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United States v. Wooten

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

August 15, 2017

United States of America, Plaintiff,
Kenneth Wooten, Defendant.

          Mag. Judge David R. Grand


          JUDITH E. LEVY, United States District Judge

         On January 21, 2015, three Michigan State Police Troopers went to an address on Abbott in River Rouge, Michigan, to arrest defendant Kenneth Wooten. The address was a two-story house containing a downstairs and upstairs apartment, the latter of which the Troopers learned was defendant's residence. When they arrived, two Troopers remained in the front of the house, and the third went around to the back of the house. The lead Trooper knocked on the exterior front door, and a woman inside the upstairs apartment told him she would be right down. She did not come down.

         Another Trooper stationed at the rear of the house saw a shadow through the blinds of the upstairs apartment, which looked like at least one person moving around and doing something with their hands at waist level. The Trooper who knocked on the front door kept knocking and ringing the bell. Eventually the tenant in the downstairs apartment, an unidentified woman, answered the door. That Trooper showed her a picture of Wooten, and she identified the picture as “Ken, ” the man who lived upstairs.

         The two Troopers in front then entered the house, went upstairs, and knocked on the door of the upstairs apartment. When they arrived, Wooten's girlfriend answered the door, which she did by opening it a few inches and leaving the security chain in place. Following a request by the Troopers to search the house to look for Wooten, his girlfriend consented to the search for the limited purpose of looking for Wooten inside the house. While outside the upstairs apartment and while searching the house, the Troopers smelled marijuana and found evidence of what they believed to be drug-dealing activity. The lead Trooper sought permission from Wooten's girlfriend to conduct a full search of the property, and was denied. The Troopers then contacted the Downriver Area Narcotics Agency (“DRANO”) with the information they discovered, and DRANO obtained a search warrant for the residence. The search warrant was executed later that night, and DRANO found marijuana, materials used in drug trafficking, two handguns, and mail addressed to Wooten at the Abbott address.

         On February 14, 2017, Wooten filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the searches. (Dkt. 34.) The Court held oral argument on the motion on May 9, 2017, and an evidentiary hearing on July 6, 2017.

         I. Background

         Defendant was indicted on January 21, 2016. (Dkt. 11.) The indictment contains four counts: one count of felon in possession of a firearm, arising from events on January 21, 2015, and counts of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance, possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, and felon in possession of a firearm, each arising from events on January 8, 2016. On February 14, 2017, defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in the two searches of his home on January 21, 2015. (Dkt. 34.)

         The Court held a hearing on the motion on May 9, 2017. Following the hearing, the Court determined that an evidentiary hearing should be held to resolve the factual disputes between the parties regarding whether the Troopers executing the arrest warrant had permission or justification to enter the common area of the home in which defendant lived. That hearing was held on July 6, 2017. The factual background below is drawn from that hearing.

         On January 21, 2015, three Troopers assembled to execute an arrest warrant for Kenneth Wooten: Benjamin Sonstrom, Bradley Conner, and John Tibaudo. Wooten had come to Sonstrom's attention because, at some point in 2014, he conducted a traffic stop involving Wooten. (Hearing Tr. at 6-7.) Sonstrom could not recall the exact date of the stop at the hearing. (Id. at 45.) During that stop, Sonstrom found what he believed to be heroin on Wooten's person, and arrested Wooten. (Id. at 7.) Wooten was fingerprinted and released pending laboratory analysis of the substance found in his car. (Id.) Sonstrom made a warrant request of the Wayne County prosecutor's office for Wooten's arrest. (Id.) Sonstrom testified that the time between an initial arrest and a warrant issuing from the prosecutor's office could be “at a very minimum . . . a couple of months . . . “up to a couple of a years.” (Id. at 8.)

         At some point, the prosecutor's office issued the arrest warrant, and on January 21, 2015, Sonstrom assembled Conner and Tibaudo to execute the warrant with him. (Id. at 9, 71.) The Troopers went to the Abbott Street address Wooten provided during the traffic stop that led to the arrest warrant, at around 9 P.M. (Id. at 46, 48.) Sonstrom obtained the address, and provided it to the other Troopers, who had no other independent knowledge about Wooten or where he lived. (Id. at 102, 105.) No other surveillance was done to establish that the Abbott Street address was Wooten's, or what his regular schedule was. (Id. at 48.) Each of them drove separately to the Abbott Street address in River Rouge. (Id. at 11.) The address was identified as Wooten's residence based on the drivers' license he provided at the 2014 traffic stop. (Id. at 12.) When the Troopers arrived, Sonstrom directed Tibaudo to go to the rear of the residence, and for Conner to provide backup at the front of the residence. (Id. at 13.)

         The Abbott Street address was a single-family home divided into two apartments, with one apartment on the lower floor and one on the upper floor. (Id. at 14-15.) Sonstrom could not remember whether he knocked on the door or rang a doorbell, but he did one or the other when each Trooper was in position. (Id. at 15.) After Sonstrom did so, a woman looked out of a window in the second-floor apartment and said she would be down to open the door. (Id. at 16.) She did not come down, and the Troopers waited for several minutes. (Id. at 17.)

         Tibaudo, stationed in the rear of the house, saw through closed, backlit curtains in a window a single figure in the upstairs apartment moving around. (Id. at 76.) This made him believe there were two people in the house. (Id. at 78.) Tibaudo told Conner “that there's someone up in this top right bedroom or whatever it is, top right room.” (Id.) Sonstrom also recalls being informed by Tibaudo of the presence and movement of the person in the window. (Id. at 17-18.) It indicated to him that “[s]omebody's up there and somebody's not coming down. It gives us the impression that somebody might be trying to hide.” (Id. at 19.)

         Sonstrom continued to knock on the front door, and testified that he did not know whether the door was locked or unlocked. (Id.) Conner also testified that he did not know if the door was locked, and did not “think it was ever checked.” (Id. at 110.) After a few minutes, a woman opened the front door, who appeared to be the resident of the first-floor apartment. (Id. at 20.) Sonstrom showed her a picture of Wooten, and she identified Wooten as the man who lived in the upstairs apartment. (Id.) Sonstrom does not remember the conversation he had with the woman regarding entry into the house, but noticed a common area leading to the woman's apartment and a stairwell up to the second-floor apartment. (Id. at 21.) After talking to the woman, he and Conner entered the building and went up the stairs to the second-floor apartment. (Id. at 23, 109.) Neither Sonstrom nor Conner stated that they asked for permission to enter the house. When they began to go up, they alerted ...

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