CA6: DEA SW for tableting machine lacked PC, but GFE exception saves search

“The facts of this case are undisputed. On October 20, 2021, Brett Dauphinais ordered a tableting machine, a device that retails for thousands of dollars and allows the user to make food or drug tablets. Tableting machines can be used to make counterfeit pills containing fentanyl. Federal law regulates the sale of these machines, see 21 C.F.R. § 1310.05(b)(2), and the seller required Dauphinais to provide a reason for the purchase.” The order for delivery to a residential address triggered a suspicious transaction report to the DEA, and that led a search warrant. The application for the warrant failed to show probable cause because a tableting machine isn’t inherently illegal. The question of good faith is difficult; finally, the court comes down in favor of the good faith exception. United States v. Dauphinais, 2024 U.S. App. LEXIS 4266 (6th Cir. Feb. 23, 2024):

Our cases recognize several features that can trigger application of the good faith exception. An affiant’s extensive and relevant experience, for instance, weighs in favor of applying the exception. United States v. Van Shutters, 163 F.3d 331, 337-38 (6th Cir. 1998); see also United States v. Reed, 993 F.3d 441, 452 (6th Cir. 2021) (applying the good faith exception where the affiant’s extensive drug investigation experience supported “his belief that probable cause existed to search [the defendant’s] home”). Likewise, an affiant’s description of the location to be searched “with such particularity that a common sense inference is that the affiant visited the premises himself and presumably either observed [the defendant] in the residence, or determined through investigation that [the defendant] frequented the premises” suggests “that only a police officer with extraordinary legal training would have detected any deficiencies in” the affidavit, militating in favor of the exception. Van Shutters, 163 F.3d at 337. We have also explained that a limited inference based on “great number of details set out in the affidavit” coupled with a “highly experienced investigator” serving as the affiant, can satisfy the good faith inquiry. Laughton, 409 F.3d at 750. Schultz is similarly instructive. 14 F.3d at 1097. Centered on a warrant to search safe deposit boxes alleged to contain drug trafficking records, Schultz acknowledged that a law enforcement agent’s “‘training and experience’ … cannot substitute for the lack of evidentiary nexus in [a] case, prior to the search, between the [location to be searched] and any criminal activity.” Id. at 1097. It observed, however, that “the connection” between the alleged crime and the safe deposit boxes “was not so remote as to trip on the ‘so lacking’ hurdle,” and therefore applied the good faith exception. Id. at 1098.

Determining which side of the good faith line this affidavit falls on is not an easy task. On one hand, prior to the search, law enforcement did not observe Dauphinais—nor any other person at the Ferndale residence—use, distribute, or otherwise engage with illegal drugs. Nor did the affidavit show that Dauphinais had a history of drug dealing or other illegal activity. Our precedent states that where “the ‘evidence in the affidavit connecting the crime to the residence [was] “so vague as to be conclusory or meaningless,”‘” the good faith exception does not apply. McPhearson, 469 F.3d at 527 (quoting Frazier, 423 F.3d at 537).

On the other hand, the Government argues that the good faith exception applies here because the affiant’s professional background and “experience in other cases leading to the discovery of illegal pill-making operations” allowed her to reasonably infer that Dauphinais’s behavior reflected an attempt to avoid detection by law enforcement. The four corners of the affidavit contained over 50 paragraphs and 22 pages that included the affiant’s lengthy recitation of her training and experience, her extensive investigation, detailed observations, photographs, and the similarities between these observed facts and recent illegal pill-press operations. As the Government urges, the affidavit “included dozens of paragraphs detailing physical surveillance, as well [as] documentary and online investigation, that were consistent with an illegal pill-making operation at the Ferndale address.” Based on her experience, the affiant drew relevant comparisons between Dauphinais’s behavior and those of individuals implicated in recent, substantiated illegal pill-press operations.

This affidavit is distinct from the classic bare bones affidavits of our precedent. The level of detailed description distinguishes it from the bare bones affidavit in McPhearson, where the factual basis of the warrant consisted of a single paragraph observing that the defendant “was arrested for a non-drug offense with a quantity of crack cocaine on his person” outside of the location to be searched. 469 F.3d at 524, 526. The affiant’s extensive investigative work here also differentiates this case from Brown. There, the affiant failed to conduct any surveillance or investigation, and only “a passing reference to [the defendant’s] car registration” at the search location “connect[ed] the residence to the alleged drug dealing activity.” 828 F.3d at 385. In contrast, the affiant’s investigative work here included surveillance over multiple days.

Here, the affiant’s training and experience linked Dauphinais and the Ferndale residence to the alleged criminal activity. We have held that such an approach can justify application of the good faith exception. See Schultz, 14 F.3d at 1097-98; Van Shutters, 163 F.3d at 337-38 ; Reed, 993 F.3d at 452. And like Schultz, “[t]here is no evidence” here “that [the affiant] gave a knowingly false affidavit or otherwise acted in bad faith.” 14 F.3d at 1098. Under such circumstances, the good faith exception can save a “facially valid” warrant that does not satisfy probable cause. Id.

Given the specified experience and training of the affiant and the lengthy affidavit linking facts observed during the investigation of Dauphinais with the distinctive features of proven illegal pill manufacturing operations, we are not convinced that “a reasonably well trained officer would have known that the search was illegal despite the magistrate’s authorization.” Leon, 468 U.S. at 922 n.23. This “affidavit was not so lacking in probable cause as to render official belief in its existence entirely unreasonable.” Frazier, 423 F.3d at 537. The affidavit satisfies the good faith exception.

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