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United States v. Watson

January 23, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kauffman, J.


On October 30, 2007, Defendant Roderick Watson ("Defendant") was charged by Superseding Indictment with one count of conspiracy to interfere with interstate commerce by robbery, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a) (count one); four counts of interference with interstate commerce by robbery, and aiding and abetting, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2, 1951(a) (counts two, three, four, and six); two counts of using and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence, and aiding and abetting, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2, 924(c)(1)(A) (counts five and seven); and one count of interstate transportation of stolen goods, and aiding and abetting, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2, 2314 (count eight). Now before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Suppress three men's watches recovered from his home on August 30, 2007. For the reasons discussed below, the Motion will be denied.


On August 30, 2007, Defendant was in a residence at 120 North Felton Street in Philadelphia, PA when several agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and officers of the Philadelphia Police Department arrived at his location.*fn1 After the agents and officers knocked and announced their presence, Defendant exited the residence and was handcuffed and arrested pursuant to a federal arrest warrant.*fn2 At Defendant's request, he was brought back into the residence, where he was searched. The agents and officers removed all jewelry from his person and gave the jewelry to Tiffany McGeth ("McGeth"), a resident of the home. Defendant was transported to the FBI Office in Philadelphia for processing.

After the arrest, several FBI agents remained at Defendant's residence and interviewed McGeth. The agents received verbal authority from her to search the residence for keys to Defendant's vehicle. McGeth informed Agent Stephen Heaney ("Heaney") that she rented the residence and that Defendant stayed there occasionally. While Heaney was presenting a "consent to search" form to McGeth for her signature, Agent Kevin McShane ("McShane") asked McGeth for permission to use the restroom.*fn3 After receiving permission to do so, McShane entered the bathroom, lifted the toilet seat, and observed a tampon box containing three men's watches floating in the toilet, all of which had their store sales tags attached. McShane then told Heaney of his discovery. When Heaney arrived upstairs, he examined the three watches. Because Heaney was familiar with Defendant's prior federal guilty plea for jewelry store robberies, he recognized the incriminating nature of the watches.


Defendant contends that the three watches were seized in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The Government responds that the watches were discovered in "plain view" and that their seizure was proper. As the Supreme Court has explained, "The plain-view doctrine authorizes seizure of illegal or evidentiary items visible to a police officer whose access to the object has some prior Fourth Amendment justification and who has probable cause to suspect that the item is connected with criminal activity." Illinois v. Andreas, 463 U.S. 765, 771 (1983). "The rationale of the plain-view doctrine is that if contraband is left in open view and is observed by a police officer from a lawful vantage point, there has been no invasion of a legitimate expectation of privacy and thus no 'search' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment-or at least no search independent of the initial intrusion that gave the officers their vantage point." Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366, 375 (1993). In order to establish that an item was seized pursuant to the "plain view" doctrine, the Government must show by a preponderance of the evidence that: (1) the officers were lawfully in the position from which the evidence could be seen; (2) the incriminating character of the evidence was immediately apparent; and (3) the officers had a lawful right of access to the evidence. See, e.g., United States v. Menon, 24 F.3d 550, 559 (3d Cir. 1994) (citing Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 136 (1990)).

A. Lawful Presence

As the Third Circuit has explained, "a search warrant, supported by probable cause, is normally necessary before law enforcement may lawfully search a person's property. Searches of a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment." United States v. Burton, 288 F.3d 91, 102 (3d Cir. 2002) (citing Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 586 (1980)). Defendant argues that once the agents executed the arrest warrant, they no longer had any legal authority to remain inside the house. While he admits the initial entry into the residence was permissible because it was based on his consent, he contends that once the arrest was complete, the additional intrusion of the search violated the Fourth Amendment.*fn4

Therefore, he asserts, any evidence obtained after his arrest should be suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree. He also argues that McGeth was not authorized to give consent to the search.*fn5

The Government contends that the post-arrest search was proper based on the consent of McGeth. Despite the general warrant requirement for searches of a private residence, "[i]t is equally well settled that one of the specifically established exceptions to the requirements of both a warrant and probable cause is a search that is conducted pursuant to consent." Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 219 (1973). Consent may be obtained either from the person whose property is searched or "from a third party who possesses common authority over the premises."

Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177, 181 (1990) (citing United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 171 (1974)). The consent exception "extends even to entries and searches with the permission of a co-occupant whom the police reasonably, but erroneously, believe to possess shared authority as an occupant." Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U.S. 103, 109 (2006) (citing Rodriguez, 497 U.S. at 186). The Supreme Court has explained that the third party's "common authority" to consent does not depend on traditional property rights:

The authority which justifies the third-party consent does not rest upon the law of property, with its attendant historical and legal refinements, but rests rather on mutual use of the property by persons generally having joint access or control for most purposes, so that it is reasonable to recognize that any of the co-inhabitants has the right to permit the inspection in his own right and that the others have assumed the risk that one of their number might permit the common area to be searched.

Id. at 110 (citations omitted in original) (quoting Matlock, 415 U.S. at 171 n.7). Rather, "great significance is given to widely shared social expectations, which are naturally enough influenced by the law of ...

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