United States v. Jose Antonio Morales (11th Cir. February 2021)

The Federal Docket

March 11, 2021

4th Amendment Search – Good faith exception applies where affidavit for search warrant noted even a small amount of marijuana was found in trash-pulls from bins in front of the searched residence on two separate occasions three days apart.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction – Failure to allege the Rehaif knowledge element of a §922(g) firearms charge in the indictment does not deprive the district court of subject matter jurisdiction.

Following a jury trial. Jose Antonio Morales was convicted of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition in 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(1). Prior to trial he had filed a motion to suppress the evidence that police obtained when they searched his home pursuant to a search warrant. That motion was denied by the district court.

On appeal, Morales argued that his convictions should be reversed on two grounds. In the first place, he argued that the affidavit filed in support of the search warrant in his case failed to establish probable cause and that the fruits of the Government’s subsequent search of his home should have been excluded from trial as a result. The affidavit in question had noted that police had retrieved tiny quantities of marijuana and a cut plastic bag labeled “Kush” during two trash-pulls at Morales’s residence, but it failed to mention that an adjacent vacant lot was often used by local teenagers as a spot to do drugs, and it omitted the fact that the trash-pulls were conducted in response to an anonymous tip that Morales was dealing drugs out of his house. The affidavit also did not include any information connecting the trash to Morales’s residence directly.

Following an evidentiary hearing on Morales’s motion, the lower court held that the facts in the affidavit were sufficient to establish probable cause for the search but that even if they hadn’t been, the fruits of the search need not be suppressed because the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied. Reviewing the district court’s application of the good faith exception de novo, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed this decision. The exclusionary rule is a prudential doctrine designed to deter law enforcement from willful Fourth Amendment violations, so when officers obtain a warrant in good faith and reasonably rely on it to conduct a search within its scope, it would not serve the purpose of the rule to exclude the fruits of that search, even if the warrant is found later to have been deficient.

Morales argued that the good faith exception should not apply because the affidavit in this case was “so lacking in indicia of probable cause” as to make it “entirely unreasonable” for the officers to believe it existed, but the Court did not agree. To be facially acceptable, the affidavit only needed to state facts sufficient to justify the belief that contraband would probably be found at Morales’s home. That was true here, where marijuana, even in a small quantity, was found in the trash on multiple occasions at multiple times, and it was found inside bagged residential garbage in bins outside the home.

Noting that it was an unsettled issue in its jurisdiction, the Eleventh Circuit nevertheless declined to rule on the question of whether trash-pulls alone, unsupported by other evidence, could be sufficient grounds for probable cause to search a home. Because the good faith exception applied in this case and the evidence should not have been suppressed either way, it was not necessary to reach the question of whether the warrant was indeed valid.

Morales’s second claim for reversal pertained only to his conviction for §922(g)(1) firearm and ammunition possession. He argued that his conviction for this charge should be dismissed pursuant to the recent decision in Rehaif v. United States. In that case, the Supreme Court held that in order to convict a defendant under §922(g), the Government had to prove not only that the thye knowingly possessed a firearm and ammunition, but also that they knew that they were barred from doing so by their criminal history. The indictment against Morales in this case did not allege that he had such knowledge, and so Morales argued that it did not actually charge a federal criminal offense, and therefore the district court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over his case.

The Court rejected this claim as well and upheld the §922(g)(1) conviction. The Court’s own decision last year in United States v. Moore addressed an identical claim and denied it. The knowledge requirement read into the statute by Rehaif is merely an element of the offense, and the indictment need not include allegations on all elements in order for the district court to have subject matter jurisdiction over the case.

Appeal from the Southern District of Florida

Opinion by Ginsburg (by designation from D.C. Cir.), joined by Jordan and Marcus

Click here to read the opinion

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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