E.D.Wis.: Gov’t didn’t show abandonment of package by sender because of error in address where recipient refused it

The USPS Postal Inspector did not act reasonably in determining that the package with methamphetamine was abandoned. The recipient disclaimed any interest in it, and the investigation into the sender, who would still have an interest in it, was woefully incomplete. There was a typo in the address. The government ascribes that to an attempt to be misleading, but that helps show probable cause, not abandonment. The government also fails on showing inevitable discovery. United States v. Vang, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 77429 (E.D. Wis. March 31, 2017), adopted, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 77428 (E.D. Wis. May 22, 2017):

Because Mr. Metke unreasonably determined that the return address did not exist, he did not make any efforts to investigate the valid Fisher Street address prior to opening the package. Importantly, he did not research whether Lisa Yang, the listed sender, was associated with that address. Mr. Metke therefore did not have a basis for concluding that the sender was unidentifiable. See U.S.’s Mem. 10.

The United States also argues that the package fit the profile of a drug parcel. See id. at 11-14. For example, the United States maintains that “Metke reasonably determined that the fictitious Ficher Street address was an intentional misspelling designed to deter law enforcement from tracing the package to the actual sender, not an innocent misspelling.” Id. at 14. These facts may have helped support probable cause for obtaining a search warrant, but they do not suggest that the sender abandoned the package. See Pitts, 322 F.3d at 459 (“There is nothing inherently wrong with a desire to remain anonymous when sending or receiving a package, and thus the expectation of privacy for a person using an alias in sending or receiving mail is one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.”). Nor do they undercut the fact that 1112 North Fisher Street # 101 is a valid address in Fresno and that, prior to opening the package, Mr. Metke did not know whether Lisa Yang lived at that address. Believing that a package contains drugs does not make it abandoned.

The government’s reliance on United States v. Pitts also is misplaced. In Pitts, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that a package was abandoned where the recipient expressly disavowed the package and the sender “launched the package into the stream of mail without any legitimate way of retrieving it.” Pitts, 322 F.3d at 455-57. In this case, however, Ms. Vang did have a legitimate way of retrieving the package: she could have presented a copy of the mailing label at a post office in Fresno after the package had been returned from Milwaukee. Mr. Metke testified at the hearing that identification would not necessarily have been be required if the sender had a copy of the mailing label. See Tr. 68-70, 83-88. That USPS owed the sender money for failing to deliver the package on time would not prevent the sender from reclaiming the package either. The sender could simply decline the refund, negating the need to fill out any paperwork.

The United States further points out that there is no evidence that Ms. Vang tracked the package, maintained the mailing label, called USPS about the status of the package, or had a link to the Fisher Street address. See U.S.’s Mem. 11. But Mr. Metke did not know any of those facts at the time he opened the package. See Rem, 984 F.2d at 811 (“[T]he flow of information considered stops at the moment the … officer opened the [seized item].”) Furthermore, Mr. Metke could not recall what postal scan he entered after the package was refused at the 33rd Street address. The United States therefore failed to establish that the sender would have had any reason to believe that the package was not delivered as addressed.

In sum, the Court finds that the United States has not demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that a reasonable postal inspector in Mr. Metke’s position would have believed that the sender had abandoned the package. It is clear that Mr. Metke sincerely and accurately believed that the package contained drugs, and he is to be commended for his skills and diligence. Nevertheless, the sender of the package never explicitly denied ownership of the package, and the sender’s conduct did not manifest an intent to relinquish her property interests.

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