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United States v. Lavallee

May 25, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Kane


Pending before the Court is Defendant Nicole Lavallee's motion to suppress evidence seized from her home in the course of a warrantless search conducted on February 27, 2006. Specifically, Defendant Lavallee has moved to suppress evidence of the fact that Dawan Oliver, a fugitive, was discovered and arrested in her home. Additionally, Defendant seeks to suppress certain false statements she made to an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation while other law enforcement officers were conducting the search of her home.

I. Background

Shortly after 8:00 a.m. on Friday, January 27, 2006, two federal agents and seven local law enforcement officers affiliated with a fugitive recovery task force went to Nicole Lavallee's home at 1561 Holloway Road, in Holland, Ohio, to search for Dawan Oliver, a fugitive who had been indicted on December 7, 2005, on federal charges relating to prostitution of minors. (Tr. 5, 19.) These officers were eventually joined by two or three additional uniformed officers. (Tr. 19.) Matthew Eagles, the Coordinator of the Violent Crimes Fugitive Task Force for the Cleveland division of the FBI, Toledo resident agency, testified that officers went to the home with the intention of searching for Oliver. (Tr. 5.)

Prior to arriving at 1561 Holloway Road, Federal agents had collected a significant amount of information that lead them to believe that Oliver was currently staying at the Holloway Road residence. (Tr. 6.) For example, the fugitive task force had received information from a confidential source that Oliver was staying at the house. (Tr. 53.) Additionally, local law enforcement had advised the task force that Oliver was residing in the home and that police had seen two of Oliver's vehicles at the residence. (Tr. 6, 53, 54.) Tiffany Hill-Larson, an agent with the FBI, had also obtained local tax records showing that as recently as August 2005, Oliver had filled out forms on which he indicated that 1561 Holloway Road was his address. (Tr. 7.) Notwithstanding being in possession of the foregoing information, law enforcement officers did not apply for a warrant to search the home for Oliver.*fn1 Instead, officers went to the house armed only with a computer printout from the National Criminal Information Center noting the existence of an outstanding warrant for a misdemeanor traffic violation for Lara Thoma, one of the residents of the home.*fn2 (Tr. 8.) The officers were also in possession of a warrant for Oliver's arrest.

Once the task force arrived at 1561 Holloway Road, Agent Eagles approached the front door of the house and knocked while other members of the task force took up positions surrounding the premises. Agent Eagles knocked at the door for approximately ten minutes without receiving a response. (Tr. 9-10.) At around this time, one of the officers radioed that he had observed a female looking out one of the windows on the north side of the house. (Tr. 10, 33.) Shortly thereafter, Officer Roger Rettig radioed the search team that he had heard people "scrambling around" the rear first-floor bedroom. (Tr. 33.) Subsequently, Officer Rettig radioed other officers that he could hear noises emanating from the rear of the second-floor that sounded like furniture being moved around. (Tr. 34.) After several more minutes of knocking, Lara Thoma approached the front door of the house, but did not unlock the door. (Tr. 10.) She asked officers what they wanted, and when shown Agent Eagles's FBI credentials, she became irate and verbally belligerent, screaming at officers to leave the house and denying their authority to arrest her. (Tr. 10, 34-37.) Although as previously noted Agent Eagles had only an NCIC record, he advised Thoma that he had a warrant for her arrest. She retreated into the residence. Eventually Thoma went to the rear of the house where she engaged in further argument with officers before unlocking a sliding glass door, at which point task force members opened the door, entered the home, and placed her under arrest following a brief struggle. (Tr. 35-36.)

Following Thoma's arrest, nearly every officer on the scene entered the house and, with weapons drawn, began to conduct what Agent Eagles characterized as a "protective sweep" of the residence. (Tr. 15.) Agent Eagles testified that officers "were looking for any area where somebody may be hiding" and estimated that the search that followed Thoma's arrest took approximately 45 minutes. (Tr. 15, 25.) The officers conducting the search testified that they were particularly concerned about their safety because nearly 30 minutes had elapsed since the task force arrived, and they believed Oliver would have had time to secret himself in any of a number of areas in the home. (Tr. 16.) Additionally, Agent Eagles and other officers noticed that the house had a number of dead spaces and other structural irregularities that caused them to believe that Oliver's location might not be immediately apparent or would otherwise aid him in concealing himself from officers. (Tr. 16-17, 38, 66.)

