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United States v. Melancon

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

October 28, 2019


         SECTION M (3)

          ORDER & REASONS


         Before the Court is a motion to suppress filed by the defendant Brock Melancon seeking to exclude any evidence seized from his residence, a trailer, on April 23, 2019.[1] The government opposes the motion.[2] On October 17, 2019, the Court held an evidentiary hearing.[3] At the hearing, the government presented the testimony of Detective Deputy Dillon Michael Condetti, who was directly involved in the initial search of the defendant's residence and the defendant's arrest, who obtained the search warrant for the residence, and who was directly involved in the search of the residence pursuant to the search warrant. The government also presented photographs of the residence, taken during the search pursuant to the search warrant, the police report, and the search warrant itself.[4] Having considered the parties' memoranda, the testimony and other evidence elicited at the hearing, and the applicable law, the Court issues this Order & Reasons.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On April 23, 2019, at approximately 3:19 a.m., Terrebonne Parish Sheriff's Office Deputies Dillon Condetti and Tyler Fitch observed a vehicle in the parking lot of a Dollar General on Grand Caillou Road in Houma, Louisiana, which store was closed for the night.[5]The occupant of the vehicle, Trinity Bergeron, informed the deputies that he was waiting to pick up his children and their mother, Casey Robichaux, whom he called his wife, because she had been in an altercation with the person with whom she was staying. Bergeron consented to a search of the vehicle, during which the deputies located marijuana and prescription medication inside the vehicle. After the deputies advised Bergeron of his Miranda rights, Deputy Alexander Allen arrived on the scene. While continuing to speak to Bergeron, Deputy Condetti heard a female screaming, at which time Bergeron informed Deputy Condetti that Robichaux was located on Mozart Drive nearby.

         At approximately 4:01 a.m., the deputies patrolled Mozart Drive and observed two female subjects with large bags and two small children. The deputies positively identified one of the women as Robichaux, who advised them that she had been in an altercation with the man with whom she was staying. The other woman, who remained unidentified, explained that she had just met Robichaux and was helping her leave the residence because it was chaotic. Robichaux and the other woman began loading the bags into Bergeron's vehicle and handed the children over to him, at which point Robichaux stated that she needed to return to the residence to retrieve the car seats for the children. The deputies followed Robichaux to 324 Mozart Drive, to ensure the car seats were handed off safely and to investigate the recent altercation. At the time, Robichaux had not provided the deputies with the identity of the man involved in the altercation or whether there were other witnesses or persons located at the residence.

         Upon arrival at 324 Mozart Drive, a single-wide trailer with a small porch, [6] at approximately 4:04 a.m., Deputy Condetti observed a male subject handing Robichaux car seats. Deputy Condetti identified himself, after which the subject immediately closed the door of the residence behind him. Deputy Condetti asked him for an ID, which the man, identified as Wesley Hempel, gave. Deputy Condetti asked Hempel, who was visibly shaking, what had occurred that evening, to which Hempel responded that Robichaux had been in an “argument with [his] friend.”[7] Right after this, another male subject opened the door and walked onto the small porch. Deputy Condetti identified himself and asked the second man for his ID, which the man, later identified as defendant Brock Melancon, said he needed to retrieve from inside the trailer. Melancon entered the residence and permitted Deputy Condetti to follow him. Deputy Condetti remained at the threshold of the trailer to watch Melancon and ensure he was not arming himself or attempting to flee. Meanwhile, Deputy Fitch was on the steps of the trailer's porch with Hempel, and Robichaux returned to Bergeron's vehicle, where Deputy Allen, Bergeron, the unidentified female, and children remained.

         Melancon handed Deputy Condetti his ID and exited the residence to stand on the porch, while Deputy Condetti remained in the threshold of the trailer, with his back to the inside of the residence. After Deputy Allen advised that he needed to speak with Melancon, Bergeron approached Melancon and the two began yelling at each other. Deputy Fitch remained on the steps between the two men in order to keep them separated. Bergeron was asked to step away but would not do so. At this point, unable to step onto the crowded porch from the threshold of the residence, sensing the heightened tension from the ongoing verbal altercation, feeling increasingly outnumbered, and aware of recent shootings in the area, for which the perpetrator(s) had not been identified, Deputy Condetti began to fear for his safety and asked Melancon if there was anyone else located inside the trailer. Melancon answered in the negative and aggressively took a step toward the door and Deputy Condetti. Deputy Condetti then told Melancon to back up as he was going to conduct a security sweep for officer safety.

