74-Year-Old Properly Detained During Search of Her Residence

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Blight v. City of Manteca (9th Cir. 2019)

A confidential informant (CI) provided detailed information about an illegal marijuana plantation operated by Marlin Ford on several acres of rural property. The CI stated there were large dogs and guns on the property. Detectives showed Ford’s photo to the CI and the informant confirmed Ford was the person operating the marijuana plantation. The CI and detectives drove to the location and confirmed the CI’s description of the property.

A 10-foot-high fence blocked the detectives’ view of the property. The CI used a Google Maps picture to point out buildings, including a main house and a mobile home, and the area where the marijuana was growing. The CI stated Ford and his family lived in the main house and Nicolas Serrano, a worker who helped cultivate marijuana, lived in the mobile home. The court evidence did not conclusively establish whether the CI told detectives about Ford’s 74-year-old mother, Joanne Blight, lived in one of homes.

The detectives obtained a search warrant for 5858 E. Carpenter Road. The warrant application stated there were two residences on the parcel. When a SWAT team announced their presence and authority, Serrano and his two children immediately came out of their mobile home. However, no one came out of the home detectives believed to be Ford’s residence. Serrano’s wife drove up as the officers were serving the warrant. She told them an elderly woman lived in the main house.

Officers repeated announcements over the PA system for the woman to come out of the house. They also called out at the front door. After six minutes with no response, SWAT officers breached the home’s front door with a ram. Ford’s mother, Joanne Blight, ran to a back room, but came out after a few minutes. Blight was never restrained or handcuffed. However, officers told her if she did not get into a police car, she would be handcuffed. An officer drove Blight out of the immediate area of the search. She was detained for 20 to 30 minutes.

After the execution of the warrant, detectives discovered Blight’s residence (the main house) had the designated address of 5846 E. Carpenter Road, but the underlying land had the designated address of 5858 E. Carpenter Road. Ford had lived in the main house for several years but lived elsewhere at the time of the search. Blight sued, alleging there was no probable cause to search her residence. Blight also claimed once officers learned Ford no longer lived in the main house, the officers should have recognized her home was outside the scope of the search warrant.

Several factors led the court to conclude there was probable cause to search the entire property, including both homes.

Noting that “when a structure contains two residences or two residences share a lot, there must be probable cause to search each,” the court cited its prior holding: “A warrant is valid when it authorizes the search of a street address with several dwellings if the defendants are in control of the whole premises, if the dwellings are occupied in common, or if the entire property is suspect.” Thus, the court considered whether the judge issuing the warrant, and the officers executing it, had a substantial basis to believe Ford was in control of the entire property.

Several factors led the court to conclude there was probable cause to search the entire property, including both homes. The CI had provided truthful and reliable information on other marijuana operations in the past. The CI offered “detailed, firsthand knowledge of Ford’s drug operation.” The character of the fence around the property was consistent with illegal marijuana cultivation. The detective submitting the affidavit stated, “in his knowledge, training, and experience, marijuana grown outside will typically be harvested and processed in garages or residences to avoid police detection, and that other types of evidence related to marijuana cultivation and sales also often can be found in residences.” The court held there was probable cause to believe evidence of drug crimes would likely be found in both Ford’s residence and Serrano’s residence.

Next, the court considered whether officers should have stopped searching once they learned Blight, not Ford, lived in the main house. The court held the probable cause to search the house did not depend on whether Ford currently lived there. The officers reasonably believed the entire property was used in the illegal cultivation and the entire property was still under the Ford’s control. The officers were not required to stop searching just because Blight, not Ford, was then residing in the main house.

The court also held Blight’s detention was reasonable and did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Blight was not physically restrained, and she was not searched. She was merely driven off the property to the street for the duration of the search. Though Blight complained she was detained for about an hour, the dispatch recordings showed she was detained for no more than 30 minutes.

It is black letter law that officers may detain a resident incident to a search. Generally, detention of a person inside the place to be searched may extend for the duration of the execution of a search warrant. It seems the officers followed the maxim of “talk nice, think mean.” Thus, Blight’s complaint was unsupported, and the officers were entitled to dismissal.

This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys. Subscribe here!

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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