Sunday, January 01, 2012

Case o' The Week: Gimme Shetler -- Post illegal-search statements

LinkThe Ninth ended 2011 with a bang, with a pair of great suppression cases relating to statements. We'll turn primarily to Shetler and post illegal-search statements, but Valenzuela-Espinoza (discussed below) deserves a close read as well. United States v. Shetler, 2011 WL 6794021 (9th Cir. Dec. 28, 2011), decision available here.
Players: Decision by Judge Reinhardt (below left), joined by Judge Berzon and visiting District Judge Kennelly. Big win for Central District Ass’t Federal Defenders Victor Cannon, Liliana Coronado, and Ashwini Mate.

Facts: After Scott Shetler’s daughter snitched him out, cops searched his garage and found chemicals and gear related to cooking meth. Id. at *1. That search was legal.

The cops then seized Shetler, got his girlfriend to “consent” to a search of the house, searched his house and re-searched the garage. Id. at *1-*2. This second round of searches produced many more things used to make meth, including chemicals and flasks. Id. at *2. The detained Shetler watched this search from outside. Id. About five hours after being seized Shetler was Mirandized and confessed to making meth. Id. at *2.

The next day Shetler was Mirandized and interrogated twice more (in custody), expanding his confession each round. Id. The district court upheld the search of the garage, suppressed all evidence seized in the subsequent illegal searches, but permitted Shetler’s multiple confessions to come in at trial. Id. Shetler was convicted.

Issue(s): “Shetler argues . . . that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress the statements regarding his drug activities that he made to a DEA agent on the night of his arrest outside his home and those he made during his interview at the DEA office 36 hours after his arrest.” Id. at *4. “The question . . . is whether the district court erred in finding that the statements made by Shetler at the DEA office were not sufficiently connected to the preceding illegal searches to constitute ‘fruit of the poisonous tree.’” Id.

Held: “The government did not bear its burden of showing that Shetler’s statements were not the product of illegal searches. Contrary to the district court’s determination, there is no evidence in the record to support the conclusion that the statements were ‘the product of the initial legal search of the garage . . . and were not tainted by the illegal searches of the garage.’” Id. at *5.

Of Note: The Shetler suppression holding gets the big defense buzz. The opinion, however, also gives us some first-impression interpretations of a federal drug statute here in the Ninth Circuit. Section 856(a)(1) of Title 21 criminalizes the “use” of a place with the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using drugs. Id. at *8. Shetler’s home drug lab was to make meth for his own use (he claimed): a crime outside of the “commercial” drug acts targeted by this crack-house law (he argued). Id.

Judge Reinhardt rejects this interpretation, but adds limitations to the statute to dodge Shetler’s constitutional challenge. Id. at *9 (restricting application of this statute in the context of residences, to offenses where drug manufacture, distribution, or use is a primary purpose).

It is an important decision – for us in NorCal, it is hard to read Shetler’s interpretation of the crack house statute without an uncomfortable thought for all those little private, home-use marijuana grows out amongst the redwoods.

How to Use: Regardless of any evidence from the illegal searches, agents probably had probable cause to (arrest) and question Shetler about his drug activities. If that’s true, what’s his beef with the use of his confessions?

Answering that question, Judge Reinhardt carefully explains the different analyses for confessions arising from illegal detentions, versus illegal searches. Id. at *5. One additional problem with statements after illegal searches is that interrogated suspects can be confronted with evidence that was illegally obtained. Id. Another unique problem with post-search interrogation (versus post-seizure), is that a suspect who knows that evidence has been seized will view silence as futile, and will confess. Id. at *6. It is a compelling, and common sense explanation of why post-search confessions deserve their own unique analysis.

Turn to Shetler when faced with a post-search confession, and bear in mind that post illegal-search confessions may be much more vulnerable than post illegal-seizure statements.

For Further Reading: An equally good case on the suppression of statements was delivered on the same day as Shetler: United States v. Valenzuela-Espinoza, 2011 WL Link6794013 (9th Cir. Dec. 28, 2011), decision available here.

In Valenzuela-Espinoza, Judge Betty Fletcher refuses to let agents off the presentment hook when they elicit a confession eight hours after arrest, and don’t bring the suspect before a magistrate until the next day. Id. at *1-*2. It is an excellent decision on the McNabb-Mallory rule, and is a case that may prompt a shake-up for court arraignment policies in a Ninth Circuit district or two . . . .

Image of the Honorable Stephen Reinhardt from Image of the "Gimme Shelter" cover from

Steven Kalar, Senior Litigator N.D. Cal FPD. Website at


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