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Wrong Floor

Author: Jim Chapman

 

On the evening of August 30, 2018, the Haverhill, Massachusetts, Police Department (“HPD”) received a phone call indicating that shots had been fired at Defendant Kadeem Pimentel (“Pimentel”). Pimentel reported to the police officers who arrived at the scene that, while he was sitting in a truck, a man in a passing car shot him. Pimentel had bloody bruises on his right thigh, and the right leg of his shorts was shredded. While he received medical treatment, a neighbor approached the officers and provided a video of the incident, indicating that the gunshot was, in fact, fired from the same truck in which Pimentel had been sitting. Confronted about the video, Pimentel revised his original account and claimed, instead, that he had been shot through the front side window by another passenger of the truck. The police subsequently questioned the owner of the truck who stated that Pimentel had fired the shot and that he regularly carried a long gun in his waistband. The officers also noted that Pimentel’s injuries were consistent with a downward shot fired from his waist. Based on the truck owner’s description, the police also determined that the weapon was likely a sawed-off shotgun.

Later that same, an HPD officer applied for and received a no-knock search warrant for 88 Fountain Street to look for shotguns and related property, including “any items that pertain to firearms and proof of residency.” Regarding the person, place, or location to be searched, the warrant specified that “88 Fountain St. 2nd floor is a 3 story, multi-unit, building, with a basement, numbered 88 on the left side of the front, deck . . . which is occupied by and/or in possession of Kadeem Dashawn Pimentel, Maya Garrow [Pimentel’s girlfriend], Diana Pimentel [Pimentel’s aunt], and Phebe Pimentel [Pimentel’s grandmother].” The notation “2nd floor” was not included in the original warrant application; rather, it was added in handwriting at the request of the issuing judge’s clerk who had sought clarification regarding where in the building Pimentel lived. This notation was based on HPD records of Pimentel’s residence based on prior police encounters with him. The affidavit supporting the warrant application similarly stated that Pimentel lived on the second floor and specified that the HPD requested a warrant for “88 Fountain St, 2nd floor.” The approved warrant also authorized a search for property “on the person or in the possession of . . . Kadeem Dashawn Pimentel, Maya Garrow, Diana Pimentel, and Phebe Pimentel.”

88 Fountain Street is a three-story building that is jointly owned by Pimentel’s grandfather and great-uncle. For most of his life, Pimentel had lived at 88 Fountain Street. Shortly prior to the search, Pimentel moved from the second floor of the building to the third floor where his aunt Diana and her boyfriend also resided. At the time of the search, Pimentel’s great-uncle resided on the first floor while other members of Pimentel’s family, including Pimentel’s mother and grandmother, resided on the second floor. Each floor received its own utility bill and is equipped with a separate living space, accessible through a door with a lock, located off a common hallway or stairwell. At some point in the past, the Pimentels had rented out the third floor to a different family who attended their church. A common staircase at the back of the building also connected the floors via rear doors, which are not always kept locked. The exterior of the building has three doorbells and mailboxes corresponding to the three floors of the building, although Diana Pimentel’s name remained listed on the second-floor mailbox despite her residence on the third floor.

Around 2:30 a.m. on August 31, approximately ten HPD officers executed the no-knock search warrant by breaching both the front door of the building and the locked entrance door of the second floor. The officers secured the residents of the second floor, apart from Pimentel’s bedridden great-grandmother, in the second-floor living room. Subsequently, an HPD officer entered the back stairwell of the building through an open door in the second-floor kitchen. The officer encountered Pimentel halfway between the second and third floors while he was heading downstairs. Pimentel informed the officer that his girlfriend, Garrow, was also upstairs. The officer then directed Pimentel to join the others in the second-floor living room. HPD officers proceeded to enter the third floor and brought Garrow and two other residents (Diana Pimentel and her boyfriend) to the second floor.


After being advised of his Miranda rights, Pimentel acknowledged that he had two shotguns in his bedroom, which the officers understood to be on the third floor based on the stairwell encounter with him and Garrow’s presence there. Thereafter, officers searched the third floor and recovered two shotguns and related paraphernalia from Pimentel’s bedroom. None of the residents of the third floor had a firearm license, and none consented to a search of the third floor.

Pimentel was subsequently indicted in federal court for being a felon in possession of firearms in violation of federal law. After his indictment, Pimentel moved to suppress the items seized in the third-floor search, arguing that the search warrant had authorized only a search of the unit’s second floor and that the officers had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by searching the third floor. Pimentel did not dispute the fact that the police had established probable cause for the issuance of the search warrant, nor did he contend that the search warrant was otherwise facially deficient.

