On May 3, 2019, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Coleman[i], which serves as an excellent review of Fourth Amendment law pertaining to probable cause for search warrants of residences, GPS tracking of vehicles and curtilage.  The relevant facts of Coleman, taken directly from the case, are as follows:

On March 9, 2017, law-enforcement agents began investigating Eddie Powell, a drug dealer, and his sources of narcotics. A cooperating defendant identified one of those sources as the defendant, Ronald Coleman. Officers began investigating Coleman and observed his two automobiles, a brown Trailblazer and a white Buick Enclave, in connection with suspected drug sales to Powell. Specifically, on April 7, 2017, law-enforcement officers observed an individual matching Coleman’s description arrive at Powell’s house, get out of Coleman’s Enclave, enter the house, and leave three minutes later. Then, four days later, Coleman arrived at Powell’s house in the Trailblazer and sold cocaine to the cooperating defendant.

Around this time, a law-enforcement agent checked Coleman’s criminal history and determined he had felony convictions in 2006 and 2009 for delivery or manufacture of a controlled substance. The agent also discovered that both vehicles were registered to Coleman’s father and observed that, in his experience, drug traffickers frequently register their vehicles in the names of family or friends to conceal their identities. The agent detailed all of these findings, as well as the facts from the suspected drug sales, in a supporting affidavit and, on April 19, 2017, obtained tracking warrants from a federal magistrate judge for Coleman’s Enclave and Trailblazer on the belief that tracking those vehicles would provide evidence of their involvement in the distribution of narcotics.

On April 20, 2017, an ATF agent attached the tracking devices to Coleman’s Enclave and Trailblazer. To apply the trackers, the agent went to Coleman’s condominium on East Springtree Lane SW in Grand Rapids, which is part of the Silverleaf Condominium Complex, a collection of approximately 40 residential units scattered across several streets within the complex.

There is no gate or fence at the entrance to the Silverleaf complex, but there is a small sign that says: “PRIVATE PROPERTY.” The sign, however, does not forbid outside visitors and anyone can drive onto the streets of the condominium complex unimpeded. Residents are able to have visitors without requesting permission from neighbors, the Postal Service delivers mail to mailboxes inside the complex, and there is a single trash-collection business that serves all units.

Coleman’s condominium unit is roughly a mile down the road from the entrance of the complex, alongside other similar buildings. His particular unit is in a building shared by three other families, and his driveway is shared with a neighboring family. The entire driveway consists of a single concrete slab leading to Coleman’s garage and the garage of Coleman’s neighbor. No gate, fence, or hedgerow surrounds the condo, and it is common for residents to walk by each other’s vehicles over the course of a day.

To attach the tracking devices, the agent parked in a public parking spot across the street from Coleman’s condo and walked up to Coleman’s Enclave, which was parked in front of his garage a few feet onto the driveway. Coleman’s Trailblazer was across the street, in a parking spot shared by residents and guests.

On May 4 and May 10, 2017, Coleman sold cocaine to Powell. During the May 10 sale, agents observed Coleman leave his condo, enter the Enclave, and get out of the Enclave at Powell’s home. Agents also watched the GPS tracking data from the Enclave vehicle tracker, and the data appeared to show that Coleman traveled directly from his condo to Powell’s house. Based on this information, agents applied for a warrant to search Coleman’s condo for evidence of drug trafficking and money laundering. On May 23, 2017, a different federal magistrate judge than the one who had signed the tracking warrants signed the condo search warrant.

On May 31, 2017, agents executed the condo warrant, seizing approximately 500 grams of cocaine, a firearm, and documents and property indicative of money laundering. Agents then interviewed Coleman and he admitted possession and ownership of the cocaine and a firearm.[ii]

Coleman was charged with federal drug and firearms violations.  He filed a motion to suppress the evidence and argued that search warrant of his residence and the use of the GPS were not supported by probable cause and that the agent violated his Fourth Amendment rights when he entered his driveway to install the GPS on his vehicle.  The district court denied the motion to suppress.  Coleman pled guilty with the right to appeal.  He then appealed the denial of the motion to suppress to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Issue One:  Whether probable cause existed to issue the warrant for the tracking device on Coleman’s Buick Enclave?

The court noted that, under the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure 41(c)-(d),

[A] magistrate judge must issue a tracking-device warrant if a supporting affidavit establishes probable cause to believe that the device will uncover evidence, fruits, or instrumentalities of a crime.[iii]

The court then listed the five facts that were listed in the warrant affidavit that supported probable cause to issue the warrant.  The facts were as follows:

-A confidential informant identified Coleman as a current drug supplier to Powell.

-Authorities had been investigating four drug sales at Powell’s residence, one of which involved Coleman dropping off cocaine for Powell.

-A law-enforcement agent observed an individual matching Coleman’s description drive to Powell’s house in the Enclave, stay only four minutes, and leave, activity that could be consistent with the driver engaging in illegal drug sales.

-Coleman had two prior felony convictions for delivery/manufacture of controlled substances.

-A Law Enforcement Information Network (LEIN) check on the vehicle identified Coleman’s father as the Enclave’s owner.[iv]

The court then held that the facts above supported probable cause to issue the GPS tracking warrant.

