CA4: State court suppressed SW for lack of nexus, and then feds indicted; GFE applies to the state warrant

Defendant was prosecuted in state court for a drug related murder, and the state court suppressed the search of his house finding lack of nexus. State v. Miller, 2016 S.C. Unpub. LEXIS 28 (Mar. 30, 2016). Defendant was then prosecuted federally, and the state court’s failure to apply the good faith exception to the warrant (while suggesting it might apply) did not give preclusive effect to the state court finding. Instead, the district court went to the good faith exception. In addition, there was no plain error in the district court’s finding the officers’ entry onto the property was impliedly licensed. United States v. Miller, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 1193 (4th Cir. Apr. 15, 2020):

We do not want to suggest that this is a close question. But were there any doubt, we, like the district court, would find it dispelled by the decisions of the South Carolina courts. See Miller, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 65214, 2018 WL 1858947, at *8. It is true, as Miller emphasizes, that the South Carolina Supreme Court held that the warrant application at issue here did not establish probable cause for a search of Miller’s home — though even that court suggested that the evidence nevertheless might be admissible, perhaps through the good-faith exception. See State v. Miller, No. 2015-000365, 2016 S.C. Unpub. LEXIS 28, 2016 WL 1244403, at *1 (Mar. 30, 2016). But considering the same warrant application, the South Carolina Court of Appeals came to a different conclusion, holding that it did establish a sufficient nexus between Miller’s criminal activity and his home. See State v. Miller, No. 2014-UP-409, 2014 S.C. App. Unpub. LEXIS 518, 2014 WL 6488693, at *1 (Nov. 19, 2014). A defendant always bears a heavy burden when he argues after-the-fact that an officer could not rely in objective good faith on a search warrant, and we think that burden is even heavier where, as here, an appellate court already has approved the warrant. Cf. Leon, 468 U.S. at 926 (finding officers’ reliance on a warrant was objectively reasonable where there was “disagreement among thoughtful and competent judges as to the existence of probable cause”).

Because the executing officers relied in objectively reasonable good faith on a warrant when they searched Miller’s home for evidence, we affirm the district court’s application of Leon and find that the evidence obtained from Miller’s home would have been admissible had Miller proceeded to trial.

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