Kansas parolee to consent to searches conducted by parole officers of the parolee's person and “effects, vehicle, residence, and property” whether such searches are conducted “with or without cause.”). But as the discussion below explains, the facts here present an unusual twist. It appears that Mr. Wheeler's parole agreement gave Kansas's parole officers broader search authority than Kansas law actually authorized. But in the end, the court concludes that this variance does not matter. It doesn't matter because the officers properly gathered information under the first three exceptions to the warrant requirement invoked by the government. This information provided the parole officers with reasonable suspicion sufficient to invoke the special-needs exception as well.

         1. Protective Sweep, Plain View, and Plain Smell

         The government first invokes the protective sweep exception. This exception allows law enforcement officers to protect themselves when making an arrest in a confined space. In this context, officers may “look in closets and other spaces immediately adjoining the place of arrest from which an attack could be immediately launched” without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325, 334 (1990). If the law enforcement officers' search under this exception extends beyond immediately adjoining locations, “there must be articulable facts which, taken together with the rational inferences from those facts, would warrant a reasonably prudent officer in believing that the area to be swept harbors an individual posing a danger to those on the arrest scene.” Id.

         As law enforcement officers arrested Mr. Wheeler, they conducted a protective sweep- looking in the closet, in the bathroom, and under the beds. All of these locations were in or immediately adjacent to the main motel room, and an attack could have been launched from any of them. See Id. During this protective ...

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