Issue Two:  Whether the agents violated the Fourth Amendment when they (1) entered Coleman’s condominium complex that was marked with a “private property” sign and (2) entered Coleman’s driveway to install the GPS on his Buick Enclave.

The court first noted the various factors that must be considered when determining if an area is to be afforded constitutional protection under the Fourth Amendment.  The court stated

Courts have identified four factors as a guidepost to determining whether an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy in an area, placing it within the home’s curtilage: (1) proximity to the home; (2) whether the area is within an enclosure around the home; (3) uses of the area; and (4) steps taken to protect the area from observation by passersby. United States v. Dunn, 480 U.S. 294, 301 (1987).[v] [emphasis added]

Regarding entry into Coleman’s condominium complex where there was a sign marking the area as “private property,” the court looked to the Sixth Circuit case of the United States v. Dillard.[vi]  The court stated that Dillard held

[A] defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the common area of his building’s duplex that was unlocked and open to the public because he “made no effort to maintain his privacy in the common hallway and stairway” and therefore “did nothing to indicate to the officers that they were not welcome in the common areas.[vii]

Similarly, anyone could drive into Coleman’s complex, there was no gate, the sign said “private property” rather than “no trespassing,” and the condo association made no effort to keep anyone out.  As such, there was no Fourth Amendment violation when the agent entered the complex.

The court next examined the law regarding the agent’s entry into Coleman’s driveway to install the GPS device on the Enclave.  The court discussed Collins v. Virginia[viii], in which the Supreme Court discussed a driveway search by police.  In Collins, a police officer went to the defendant’s residence to look for a stolen motorcycle.  The officer walked up the driveway to an area of the driveway that was covered by roof attached to the residence, and had two sides that were brick wall and the third side was the side of the house.  There was no door on this area, which would commonly be called a “carport.”  The officer looked under a tarp and discovered a stolen motorcycle.  This case ultimately went to the Supreme Court on the issue of whether the area the officer searched was part of the curtilage of the residence and, as such, given Fourth Amendment protection.  The Supreme Court held

[j]ust like the front porch, side garden, or area outside the front window, the driveway enclosure where [the officer] searched the motorcycle constitutes an area adjacent to the home and to which the activity of home life extends, and so is properly considered curtilage.[ix] [emphasis added]

Since the officer acted without a warrant, the Supreme Court held that this search violated the Fourth Amendment.

The court then compared the facts of Collins to the facts of Coleman’s case.  In Collins, the motorcycle sat in an area past the front perimeter of the residence, covered by a tarp, in an area enclosed on three sides, which was not in the path of the front door of the residence.  In Coleman’s case, the Enclave sat in front of the residence, not in a partially enclosed area, not covered, and in the path of the front door of the residence.  Additionally, other families also shared that driveway area and walked past that area.

Therefore, the Sixth Circuit held that the area where Coleman’s Enclave was parked was not part of the protected curtilage of the residence, and the agent did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he installed the GPS tracker on the vehicle in that area.

Issue Three:  Whether probable cause supported the search warrant for Coleman’s residence?

The court first examined the legal principles relevant to this issue and stated

The job of a magistrate judge presented with a search warrant application is simply to make a practical, common-sense decision whether, given all the circumstances set forth in the affidavit . . . , there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.” United States v. Brown, 828 F.3d 375, 381 (6th Cir. 2016) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). There must be a “nexus between the place to be searched and the evidence sought.” United States v. Carpenter, 360 F.3d 591, 594 (6th Cir. 2004) (en banc). However, a magistrate issuing a search warrant “may infer that drug traffickers use their homes to store drugs and otherwise further their drug trafficking.” United States v. Williams, 544 F.3d 683, 687 (6th Cir. 2008). This reflects the reality that, “in the case of drug dealers, evidence is likely to be found where the dealers live.” United States v. Jones, 159 F.3d 969, 975 (6th Cir. 1998) (citation and alteration omitted).[x] [emphasis added]

The court then examined the facts relevant to the finding of probable cause for search warrant of Coleman’s residence.  The court noted the following facts as relevant: (1) the affidavit documented facts to show Coleman was an active drug trafficker, (2) the affidavit established that the Springtree Lane address was Coleman’s residence, (3) the affidavit established that both of Coleman’s vehicles were regularly parked there, (4) the affidavit stated that agents had conducted three controlled buys of cocaine from Coleman and (5) the agents observed him drive directly from his condo to the site of the most recent buy, less than two weeks before the warrant issued.[xi]

Based on the above facts, the Sixth Circuit held that there was probable cause to provide a reasonable inference that he transported narcotics from his residence to the location of the narcotics sale.  As such, there was no Fourth Amendment violation.

The Sixth Circuit then affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.



[i] No. 18-1083 (6th Cir. Decided May 3, 2019)

[ii] Id. at 2-4

[iii] Id. at 4

[iv] Id. at 4-5

[v] Id. at 6

[vi] 438 F.3d 675

[vii] Id. at 682

[viii] 138 S.Ct. 1663 (2018)

[ix] Id. at 167-1671

[x] Coleman at 8-9

[xi] Id. at 9

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