United States v. Latecia Watkins (11th Cir. December 2020)

The Federal Docket

Fourth Amendment/Inevitable Discovery – Suppression of evidence was not warranted because, even though officers violated the Fourth Amendment by monitoring a tracking device inside a target’s home, there was a reasonable probability that they would have conducted a knock and talk at her home as part of their investigation and discovered the evidence as a result.

Latecia Watkins was a post office supervisor arrested in 201 for importing cocaine into the U.S. As part of her offense, Watkins used her position as a supervisor to manipulate the “scan history” for packages containing cocaine that were shipped through her office, making it look like they had arrived at their destination even though she took possession of them. Officers placed GPS tracking devices in packages they intercepted and ultimately arrested her after the tracking devices re-activated inside her house and they traced the signal back to her address. After she was indicted, she filed a motion to suppress, which was granted. The Government appealed.

The district court had found that the agents’ initial search of the boxes and placement of the tracking devices was lawful, but since the trackers had temporarily stopped working and were reactivated only once they were inside Watkins house, the Government needed a warrant to continue monitoring the tracking devices at that point. The court relied on United States v. Jones and United States v. Karo, two Supreme Court decisions holding that warrantless monitoring of a tracking device is unconstitutional when it reveals information that cannot be obtained through ordinary visual surveillance.

On appeal, the Government conceded that law enforcement had violated Watkins’ rights through its warrantless monitoring of the tracking device once they were reactivated inside her home. Nevertheless, the Court held that the evidence should not have been suppressed under the Inevitable Discovery Exception to the Exclusionary Rule. The Court reasoned that, even had the tracking device not been reactivated and monitored, there was a “reasonably probability” that the agents would have gone to Watkins’ house to conduct a knock and talk and at that point been able to conduct a permissible warrantless search or else get a warrant for the search of the house.

The Court emphasized that the packages were oddly addressed, showed inconsistent scan histories, and that the agents were able to narrow down their suspects to Watkins based on her position and access to the scan codes. She also appeared anxious and nervous when they visited the post office during the investigation. Those facts, plus the agents’ testimony that they had been contemplating a knock and talk before the device was re-activated, was sufficient for the Court to determine that they would likely have gone to her house anyway, where they would have seen her even more anxious, smelled marijuana, elicited incriminating statements from her, and obtain consent to enter her house. The Court added that the district court had abused its discretion by disregarding the credibility determinations of the magistrate judge without conducting another hearing and hearing the testimony for itself. The Court also engaged in a lengthy discussion regarding the “reasonable probability” standard and distinguishing it from speculation.

Appeal from the Southern District of Florida
Opinion by E. Carnes, joined by Luck 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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