“Probable Cause is Not a High Bar.”

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United States v. Christian, 925 F.3d 305 (6th Cir. 2019)

Tyrone Christian is a veteran of the illegal drug trade. An officer prepared a five-page affidavit for a search warrant of Christian’s residence, which included the following essential elements:

  • Christian had a history of drug trafficking at his residence, including drug-related arrests after two separate raids in 2009 and 2011, along with four prior felony convictions for drug-related offenses between 1996 and 2011.
  • A “credible and reliable” informant told officers in December 2014 that Christian was dealing drugs.
  • Officers made a controlled buy from Christian in January 2015.
  • Between May and September 2015, four different persons told officers they had personally purchased drugs from Christian.
  • Officers conducting surveillance at Christian’s residence saw Rueben Thomas leave the residence and drive away. Officers stopped Thomas and found heroin in his car. Thomas admitted he had recently been at an address on Christian’s street, but denied being at Christian’s residence, even though officers saw him leave there.

A judge issued a search warrant. Officers serving the warrant seized cocaine, marijuana, over 80 grams of heroin, a cutting agent, and two loaded guns.

The court observed the only way a magistrate could fail to find probable cause, considering the facts contained in the affidavit, would be “by engaging hypertechnical, line-by-line scrutiny, ‘explicitly forbidden by the Supreme Court.’”

Christian attacked the warrant, parsing the affidavit into individual facts and offering challenges to the facts or arguments that could conceivably support innocent explanations for various facts. The court stated: “the search-warrant affidavit at issue here provided an ample basis for probable cause, and the question is really not even close.” The appellate court opinion provides several helpful reminders to officers and to judges reviewing affidavits for search warrants.

The court observed the only way a magistrate could fail to find probable cause, considering the facts contained in the affidavit, would be “by engaging hypertechnical, line-by-line scrutiny, ‘explicitly forbidden by the Supreme Court.’ […] This kind of divide-and-conquer approach is improper, because a factor viewed in isolation is often more readily susceptible to an innocent explanation than one viewed as part of a totality. […] Time and again the Supreme Court has emphasized that probable cause ‘is not a high bar’ to clear.” The court concluded: “No jury could have acquitted Christian on these charges. The evidence against him was too damning.”

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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