Finding Search Warrant Affidavit Sufficient, Sixth Circuit Reverses District Court's Suppression Order

Search warrant affidavits vary from case to case, and, as a result, a flexible "totality of the circumstances" approach is used to assess their constitutional sufficiency. The Sixth Circuit's latest decision in this area is United States v. Hines, where it reversed a district court's suppression order.

Louisville, Kentucky police applied for and obtained a search warrant for 668 Eastlawn Avenue in that city on December 15, 2015. Some seven months earlier, an unidentified but "reliable confidential informant" had informed police that the defendant, William Hines, was selling "large amounts of heroin" out of the residence. Surveillance in the interim had provided some confirmation of Hines' connection to the place. The day prior to the warrant application, the informant (referred to in the opinion as "CS1") had informed police that he had seen "an amount of heroin" at 668 Eastlawn that date. Another "reliable confidential source" ("CS2" in the opinion) informed police that Hines had contacted him and proposed a meeting at a nightclub to discuss a possible heroin transaction. Police obtained some confirmation by tailing Hines to the nightclub. Also, Hines had long been a target of law enforcement: in 2007 wiretaps had identified him as a large-scale cocaine trafficker; wiretaps in 2012 had suggested he was also a significant heroin trafficker; and an arrest that summer right outside 668 Eastlawn had recovered $33,500 from an individual who confirmed prior cocaine and heroin transactions with Hines.

This was enough, the Sixth Circuit concluded, to establish probable cause to  sustain the warrant. First, the affidavit's failure to name either CS1 or CS2 or explain how "they previously provided accurate information" was offset by its description of "both informants' bases of knowledge for their tips about Hines' trafficking drugs out of 668 Eastlawn." Second, while "substantial police corroboration" of the informants' assertions may have been unnecessary given "the informants' bases of knowledge," officers did corroborate the tips: some surveillance between July and December 2015, had confirmed Hines' connection to 668 Eastlawn, and they had tailed Hines to the nightclub to meet with CS2, which confirmed at least part of his story. The court explained that police corroboration need not be of criminal activity, that corroboration of even innocent conduct may support a positive assessment of an informant's tips.

Robert L. Abell

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