Court Says 'Possible' Just As Good As 'Probable;' Lets DEA Keep Evidence From Warrantless Search
from the good-luck-limboing-under-that-low-bar,-defendants dept
The Ninth Circuit Appeals Court has handed down a decision which appears to lower the bar for probable cause. The government’s evidence — obtained via a warrantless search — will remain unsuppressed. Here’s the summary of the decision [PDF]:
The panel affirmed the district court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to suppress contraband seized during a warrantless search of the defendant’s truck.
The panel held that under the totality of the circumstances, there was probable cause to believe that contraband would be found in the truck, and that the search was therefore permissible under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.
It’s the “totality of the circumstances” that’s the problem. The court did a lot of scribbling in the margins to help the government’s probable cause math add up. The DEA had lots of stuff that was almost proof of something, but lots of key elements were missing. The opinion is riddled with details of agents verbally filling in gaps in their surveillance with assumptions.
[A]gents intercepted another call between Penitani and Faagai, in which Faagai was attempting to locate Penitani at the Pearlridge Shopping Center for what appeared to be a pre-planned meeting. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Clement Sze (“Special Agent Sze”) testified that he believed that although agents were not able to conduct surveillance of that meeting, they believed, based on the entirety of their investigation, that Penitani and Mitchell were meeting Faagai to supply him with methamphetamine.
The beginning of the DEA’s bad math: a meeting agents did not actually hear or see. More fuzzy math follows.
On November 5, 2012, agents intercepted a text message from Faagai to Penitani in which Faagai said that he was going to Costco in Kapolei “to buy food for [his] house” and that if Penitani “gotta buy food for [Penitani’s] house,” they should meet at Costco. Special Agent Sze testified that he believed that Faagai was using “food” as a code word for “money.”
Or it could just be food. Since the defense didn’t challenge these assertions, the Appeals Court decides to take the agent at his word. Agents attempted to catch the dealers in the act, but missed an opportunity.
Agents traveled to the Costco in Kapolei and observed Penitani and his then girlfriend, Keschan Taylor, exit Costco and drive away. Agents did not see Faagai in the area, but Special Agent Sze testified that the agents believed that the meeting between Faagai and Penitani had already taken place.
Another unobserved meeting, presumed by the government to have taken place and, presumably, been of an illicit nature.
Having intercepted another conversation about “food” and “tools” to take place at a local restaurant, agents headed out to observe the hand-off. Again, they missed their marks.
Law enforcement agents conducted surveillance at the Jack In The Box and did not see Faagai or Penitani. At 8:14 p.m., agents intercepted a text message from Penitani to Faagai changing the location of the meeting to a 7-Eleven. The agents drove to the 7-Eleven at 8:30 p.m., where they saw Faagai in the parking lot, leaning into the passenger side window of Penitani’s car. Penitani and Faagai had already been there for approximately 15 minutes.
Once again, Special Agent Sze makes an assumption and, once again, the court finds it credible.
Special Agent Sze testified that he believed that the drug transaction had already occurred by the time agents arrived on scene.
Based on this wealth of horseshoe/hand grenade information, agents performed a pretextual stop and proceeded to search Faagai’s vehicle without a warrant. A half-pound of methamphetamine was discovered along with the usual paraphernalia. The Appeals Court says all the gaps in info and all the assumptions made about unobserved meetings and unheard conversations is fine. It all adds up to Faagai’s vehicle being the “more than likely” final resting spot of drugs no DEA agent actually saw change hands.
At the 7-Eleven, agents observed Faagai walk away from Penitani’s car and toward his own truck without anything in his hands. Agents did not observe the entirety of the meeting, which lasted roughly 15 minutes. Because the circumstances indicate the purpose of the meeting was to engage in a drug transaction, there is probable cause to believe that Penitani had delivered drugs (the promised “tools”) to Faagai, and that these drugs could be found in Faagai’s truck.
