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United States v. France

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 30, 2019

JAMES FRANCE, Defendant.



         In the early morning hours of July 29, 2016, officers from the Scott Township (PA) Police Department responded to a 9-1-1 call alerting them to a possible home invasion at a residence owned by Defendant James France. When they arrived, the officers were met by an individual who told them that six (6) shotgun-toting men were inside the house. After a knock and announce failed to draw anyone from the house, officers entered the home. But instead of six (6) armed invaders, the officers encountered two (2) people sitting on a bed upstairs, a substantial quantity of methamphetamine, a litany drug paraphernalia, and indicia bearing France's name. Based on their observations during a protective sweep of the home, the officers obtained a warrant to further search the residence. The fruits of that warrant led a federal grand jury to indict France and two (2) co-defendants.

         France moved to suppress all of the evidence collected from his residence on grounds that the officers' initial warrantless entry into his home violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The Court held a hearing on the matter and the parties fully briefed the issues. For the reasons that will follow, France's Motion to Suppress is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On September 13, 2016, a federal grand jury indicted France on one (1) count of Conspiracy to Distribute and Possess with Intent to Distribute Fifty (50) Grams or More of Methamphetamine, 21 U.S.C. § 846, and one (1) count of Possession with Intent to Distribute Fifty (50) Grams or More of Methamphetamine, 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A)(viii). (Indictment, ECF No. 1.) Then, on January 25, 2019, France moved to suppress the evidence uncovered during the execution of a search warrant at his residence. (Mot. to Suppress, ECF No. 172.) The Government filed its response to France's Motion to Suppress on March 15, 2019. (Gov't Resp., ECF No. 180.) Shortly thereafter, on May 14, 2019, the Court held a hearing on France's motion and later ordered post-hearing briefing from the parties. (ECF Nos. 188 and 189.) France filed his post-hearing brief on July 16, 2019. (Def's Post-Hr'g Br., ECF No. 194.) The Government filed their response on August 28, 2019. (Gov't's Post-Hr'g Br., ECF No. 195.) Then France filed his reply on September 14, 2019. (Def's Post-Hr'g Reply, ECF No. 198.) With post-hearing briefing complete, the Court can decide France's motion.


         On a motion to suppress evidence, the trial judge sits as the finder of fact. See, e.g., United States v. Harris, 884 F.Supp.2d 383, 387 n.2 (W.D. Pa. 2012). Therefore, it is for the trial judge to assess the credibility of the witnesses, weigh the evidence, and reach any "inferences, deductions and conclusions to be drawn from the evidence." Id.

         At the suppression hearing held on May 14, 2019, the Government called Scott Township Police Officer Shane McGrath to testify and proffered testimony from Scott Township Police Chief Thomas Dunlevy. (Hr'g Tr., ECF No. 191, at 2, 92:19-96:9.) Although the Government proffered Chief Dunlevy's direct testimony, France's counsel briefly cross-examined Dunlevy, and the Government followed up with redirect examination. (Id. at 101:8, 103:15.) The Court finds Officer McGrath's testimony, and Chief Dunlevy's proffered testimony and his testimony on cross and redirect examination to be credible. Here is what happened on the night in question.

         The vast majority of the testimony during the hearing came from Officer McGrath.[1] At 1:38 AM on July 29, 2016, Officer McGrath was on a routine patrol as a K-9 officer in Scott Township, Pennsylvania. (Id. at 19:13-15.) At that time, he received "a call for service for a burglary in progress .. . where it was reported that there were six black males attempting to break into a residence with armed shotguns" on Bower Hill Road in Scott Township. (Id. at 19:20-24.) Four (4) officers, including Officer McGrath, simultaneously responded to the scene of the reported home invasion. (Id. at 43:24-24:1.) Officer McGrath knew from experience that the site of the alleged home invasion is a "kind of congested" residential area. (Id. at 20:2-10.)

         The residence itself was a single-family home situated on Bower Hill Road, which has two (2) lanes running in each direction. (Id. at 45:3-13.) The home had a small driveway leading to a garage attached to the basement level of the home. (Id. at 45:22-46:4, 68:1-13.) In addition to the basement, there were two (2) main floors of the home. (Id. at 49:11-15.) The front door to the home was elevated above the sidewalk, and there were three (3) or four (4) steps leading from the sidewalk to the front door. (Id. at 68:9-69:9.) Viewing the residence from the front sidewalk on Bower Hill Road, the home's roof was pitched from left to right in a triangular shape. (Id. at 69:19-70:17.)

         When he arrived at the residence, Officer McGrath "encountered a male outside the residence who was the apparent caller." (Id. at 20:21-22.) The man's "name was Mark Huellen" ("Huellen"). (Id. at 20:22.) As McGrath approached, Huellen was standing "[o]n the front sidewalk closest to Bower Hill Road away from the house, " still "on his cell phone with the dispatchers." (Id. at 21:13-14, 69:15-18.) Referring to the home invaders he reported in his 9-1-1 call, Huellen told Officer McGrath "that these males were in the house, trying to get in with shotguns." (Id. at 20:22-24.) Huellen further stated that "[t]hey were on the roof. .. trying to get in through the door." (Id. at 20:23-25.) And Huellen warned that the armed men "were still in the residence." (Id. at 21:1-2.)

