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United States v. Lee

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

May 31, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
DENNIS LEE, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DAVID L. RUSSELL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Defendant Dennis Lee moves the Court to suppress evidence found in the search of his residence. Doc. 83. The Government has responded, Doc. 84, and the Defendant has replied, Doc. 85. For the reasons that follow, Defendant's Motion is DENIED.

         I

         The events culminating in the search of Defendant Dennis Lee's residence began with the arrest of three persons believed to be a part of an interstate theft ring. Following these arrests, some cooperation by the conspirators, and the recovery of several pieces of stolen property, the Government applied for, and was granted, a search warrant for Mr. Lee's residence in Newcastle, Oklahoma. The search of the home's wall safe revealed guns and ammunition, for which the Government subsequently charged Mr. Lee for illegally possessing a firearm as a felon, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).

         Moving to suppress this evidence, Mr. Lee argues the Government lacked probable cause to search his home and that the warrant was so facially deficient that officers could not have acted in good faith in executing it.

         II

         The Fourth Amendment demands that probable cause support the warrant that authorized the Government's search of Mr. Lee's residence. See U.S. Const. amend. IV. (stating “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause”). “Indeed, the physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed.” United States v. Biglow, 562 F.3d 1272, 1275 (10th Cir. 2009) (citing United States v. U.S. Dist. Court, 407 U.S. 297, 313, 92 S.Ct. 2125 (1972)). As a result, probable cause requires some nexus between the suspected criminal activity and the place to be searched, id. at 1278, a question that “depends upon the facts of each case.” Biglow, 562 F.3d at 1279 (citing Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 371, 124 S.Ct. 795 (2003)). There are, however, certain “non-exhaustive factors” that may determine whether the nexus is present: (1) the type of crime at issue, (2) the extent of a suspect's opportunity for concealment, (3) the nature of the evidence sought, and (4) all reasonable inferences as to where a criminal would likely keep such evidence.” Biglow, 562 F.3d at 1279.

         These factors, Mr. Lee contends, do not establish any nexus between his participation in the interstate theft ring and his residence. The first question, then, is whether there was probable cause to search Mr. Lee's residence-that is, whether the “affidavit in support of [the] search warrant [contained] facts sufficient to lead a prudent person to believe that a search would uncover contraband or evidence of criminal activity.” United States v. Danhauer, 229 F.3d 1002, 1006 (10th Cir. 2000). The Magistrate Judge believed so, and the Court affords that determination great deference so long as there is a “substantial basis for concluding that probable cause existed.” Id.

         Yet there is a second, equally important question: if the warrant lacked probable cause, did officers act in good faith in relying on the warrant? If so, the Government may introduce that evidence nonetheless, save for a few narrow exceptions. See United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 945, 104 S.Ct. 3405 (10th Cir. 1984).

         III

         Because the whole of Mr. Lee's argument is that the application for the search warrant-consisting solely of FBI Agent Kenneth Thompson's affidavit-failed to establish probable cause, the Court's analysis begins and ends with a summary of the affidavit's allegations.

         The affidavit first introduces the alleged interstate theft ring and describes Oklahoma City police officers' arrests on July 21, 2016, of three persons believed to be involved in the conspiracy: Dakota Epperly, Dakotah Henderson, and Amanda Czermak. That day, undercover officers purchased from the suspects an ATV and lawnmower that police had reason to believe the suspects had stolen from Kansas. Doc. 83, Ex. 1, Affidavit, at 4. Searches of the suspects pursuant to the arrest uncovered multiple master keys to tractors, ATVs, utility task vehicles, and lawn mowers. Affidavit, at 4.

         A little over two months later, Czermak, whom the affidavit characterized as “very reliable, ” began to cooperate with law enforcement-cooperation that, as the affidavit explained-had led to the recovery of 12 separate stolen items worth in total more than $100, 000. Czermak outlined the workings of an interstate theft ring covering four states. Czermak, along with her boyfriend, Dakotah Henderson, would travel outside Oklahoma to steal tractors, trailers, ATVs, UTVs, golf carts, and lawn mowers. Their thefts, though were not spontaneous; rather, Dakota Epperly (their co-arrestee) would instruct Czermak and Hendeson via phone call or text on which items to steal and their locations. Epperly also provided the couple with master keys for equipment so they could operate and load the stolen equipment into their vehicle before hauling it back to Oklahoma. Affidavit, at 5.

         Epperly, along with a co-conspirator Auston Slater, then arranged to sell these items, with Henderson getting a cut of the sale. Defendant Lee was one frequent buyer, according to Czermak. During the course of the conspiracy, Mr. Lee purchased approximately $300, 000 worth of property for roughly $60, 000. Czermak and Henderson would deliver the property to Mr. Lee, many times dropping it at locations owned by him, including his business, Richardson Homes, in Tuttle, Oklahoma. ...


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