In a search warrant for alleged stolen heavy equipment, automatic weapons were not “immediately apparent” for plain view purposes. They usually aren’t, especially without nexus being shown. United States v. Lamb, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49155 (S.D. Ohio April 6, 2012):
The Government has, however, failed the third prong of the plain view analysis because it cannot demonstrate that the illegality of the automatic guns was immediately apparent. "Because the plain view doctrine supplants the need for a particularized warrant, the 'immediately apparent' requirement is necessary to prevent officers from using the plain view doctrine as a means to extend a particularized search authorized by the Fourth Amendment principles into an unlawful exploratory search." Garcia, 496 F.3d at 510.
Under the "immediately apparent" prong, "multiple factors may be taken into account, none of which are necessary, but each of which are instructive." Carmack, 426 F. App'x. at 382. Courts should consider: (1) the nexus between the seized object and the items particularized in the warrant; (2) whether the intrinsic nature or appearance of the object gives probable cause to believe it is associated with criminal activity; (3) whether the officer, at the time of the discovery of the object and with the facts then available, can determine probable cause of the object's incriminating nature; and; (4) whether the officer can recognize the incriminating nature of the object as the result of his instantaneous sensory perception, as opposed to further investigation. Id.; Garcia, 496 F.3d at 510. "Probable cause does not require knowledge that the evidence is contraband." Carmack, 426 F. App'x at 382. Instead, it requires that the available facts would warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that it may be contraband. Id.
Here, the first factor weighs in favor of suppression. There was no nexus between the guns seized and the documents or computer accessories authorized in the warrant. Nothing in the warrant or the affidavit suggests guns were used in the alleged theft.3 To the extent the officers were aware of the shooting that occurred on the property earlier that morning, they were likely also aware the shooting involved a handgun, not an automatic machine gun. Furthermore, there was no testimony that the guns were seized in connection with the earlier shooting; they were seized because they were found to be automatic.
3 Some district courts in the Sixth Circuit have found the incriminating nature of a machine gun was immediately apparent for purposes of the plain view exception where the gun had a connection to the alleged crime. See United States v. Jefferson, 717 F. Supp. 2d 790, 804 (S.D. Ohio 2010) (finding incriminating nature of AK-47 immediately apparent where police were investigating a homicide involving a firearm); United States v. Case, No. 2:07-CR-111, 2008 WL 4865967, at *9 (E.D. Tenn. 2008) (finding that if the plain view exception were applied, the incriminating nature of a machine gun is immediately apparent where there was a nexus between guns and narcotics crimes). Here, there was no nexus between the alleged crime and the guns in this case, and therefore, within the context of the search, the illegal nature of the guns was not immediately apparent.
Under the second factor, neither the intrinsic nature nor the appearance of the guns gave probable cause to believe they were illegal automatic weapons. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has held the incriminating nature of certain weapons and accessories, such as sawed-off shotguns and silencers, is immediately apparent. See, e.g., Carmack, 426 F. App'x at 383 (citing cases establishing the immediately apparent incriminating nature of sawed-off shotguns); United States v. Poulos, 895 F.2d 1113, 1122 (6th Cir. 1990), abrogated on other grounds by United States v. Horton, 496 U.S. 128 (1990) ("[S]ilencers, like sawed-off shotguns, are not 'intrinsically innocent' objects and their possession is a serious crime except under 'extraordinary circumstances.'").
There is, however, a distinction between silencers and sawed-off shotguns on the one hand, and automatic weapons on the other. The Sixth Circuit has held that the incriminating nature of automatic weapons is not immediately apparent. United States v. Tatman, 397 F. App'x. 152, 175-77 (6th Cir. 2010) (finding incriminating nature of automatic weapons parts kit not immediately apparent); United States v. Szymkowiak, 727 F.2d 95, 99 (6th Cir. 1984) (suppressing assault rifle where the officers could not tell by looking at the rifle whether it was automatic); United States v. Gray, 484 F.2d 352, 355 (6th Cir. 1973) (finding stolen rifles did not fall under the plain view exception). Therefore, the illegality of an automatic gun is not immediately apparent, and factor two also weighs in favor of suppression.
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