Why in Faagai’s truck? We know that there was probable cause to believe Penitani brought the “tools” (the drugs) so that Faagai could “get back to work” and not “lose [his] job” (deal the drugs). We know that Faagai arrived at the 7- Eleven in a vehicle, because he drove away in his truck. When the police saw Faagai leaning into the window of Penitani’s car, he had nothing in his hands.
Where could the “tools” (drugs) be located? In Penitani’s car? Unlikely, because the purpose of the meeting was for Penitani to deliver drugs to Faagai and Faagai left the scene in his truck. On Faagai’s person? Perhaps, but unlikely given that in prior transactions, Penitani had dealt in pounds of methamphetamine. Hidden in the environs of the 7- Eleven? Unlikely, given the high value of the drugs. In Faagai’s truck? More likely than not.
Judge Kozinski’s dissent illustrates the dangers of allowing the government to substitute expertise for observation when it comes to commonly-used terms and meetings no one saw take place.
The government’s entire case rests on four meetings between Faagai and John Penitani, a suspected meth dealer. Despite observing most of these meetings and assiduously wiretapping Penitani’s phone, officers never saw a handoff of money or contraband, nor heard an explicit mention of drugs. In fact, they saw and heard nothing objectively suspicious.
The most probative evidence supporting the search was a conversation between Penitani and Faagai where they discussed meeting at Costco to buy food. Agents testified that they “believed [food] to be a code” for drugs. But there was no expert testimony or any other evidence supporting the speculation that food stood for drugs. See United States v. Bailey, 607 F.2d 237, 240 & n.6 (9th Cir. 1979) (discussing expert’s testimony on the meaning of alleged code words). Many people go to Costco to buy food. If talking about shopping for food at Costco were sufficient to justify a search, many of us would be searched by the police twice a week—thrice right before Thanksgiving. Nor does it make any sense to substitute food for drugs when talking about where to meet. If Penitani and Faagai were meeting up to conduct a drug deal, why specify the purpose of the meeting? Why say “Let’s meet at Costco for a drug transfer” rather than just “Let’s meet at Costco,” with the purpose of the meeting understood?
A few judges have called out the government for this behavior, making claims that would turn a large number of non-criminals into potential suspects. Drug dealers are humans and do human things just like millions of non-drug dealers. They shop at Costco just like innocent people do. But the government would have us believe — “based on training and expertise” — that common activities are suspicious, especially when the government is already engaged in an investigation. Even the most innocuous actions become sinister when the government is seeking to reach a foregone conclusion.
But there’s more to it than that. Kozinski also points out the DEA’s “training and expertise” statements often paint contradictory situations as equally suspicious. If the government wants to keep making arguments about common activities being the height of criminal suspicion, the least it could do is be consistent.
The fact that the two men decided to meet in a place with “hardly any people” cuts the wrong way. The government commonly argues that drug dealers intentionally seek out busy locations because a “high volume of pedestrian and vehicle traffic can mask drug-dealing activity.” United States v. Ruiz, 785 F.3d 1134, 1138 (7th Cir. 2015). Here, the government claims the opposite, evidently trying to have it both ways. At best, this fact is irrelevant: There was nothing incriminating about the two men’s preference for a quieter location.
Kozinski sums up his dissent this way:
The majority strings together a sequence of events like beads on a strand, but doesn’t explain how any of them provide probable cause that Faagai was carrying drugs in his car when he was stopped.
And here’s the inevitable outcome of this decision, which is published and precedential:
Here’s what this case boils down to: Officers had a hunch that a drug transaction was going down. They saw nothing obviously suspicious, but got tired of waiting, watching and wiretapping. They then jumped the gun by executing a warrantless search. Until today, this was not enough to support probable cause, but going forward it will be. This is a green light for the police to search anyone’s property based on what officers subjectively believe—or claim to believe—about someone’s everyday conduct. That puts all of us at risk. Accordingly, I dissent, and I’m off to Costco to buy some food.
Edge cases like these need to be watched closely by judges. The courts have greatly expanded law enforcement power over the years at the expense of the Bill of Rights. Lowering probable cause to possible cause just makes it easier for officers to have their illegal search and their evidence too.