One of the task force members, Officer Rettig, testified that the purpose in conducting a search of the home was to find Dawan Oliver:

Q: And what were your intentions at that time?

A: I was going to search the house.

Q: For what?

A: For the defendant -- or for the suspect [Dawan Oliver] at the time. (Tr. 37.) When asked whether there were any other purposes to the search, Officer Rettig responded, "No, sir, just for the purpose of the security of all of us." (Tr. 37.) With respect to the manner in which the search was conducted, Officer Rettig testified that the search was not a cursory search of the home but was instead a much more thorough search that involved officers searching rooms at least two times to "check each other's work." (Tr. 39.) Officer Rettig testified that it was "the intention of the officers during the first search to search every nook and cranny." (Tr. 46.) Despite this intention, Officer Rettig acknowledged that officers conducted a sweep of the house during the "first search" and did not locate Dawan Oliver. (Tr. 44.)

According to Officer Rettig, task force members actually conducted multiple searches of the home before eventually finding Oliver. He described the process as follows: "[the first search was] more of a quick one . . . say ten minutes. . . . The first search is a clean, quick sweep looking for a body, okay, in the most obvious places, the closet, under the bed, that type of thing.

And then you move on quickly after that. . . . Second searches are usually more time-consuming and meticulous, and they're a slow process. You want to make sure you don't miss any area in the house where somebody could be hiding." (Tr. 48, 51.) Although Officer Rettig could not testify whether there were two or three searches of the entire home, Officer Rettig did testify that he personally searched the house twice. (Tr. 48.)

A second task force member, Officer Robert Barboza, confirmed Officer Rettig's testimony that the search involved a preliminary sweep of the house followed by a second search during which officers backtracked and double-checked various places in the house to search for the suspect. (Tr. 67.) Officer Barboza estimated that the initial search of the house, during which Dawan Oliver was not discovered, could have taken up to 25 minutes and that during this time he searched "pretty much everything." (Tr. 73.) Rather than a series of searches, Officer Barboza characterized the search as a "continual search. . . . It never stopped." (Tr. 75.)

Although Officer Barboza confirmed that Dawan Oliver was not discovered on the first search of the house, he "felt certain that the suspect in question was hiding, we just hadn't found him." (Tr. 67.) Accordingly, Officer Barboza decided to return to the rear bedroom on the second floor of the house to search the room again in case he "overlook[ed] something." (Tr. 68.) At this point, another member of the task force had moved a large dresser away from a wall in the room to reveal what appeared to be a "secret compartment". (Tr. 68.) The officers discovered two small door knobs sticking out of the wall which were attached to small doors. (Tr. 68.) Officer Barboza alerted other members of the task force that he had found what he believed to be a "hiding chamber" and requested backup. (Tr. 68-69.) After additional support arrived in the room, the task force members moved the dresser, opened the doors, and discovered Dawan Oliver lying prone in the hidden compartment. (Tr. 69.) At this point, Oliver was arrested without incident. (Tr. 70.) Officer Barboza testified that he did not discover any weapons during his search of the home. (Tr. 71.)

While Lara Thoma was detained in the kitchen following her arrest, and around the time task force members began searching the house, Agent Eagles instructed Blair Gillespie and Defendant Nicole Lavallee to sit on a couch in the living room.*fn3 (Tr. 13, 26.)

Neither woman was instructed that she could not leave, and neither was handcuffed. (Tr. 14.) Neither woman was given Miranda warnings before they were questioned by FBI agents Eagles and Hill-Larson. (Tr. 60.) When the women had been seated, Agent Eagles asked them whether anyone else was in the home and he inquired about Dawan Oliver's whereabouts. (Tr. 14-15.) Both women responded that no one else was in the house, and both denied knowing Dawan Oliver by his given name or by his street alias, "Thug." (Tr. 14-15.) Agent Hill-Larson also questioned the women about a large shirt that she had observed in the living room, and Defendant Lavallee advised her that the shirt belonged to her father. (Tr. 56-57.) The women remained seated in the living room throughout the search of the home, and Agent Hill-Larson remained with them. (Tr. 58.)

Following Oliver's arrest and the resulting conclusion of the search, Thoma was transported to the Holland, Ohio police department for the misdemeanor traffic warrant on which she was arrested. She ...

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