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United States Supreme Court to decide what nexus must be established for a search of a house for drug activity under the Fourth Amendment

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to hear the case of Zamudio v. United States which raises the issue of whether a search warrant can legally be issued for a suspected drug trafficker’s residence without evidence that the residence is being used for criminal activity. Attorneys for Juan Zamudio filed a petition for writ of certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve the current circuit split and establish a uniform legal standard for the basis of search warrants for suspected drug traffickers’ residences.

When can a judge approve a search warrant for a home in a Drug Trafficking case?  

Typically, a judge can only approve a search warrant application if there is a “nexus” between the crime and the location to be searched and “reasonable cause to believe specific things” with be found there. In the 7thcircuit, however, the mere fact that there is evidence a person is engaged in drug trafficking is sufficient evidence for a judge to issue a search warrant for the suspect’s residence, even if there is no evidence that anything specific will be found there which links the suspect to the alleged criminal activity.

In this and other cases, the 7th circuit held that since it is likely that evidence of drug trafficking will be found in any drug trafficker’s residence, this alone is sufficient to establish probable cause for the search. In other circuits the affidavit for a search warrant must, “include facts that directly connect the residence with the suspected drug dealing activity,” which is generally the standard for all other crimes.

What evidence must be established to show a nexus between the house and the drug activity?  

Here, federal agents had evidence that the Zamudio engaged in drug trafficking activities at his brother’s home and in various public places. The government acknowledges there was no evidence presented in support of the search warrant that Zamudio used his own residence for criminal activity. The search warrant affidavit did include general statements from the investigating agent that, based on his experience, drug traffickers “generally store their drug-related paraphernalia in their residences.” The methamphetamines found in Zamudio’s residence were used as evidence to convict him of possession with intent to sell, and other crimes.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled in Zamudio’s favor; granting the motion to suppress the evidence found in his residence, holding that there must be a nexus between the place to be searched and the alleged criminal activity.  The district court did infer that if an informant indicated that a suspect’s home was used for drug trafficking activities or there were no other possible locations from which the drug trafficking activity was being conducted, this could be sufficient to establish probable cause to search a drug trafficking suspect’s residence in other cases.

Sometimes evidence can still be used against a defendant regardless of whether the search warrant used to discover the evidence was unlawful. This is called the “good faith exception.” But, if a “reasonable, well-trained officer” would have known the search was unlawful, the good faith exception does not apply. Here, the district court held that the good faith exception did not apply.

The 7thcircuit court of appeals overturned the district court’s decision and denied the motion to suppress, holding that the search warrant affidavit established probable cause that Zamudio was a drug dealer and since “evidence is likely to be found where drug dealer’s live, “ this was sufficient to establish probable cause for a search warrant for a drug dealer’s home. The Court did not go as far as establishing a bright-line rule, but instead allowed for judges to make an inference based on the evidence presented that there is a fair probability that evidence of the crime will be found in the residence.

Since this circuit split creates different standards of justice depending on where a defendant lives and this is a recurring issue, there is a possibility that the Supreme Court will hear the case and decide the issue once and for all. Additionally, this issue is quite clearly presented in this case, with the government acknowledging the lack of particularized evidence of criminal activity in the home.  Currently there are six other circuits that agree with the 7thcircuit on this issue. While the 1stand 6thcircuit disagree, and require police to present evidence specifically linking the suspected drug trafficker’s residence to the alleged crime, both of these circuits would still allow the search of a suspect’s home, regardless of the lack of specific evidence linking the home to the drug trafficking activity, if the suspect was running a major, continuous, long-term operation.

Challenging a search warrant is just one potential defense strategy for a drug trafficking charge. If you are facing drug trafficking charges, a criminal defense attorney can thoroughly review all of the evidence in your case, challenge any unlawfully obtained evidence, and aggressively advocate on your behalf.

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