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United States v. Williams

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

January 14, 2015



SYLVIA H. RAMBO, District Judge.

In this criminal case, Defendant was charged with one count related to his alleged possession of a firearm in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. (Doc. 1.)[1] Presently before the court is Defendant's motion to suppress, wherein he seeks suppression of the physical evidence seized from the residence at 623 West Gas Avenue due to an alleged unconstitutional search of the residence at issue. (Doc. 27.) Because the court finds that the officers lawfully entered the residence with consent, the court will deny Defendant's motion to suppress in its entirety.

I. Background

On September 10, 2014, Shannon Lemor Williams ("Defendant") was charged in a single count indictment related to an incident involving his alleged unlawful possession of a handgun. ( See Doc. 1.) On October 31, 2014, Defendant filed the instant motion to suppress evidence (Doc. 27) and brief in support (Doc. 28), and the court scheduled a hearing on the matter to be held November 13, 2014 (Doc. 31). Defendant's motion is premised on his position that the firearm for which he was indicted was the subject of an unconstitutional entry into his home. ( See Docs. 27 & 28.) Defendant reasons that the firearm charged in the indictment, to wit, a Ruger, Super Black Hawk.44 caliber revolver handgun, serial number 8479963, should be suppressed as the product of an unreasonable search and seizure. ( See Doc. 27.) It is uncontested that law enforcement officers seized the firearm from Defendant's bedroom without the benefit of a warrant. However, because the credible evidence presented at the hearing satisfies the court that a co-occupant of the residence gave consent for the seizure, the court concludes that the warrantless search and seizure were not unconstitutional.

At the suppression hearing, the Government presented the testimony of four witnesses. Shamela Hightower, the victim in this case, testified that, in the late evening of March 19, 2014, she and Defendant engaged in an argument while they were both at her residence located at 623 W. Gas Avenue, York County, Pennsylvania ("Gas Avenue residence").[2] ( See Doc. 42, pp. 4-5 of 101.) The argument resulted in the two individuals physically separating, with Defendant being on the first floor of the residence and Hightower on the second floor bedroom with her two children. ( See id. at p. 4 of 101.) As a result of Hightower's refusal to answer Defendant's repeated attempts to call her on her cellular telephone, Defendant came upstairs and confronted Hightower, who was on the bed. ( See id. at p. 5 of 101.) Defendant physically attacked Hightower by punching her head and face. ( See id. at pp. 5-6 of 101.) Ultimately, Defendant demanded Hightower to immediately leave the house. ( See id. at p. 6 of 101.)

While the commotion was ongoing, York City Police Officer Jeffrey Gilliland arrived at the Gas Avenue residence in response to a noise complaint related to children running up and down the stairs. ( See id. at pp. 7, 64 of 101.) Hightower complied with Defendant's directive to answer the door and get the officer away from the house by telling Officer Gilliland that everything was fine. ( See id. at p. 7 of 101.)

After Officer Gilliland left, Hightower returned upstairs and took her young daughter into the bathroom. ( See id. ) Defendant again assaulted Hightower. ( See id. ) At some point, Defendant retrieved a silver handgun from the bedroom and placed the barrel of the gun to the back of Hightower's head and, according to Hightower, said "[B]itch, you think I'm playin[g] with you, you don't know the rules.... I'll blow your head off in front of your kids." ( Id. at p. 9 of 101.)

Hightower left the house and called her friend Shakala Handy to drive her to her mother's house located at 540 McKenzie Street in York County, Pennsylvania ("McKenzie Street residence"). ( See id. at pp. 9-10 of 101.) Hightower's mother, Jessie Dukes, called the police to report the incident involving her daughter. ( See id. at pp. 10, 20, 94-95 of 101.) At approximately 11:19 p.m., York City Police Officer Mark Orlando responded to Dukes's call and arrived at the McKenzie Street residence. ( Id. at p. 42 of 101.) Hightower told Officer Orlando about her encounter with Defendant. ( See id. ) Officer Orlando thereafter requested assistance from Officer Gilliland, and Officer Gilliland requested the assistance of Sergeant Nicholas Figge. ( See id. at pp. 52-53 of 101.)

Although Officer Orlando did not notice any injuries to Hightower's face ( id. at p. 46 of 101), he went to the Gas Avenue residence to arrest Defendant based on Hightower's allegations ( see id. at p. 43 of 101), which Officer Gilliland testified is a practice consistent with the protocol followed in a domestic relations incident ( see id. at p. 58 of 101).[3] Officer Orlando further testified that Defendant was cooperative when confronted ( see id. at p. 47 of 101) and that, notwithstanding Defendant's attempt to explain that Hightower's account was an exaggeration of the incident ( see id. at p. 43 of 101), he placed Defendant under arrest and transported him to the central booking station ( see id. at pp. 45-50 of 101). Around the same time, Officer Gilliland arrived at the McKenzie Street residence and spoke with Hightower, who wrote a statement memorializing her account of the incident. ( See id. at pp. 52-53 of 101.) During his encounter with Hightower, Officer Gilliland did not notice any facial injuries with the victim, but noticed a two-inch cut on her forearm. ( Id. at p. 53 of 101.) Officer Gilliland transported Hightower to the Gas Avenue residence ( see id. ), and Hightower consented to a search of the residence by executing a consent to search form, which was witnessed by Dukes ( see id. at pp. 56-57 of 101; see also Gov. Ex. 1). Although there was some question made during the hearing regarding whether Hightower truly appreciated the scope of the search the officers would ultimately perform ( see Doc. 42, pp. 32, 78 of 101), Hightower unequivocally testified that she voluntarily consented to the search of the entire residence ( see id. at pp. 14-15 of 101).

Officer Gilliland and Sergeant Figge entered the Gas Avenue residence and initiated a search of the premises. ( See id. at p. 53 of 101.) Officer Gilliland testified that he searched the first floor of the house while Sergeant Figge searched the second floor. ( Id. ) During his search of the second floor, Sergeant Figge found a handgun, which was consistent with the handgun described by Hightower. ( Id. )

Although Defendant did not testify on his own behalf, he presented the testimony of Richard Garvey, an investigator who at all times relevant to the instant action was employed by the Office of the Federal Public Defender, [4] Shakala Handy, and his mother, Lorena Williams. Garvey testified that Hightower told him that she did not believe the officers would search the entire house based on her consent, which corroborated a report[5] he had himself prepared. ( See id. at p. 78 of 101.) Handy, the individual who transported Hightower from the Gas Avenue residence to the McKenzie Street residence, testified that she heard an officer tell Hightower that the Defendant refused consent to search, which contradicted the testimony of the officers. ( See id. at pp. 86-88 of 101.) Lorena Williams testified that Hightower told her that she never gave the police permission to search the Gas Avenue residence ( see id. at p. 91 of 101), which contradicted the testimony offered by Hightower herself ( compare id. at p. 91 of 101, with id. at pp. 14-15 of 101).

II. Legal Standard

"On a motion to suppress, the government bears the burden of showing that each individual act constituting a search or seizure under the Fourth Amendment was reasonable." United States v. Ritter, 416 F.3d 256, 261 (3d Cir. 2005). The applicable burden is proof by a preponderance of the evidence. United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 177 n.14 (1974).

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution provides: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause." U.S. Const. amend. IV. The touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness, as the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit all searches - only those that are unreasonable. See Florida v. Jimeno, 500 U.S. 248, 250 (1991). "[S]earches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment - subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions." Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967) (footnotes omitted). The general rule is that the warrantless entry into a person's house ...

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