         When Officer McGrath encountered Huellen, he noted that Huellen was "[u]pset, very excited like you would be if you were experiencing a traumatic event where someone is trying to harm you." (Id. at 21:4-6.) Huellen was wearing jeans and a white shirt, and Officer McGrath testified that he remembered that Huellen was not wearing shoes or socks despite it being a relatively cold night. (Id. at 21:8-10.) When asked on cross examination if he could tell whether Huellen was under the influence of narcotics, Officer McGrath testified that he did not have much time to assess Huellen's physical state since he was primarily focused on the potential threat of six (6) armed men inside the residence.[2] (Id. at 47:1-18.)

         After "quickly" talking with Huellen, Officer McGrath and three (3) other officers approached the house. (Id. at 21:23-22:7.) The back of the residence was "very dark" and there was "a back porch that ha[d] . . . drapery covering the back." (Id. at 22:12-22.) Because of the drapery, the officer "couldn't see into the residence." (Id.) Officer McGrath also testified that the officers were focused on the "back roof because [Huellen] said people were trying to get into the house through the roof." (Id.)

         In the front of the house, however, Office McGrath observed that the front door was "wide open" and "lights were on in the residence." (Id. at 22:18-23:2.) The officers approached the open front door and yelled in: "Scott Township Police, announce yourself, anyone in the residence." (Id. 54:1-6.) The officers received no response from anyone in the home. (Id. at 23:8-9.) As they were at the open front door, however, Officer McGrath "hear[d] music from the upstairs but [h]e couldn't determine exactly where it was coming from." (Id. at 23:10-14.)

         Having received no response to their knock and announce, and still believing that there may be armed individuals inside, the officers then entered the house. (Id. at 23:23-24:8.) Officer McGrath and Officer Helf-another Scott Township police officer-"entered into the right of the doorway." (Id.) "There was a small room to the right" when they entered, and the officers "visually looked [into the room] and [saw] there were no threats." (Id.) In the entry way to the residence there was also a stairwell leading up to the second level of the home. (Id. at 24:4-12; Gov't Ex. 1.) And at the top of the stairway was a closed door. (ECF No. 191, at 25:5-12.)

         Officers McGrath and Helf ascended the stairwell in order to secure it and then attempted to clear the upstairs, while the other two (2) officers went to clear the living room and dining room area of the house. (Id. at 24:4-8.) Officers McGrath and Helf, as they approached the closed door at the top of the stairwell, "could hear music playing." (Id. at 25:13-24.) They "again announced Scott Township Police" but did not receive a response. (Id.) But for officer safety reasons-since an armed suspect "could be hiding behind [the] door"-they did not knock on the closed door at the top of the stairs. (Id. at 26:1-12.)

         Once Officers McGrath and Helf reached the top of the stairs, Officer McGrath opened the door-to what turned out to be a bedroom-and observed "two males on the bed."[3] (Id. at 27:3-6.) One of the males on the bed was Caucasian, and the other was African American. (Id. at 27:10-15.) The officers then identified themselves and ordered the two (2) men to put their hands up. (Id.) But instead of complying, "[t]he one African American actor attempted to reach for a bag on the bed" despite being told multiple times not to move. (Id.) As a result, the officers "secured him forcefully." (Id.) After securing the individual, Officer McGrath "could see open in plain view there was a handgun in" the bag the man reached for. (Id. at 28:6-10.) There were also "multiple pipes and drug paraphernalia in the residence or in that bedroom." (Id.) Because of this, both of the men found in the bedroom were placed in custody. (Id. at 28:12-13.)

         Securing the suspects in the bedroom, however, did not conclude the officers' protective sweep of the house. (Id. at 27:19-28:6.) Based on Huellen's report, the officers were looking for six (6) individuals, but only two (2) were located in the upstairs bedroom. (Id.) Officer McGrath, therefore, concluded that they were "still looking for four others, specifically at least five other black males." (Id. at 28:1-2.) So Officers McGrath and Helf secured "the firearm for safety but... did not seize anything." (Id. at 28:11-29:5.) The officers placed the two (2) suspects, then in custody, in the upstairs hallway under the watch of Officer Scott-another member of the Scott Township Police Department. Officers McGrath and Helf then finished sweeping the bedroom for other threats to officer safety, but found no additional suspects. (Id.)

         Still in search of potentially four (4) or five (5) more suspects, the officers "proceeded to clear the rest of the residence upstairs." (Id. at 29:6-14.) This included sweeping "a master bedroom and a bathroom upstairs." (Id.) But the officers did not locate any further suspects in the upstairs portion of the residence. (Id.) At this time, the officers brought the two (2) suspects downstairs where they remained in custody. (Id. at 29:15-20.)

         With the upstairs cleared, the officers began sweeping the first floor for any additional suspects. (Id. at 29:4-13.) During their sweep, the officers noted that the residence was cluttered with bags, boxes, and other random objects covering almost every surface. (Id.; Gov't Exs. 2-4.) Included in this clutter was drug paraphernalia, including "smoking glass pipes, " "a digital scale, " and a butane torch (ECF No. 191, at 32:5-34:2; Gov't Exs. 3-7.) The officers worked their way to the basement of the home which they swept for threats, and did the same as to a "hidden room in the basement." (ECF No. 191, at 34:21-35:11.) There, the officers confronted what appeared to be containers with chemicals in them. (Id.) Most notably, however, was the pungent odor that permeated the basement area of the home. (Id.) Officer McGrath testified that, based on his ...

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