         During the security sweep of the residence, Deputy Condetti entered each room, including the master bathroom where he opened the shower door to ensure no one was inside, and turning to go, observed a small bag of marijuana floating in the toilet in plain view. After completing the sweep, but continuing to secure the scene, he stepped outside the trailer onto the porch and conducted a pat-down of both Melancon and Hempel to search for weapons. Deputy Condetti observed Melancon place keys on the porch, which led Deputy Condetti to believe Melancon was distancing himself from them. While patting down Melancon, Deputy Condetti found $522 in his front pocket and observed Hempel place a cigarette pack on the porch. Hempel stated that the pack did not belong to him and that he had found it in the yard of the residence. Deputy Condetti looked inside the pack and found what appeared to be heroin. Both Melancon and Hempel were detained and informed of their Miranda rights; both stated they understood their rights and told Deputy Condetti that he needed a search warrant for the residence. Deputy Condetti contacted his supervisor Colonel Terry Daigre, who told him to contact Lieutenant Henry Dihn in order to obtain a search warrant. Deputy Condetti then approached Robichaux and told her to walk back to the residence for further investigation.

         While waiting for Lieutenant Dihn, Deputy Condetti informed Robichaux of her Miranda rights, which she stated she understood. Robichaux told Deputies Condetti and Allen that she had been staying with Melancon for a few weeks, that she was fearful of Melancon, who had several firearms inside the residence, that she knew he was a narcotics dealer, and that narcotics were located inside the trailer as well.

         Deputy Condetti applied for the search warrant, providing three reasons for probable cause that illegal items would be found inside the residence: (1) the marijuana found during the security sweep; (2) the suspected heroin found inside the cigarette pack; and (3) Robichaux's post-Miranda statements regarding illegal narcotics and weapons inside the residence.[8] Upon conducting a thorough search of the trailer pursuant to the search warrant, several firearms, illegal narcotics, and drug paraphernalia were found by law enforcement inside the residence.[9]According to Deputy Condetti, the majority of the narcotics were found inside a locked case, which the officers unlocked with the keys Melancon had placed on the porch. Thereafter, the grand jury charged Melancon and Hempel in a four-count indictment.[10] Melancon was charged with (1) conspiring to distribute methamphetamine and heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(A), 841(b)(1)(C), and 846; (2) being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 28 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2); (3) possessing with intent to distribute methamphetamine and heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(A), 841(b)(1)(C), and 18 U.S.C. § 2; and (4) possessing firearms in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A).[11]


         Melancon argues that Deputy Condetti violated his Fourth Amendment rights when he entered and searched his home without a warrant, and that the subsequent search pursuant to the search warrant also violated his Fourth Amendment rights because the warrant was based on facts learned during the first warrantless search.[12] He argues that the requirements for an exigency permitting a warrantless search, namely the requirements for a “protective sweep, ” are not met.[13] Furthermore, he argues that none of the “safety-valve doctrines” - independent source, inevitable discovery, or attenuation - is present, as would allow the second and third bases for the search warrant (viz., the heroin and Robichaux's statements) to be considered untainted by the illegality.[14] Therefore, he argues, “all evidence obtained pursuant to both searches must be suppressed as the fruits of the constitutional violation.”[15]

         In response, the government argues that Deputy Condetti's initial search of the residence does meet the requirements of the protective sweep doctrine.[16] Even if the sweep was not constitutionally valid, the government argues that the heroin found in the cigarette pack together with Robichaux's statements are independent support for the search warrant with “more than enough probable cause.”[17] Accordingly, it maintains that under both the protective sweep doctrine and independent source exception to the exclusionary rule, the evidence should not be suppressed.[18]

         III. LAW & ANALYSIS

         A. Protective Sweep

         While normally a defendant bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that a challenged search was unconstitutional, “where a police officer acts without a warrant, the government bears the burden of proving that the search was valid.” United States v. Waldrop, 404 F.3d 365, 368 (5th Cir. 2005). Warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments but may be justified when “exigent circumstances exist to justify the intrusion.” United States v. Menchaca-Castruita, 587 F.3d 283, 289 (5th Cir. 2009) (citation omitted). “As a general rule, exigent circumstances exist when there is a genuine risk that officers or innocent bystanders will be endangered, that suspects will escape, or that evidence will be destroyed if entry is delayed until a warrant can be obtained.” Id. Under the protective sweep doctrine, government agents may conduct “a quick and limited search of premises for the safety of the agents and others present at the scene” without a warrant. United States v. Mendez, 431 F.3d 420, 428 (5th Cir. 2005). A sweep is constitutional if:

(1) the government agents have a legitimate law enforcement purpose for being in the house; (2) the sweep is supported by a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the area to be swept harbors an individual posing a danger to those on the scene; (3) the sweep is no more than a cursory inspection of those spaces where a person may be found; and (4) the sweep lasts no longer than is necessary to dispel the reasonable suspicion of danger and lasts no longer than the police are justified in remaining on the premises.

Id. (citations and quotations omitted). To justify the sweep, there must exist “articulable facts which, taken together with the rational inferences from those facts, would warrant a reasonably prudent officer in believing that the area to be swept harbors an individual posing a danger to those on the … scene.” United States v. Silva, 865 F.3d 238, 241 (5th Cir. 2017) (quoting Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 324, 334 (1990)). In making this determination, the ...

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