Upon consideration, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts denied Pimentel’s motion to support. The District Court agreed with Pimentel’s argument that the second- and third-floor apartments were distinct units. Nevertheless, the District Court found that the officers had acted in good faith in searching the third-floor bedroom. In so finding, the District Court by-passed what it called the “complex issue” of whether the warrant exclusively authorized a search of the second floor. Rather, the District Court determined that, even if the warrant was so limited, the officers had acted in a good-faith belief that the warrant authorized them to search Pimentel’s third-floor bedroom.

Thereafter, Pimentel pleaded guilty to the indictment and was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of twenty-six (26) months. Pimentel, then, timely appealed the District Court’s denial of his suppression motion to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, contending that the District Court committed reversible error when it denied his motion to suppress because the officers’ search of the third-floor of 88 Fountain Street was not authorized by the search warrant and that the search conducted by the officers was outside of the good-faith exception articulated by the United States Supreme Court in United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984).

The First Circuit began its analysis of Pimentel’s argument on appeal by noting that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of “unreasonable searches and seizures” protects against unwarranted government intrusions into one’s person and property. The exclusionary rule provides that evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment is ordinarily remedied by suppression. However, because suppression can impose a significant social burden, the exclusionary rule is not ironclad. Instead, courts must consider the flagrancy of the police misconduct at issue in deciding whether the exclusionary rule applies. For exclusion to be appropriate, the deterrence benefits of suppression must outweigh its heavy costs. As the Supreme Court has made clear, this cost-benefit analysis is not satisfied when an officer acts in “objective good faith” such that any marginal or non-existent benefits produced by suppressing evidence cannot justify the substantial costs of exclusion.

Here, the First Circuit stated that Pimentel’s appeal turned on whether the HPD officers’ belief that the search warrant covered the third floor was objectively reasonable under the circumstances. Whether a search exceeds the scope of a search warrant is an issue that federal courts determine through an objective assessment of the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the warrant, the contents of the search warrant, and the circumstances of the search. Determinations of good faith similarly do not follow a bright-line test but are made when government agents rely on a warrant in objective good faith and in the interest of justice. If the agents act in good faith and in the interests of justice, suppression is generally inappropriate.


Upon close examination of the language of the warrant and the overall circumstances of the search, the First Circuit held that the HPD officers reasonably believed that the warrant authorized them to search the third floor, and therefore, the Leon good faith exception applied. In reaching this conclusion, the First Circuit acknowledged that the search warrant was “not an exemplar of grammatical precision,” and no reading of it is free from ambiguity. However, the First Circuit also noted that federal courts do not subject warrants to the same exacting standard of textual rigor as they might demand in matters of statutory interpretation.

In this case, the First Circuit determined that a reasonable officer could understand the principal command of the warrant to authorize a search of Pimentel’s person and residence within the building. As such, the First Circuit concluded that the warrant’s text, in light of the context in which it was executed, was sufficiently ambiguous to support the District Court’s finding of good faith.


Furthermore, the First Circuit held that the HPD officers’ conduct and their on-the-scene discoveries that they made during the dangerous and difficult process of executing the search warrant also weighed in favor of finding good faith. In their initial sweep of the premises, the officers encountered Pimentel coming down the back stairwell from the third-floor apartment and discovered that Pimentel’s girlfriend and aunt were also present in that same unit—three of the four people enumerated in the warrant’s “which is occupied by” clause.


In addition, by Pimentel’s own admission, the officers learned that the shotguns that were the primary object of the warrant were in Pimentel’s bedroom, which the officers correctly understood to be on the third floor. It was only upon discovering that Pimentel’s current bedroom and the whereabouts of the sought-after property were both on the third floor that the officers conducted the search at issue. They did so while searching for dangerous and possibly loaded weapons—one of which had been discharged only hours previously—and holding a warrant in hand that spoke of the premises “occupied by and/or in possession of” Pimentel and authorized a search of property “on the person or in the possession of” the same.

Under these particular circumstances, the First Circuit opined that it could not say that the HPD’s behavior reflected the type of lawlessness that required application of the extreme sanction of exclusion. Instead, the First Circuit said that it was dealing with a particular situation in which the officers were forced to respond to new information that was uncovered while executing an awkwardly worded warrant and in which they made a good faith judgment about whether the search remained within the scope of the warrant. Accordingly, the First Circuit found that the District Court did not commit reversal error in concluding that the HPD police officers reasonably believed that the warrant permitted the search of Pimentel’s third-floor bedroom and that the Leon good-faith exception applied. United States v. Pimentel, ___ F.4d ___, 2022 WL 484543 (1st Cir. Feb. 17, 2022).

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