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United States v. Wilson

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

December 10, 2019

United States of America
Matthew G. Wilson



         Defendant moves to suppress evidence found in a backpack in his possession when he was arrested on an outstanding warrant, as well as derivative evidence. He contends that the backpack was searched without a warrant, and the search was not otherwise reasonable under any recognized exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement. The government objects, arguing that the warrantless search was plainly lawful under the “search incident to arrest” exception or, alternatively, under the “inventory” exception. After an evidentiary hearing on the motion, the court invited additional briefing on a specified issue: Whether the “inevitable discovery” rule operates to render the evidence admissible even if it had been improperly seized initially.


         Rochester Police officers responded to a complaint about a domestic disturbance outdoors, near some local woods. Near the wood line, the officers came upon the defendant and a woman who fit the descriptions given. The officers stopped them to investigate. Defendant identified himself as Christopher Landry, but could not provide a social security number or any other identifying information. The officers performed a cursory pat down search of defendant's person to ensure that he had no weapons, and, in the process, reached into his pockets and removed a lighter, a small bag containing drugs (methamphetamine), and a vial of testosterone. Sergeant Smith, one of the officers, advised defendant that he would not be charged with drug possession because that evidence was obtained during a “pat down” (presumably conceding that he had exceeded the permissible scope of such protective searches). Defendant was wearing the backpack during the pat down, but it was not searched at that time.

         Defendant was with Nicole Goodwin, who appeared to the officers to have been recently crying. She was upset. Both defendant and Ms. Goodwin denied any criminal activity, and denied that any assaults or domestic violence had occurred between them.

         The police officers obtained a photograph of Christopher Landry from the dispatch officer, and it plainly was not a photograph of the defendant. When confronted with that fact, defendant still did not provide his correct identity. The dispatch officer advised that Landry had a cousin named Matthew Wilson who had used Landry's name in the past, and, significantly, that there was an outstanding arrest warrant for Wilson. Hearing the radio transmission, another officer reported that he was familiar with Matthew Wilson and was en route to see if “Landry” was in fact Wilson. The officer arrived shortly thereafter and positively identified the defendant as Wilson. Defendant was placed under arrest on the outstanding warrant.

         Before handcuffing defendant, Officer Forrest removed defendant's backpack and handed it to Sergeant Smith, who took possession of it and moved several feet away, where he opened it and dumped the contents onto the ground. Ms. Goodwin had attempted to obtain possession of the backpack upon defendant's arrest, and defendant told the officers that she could take custody of it. But the police refused to surrender it to Goodwin, on grounds that it remained defendant's property.

         While Smith was dumping the contents of the backpack, Forrest was searching defendant's person incident to his arrest. Forrest found additional small quantities of controlled substances, and seized defendant's cellphone. By that point the backpack had already been emptied, and Smith observed a gallon-sized plastic bag containing what appeared to be a significant quantity of a controlled substance. Smith promptly returned the dumped contents to the backpack, making no effort to make a record of the items found inside. A warrant was later obtained authorizing a search of defendant's seized cellphone.

         Defendant was taken to the local police station, where he gave an inculpatory statement. The backpack was inventoried at the station by Officer Forrest, who recorded, in his police report, a list of the items found, and noted that the drugs and property had all been logged into evidence.

         Sergeant Smith testified at the hearing that, because the defendant was under arrest on an outstanding warrant issued by the New Hampshire Superior Court, the officers planned, at first, to take him to the Strafford County House of Corrections, rather than to the Rochester Police station. And, being aware that the House of Corrections would not take “bulk items” like backpacks, and that the Rochester Police Department would, therefore, be securing and storing the backpack until it was eventually returned to defendant, Smith dumped out the contents to check for weapons and perishable items. Smith offered that quickly inventorying the contents in this manner would also permit the retrieval of phones or wallets or other non-bulk personal items that defendant might then be allowed to take with him to the House of Corrections. Smith said that he was also looking for anything that might have confirmed defendant's identity.

         The discovery of drugs on defendant's person and what appeared to be a significant quantity of drugs in the backpack, however, resulted in a change in plans. Defendant was not taken to the County House of Corrections but, instead, he and his belongings were taken to the police station for booking and further investigation of the apparent drug possession offenses.


         The government's first justification for the backpack's warrantless search - that it was reasonable under the “incident to arrest” exception - presents a number of nuanced issues yet to be resolved in this circuit. It is well understood that a warrantless search is per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, unless one of a “few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions” applies. United States v. Wurie, 728 F.3d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 2013) (quoting Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 338 (2009)) (internal quotation marks omitted). “One of those exceptions allows the police, when they make a lawful arrest, to search ‘the arrestee's person and the area within his immediate control.'” Id. (quoting Gant at 339) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         “A custodial arrest of a suspect based on probable cause is a reasonable intrusion under the Fourth Amendment; that intrusion being lawful, a search incident to the arrest requires no additional justification.” United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 235 (1973). In Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), the Supreme Court determined that the search incident to arrest exception allows a search for “any evidence on the arrestee's person in order to prevent its concealment or destruction” and a search of “the area into which an arrestee might reach in order to grab a weapon or evidentiary items.” Chimel, at 763. The exception is based upon the need to ensure the safety of police officers, and to ensure preservation of evidence that might otherwise be lost or destroyed. Id.; Gant, at 339. Accordingly, a search of the ...

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