Defective Description, Excusable Error in Warrant Execution

United States v. Pimentel, 2022 WL 484543 (1st Cir. 2022)

Hours after a shots-fired call near 88 Fountain Street, officers executed a no-knock search warrant at “88 Fountain St. 2nd floor.” Kadeem Pimentel claimed a man in a passing car had shot him as Pimentel sat in a truck. However, a neighbor showed officers the shot was actually fired from the truck in which Pimentel was sitting. Officers found two shotguns and related paraphernalia in Pimentel’s bedroom on the third floor of the building. Pimentel was charged as a felon in possession of firearms.

The affidavit supporting the warrant application stated Pimentel lived on the second floor. The affidavit described the building as “a 3 story, multi-unit building, with a basement.” Various Pimentel family members lived on each of the three floors, but prior police records listed Pimentel’s address as the second floor.

Pimentel argued the second- and third-floor apartments were distinct units and that none of the residents of the third floor consented to a search. He asked the court to suppress the gun evidence, claiming the police exceeded the scope of the warrant by searching his third-floor bedroom. The trial court denied the motion, concluding the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied.

When an officer objectively and reasonably relies on a search warrant, the evidence will be admitted despite the warrant’s failings (United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984)). Only if an officer’s reliance on the search warrant was “wholly unwarranted” will the evidence be suppressed. The good-faith doctrine will not apply when the affiant makes deliberately false statements or omissions or acts in reckless disregard of the truth. A court cannot give the benefit of the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule:

  • Where the issuing court was misled by information in or omissions from the affidavit that the affiant knew was false or would have known was false but for his or her reckless disregard of the truth;
  • Where the issuing court wholly abandoned judicial neutrality;
  • Where the warrant is based on an affidavit so lacking in probable cause as to render a probable cause finding entirely unreasonable; and
  • Where the warrant so poorly describes the place to be searched or the things to be seized that executing officers are unable to rely on the descriptions.

When an officer objectively and reasonably relies on a search warrant, the evidence will be admitted despite the warrant’s failings

The 1st Circuit affirmed, holding that the officers reasonably believed the warrant permitted the search of defendant’s third-floor bedroom. The court noted, “The warrant here is not an exemplar of grammatical precision, and no reading of it is free from ambiguity.” Nonetheless, the officers learned the shotguns, the primary object of the warrant, were in Pimentel’s bedroom from Pimentel himself. Pimentel had recently moved from the second floor to the third floor and officers determined his bedroom was on the third floor only after they began the search. The “officers were forced to respond to new information that was uncovered while executing an awkwardly worded warrant, and made a good-faith judgment about whether this search remained within the scope of the warrant.” Noting that their decision might not be the same for a larger apartment building or one in which there were not close family ties for the occupants, the court held that “the officers reasonably believed that the warrant permitted the search of Pimentel’s third-floor bedroom.”

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 four 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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