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United States v. Houck

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

April 26, 2018

United States of America Plaintiff- Appellant
v.
Thomas Franklin Houck Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: April 10, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Joplin

          Before GRUENDER, MELLOY, and BENTON, Circuit Judges.

          GRUENDER, Circuit Judge.

         Thomas Houck was indicted on one count of receipt and distribution of child pornography. See 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(2). Before trial, the district court granted Houck's motion to suppress, finding that the search of his recreational vehicle ("RV") exceeded the scope of an otherwise valid search warrant. Because the officers were not objectively unreasonable in their belief that the RV fell within the warrant's authorization to search "any vehicles, " we reverse.

         I.

         As part of his work with a Pennsylvania computer-crimes task force, Detective Gregory Wahl located a computer that was sharing child pornography on the Ares peer-to-peer network. Wahl was able to establish the IP address of the computer, which he traced to the residence of Houck's mother in Manheim, Pennsylvania. This information led another member of the task force, Detective Keith Kreider, to conduct "basic surveillance" of the property, where he observed a pickup truck and a fifth-wheel trailer-style RV in the driveway. Kreider then applied for and obtained a search warrant. The warrant application included a request to search "any vehicles . . . present at the time of execution . . . due to the size and portability of many of today's media storage devices." Kreider later testified that he did not specifically identify the RV in the warrant application or seek a separate warrant to search the RV based on his belief that it fell within the scope of the warrant's authorization to search "any vehicles." He further testified that, had the warrant not expressly covered vehicles, he would have applied for a second warrant to search the RV.

         Officers executed the search warrant on July 2, 2015. Upon arriving at the residence, the officers saw Houck's RV and pickup truck parked in the driveway. The truck had a trailer attachment, but the RV was not connected to it. The RV itself had Missouri license plates, a valid inspection tag, and a vehicle identification number. It had fully inflated tires and no permanent attachments to the ground. However, it was connected to water and electric lines, and there was a satellite dish attached to the roof. Kreider estimated that it would have taken approximately thirty minutes to prepare the RV for travel.

          The officers proceeded to the door of the RV and requested that Houck and his girlfriend join them inside the residence. Kreider then read the execution portion of the warrant to the couple and Houck's mother, explaining that they were looking for computers with Ares software. Houck was the only one familiar with Ares, and he admitted to owning a laptop with the software installed on it. He further advised Kreider that his laptop was in the RV and even offered to retrieve it, but Kreider declined his proposal.

         From there, the investigation proceeded on two fronts. Two detectives at the scene asked if Houck would accompany them to a nearby police station for an interview, and he agreed. Throughout the process, the detectives repeatedly advised Houck that his participation was voluntary and that he could terminate the interview at any time. He eventually admitted to downloading, viewing, and deleting numerous videos containing child pornography. Meanwhile, the officers at the residence executed the search and seized Houck's laptop, Apple iPhone 6, and Olympus XD picture card from the RV. They then conducted a forensic preview of the devices and located files that appeared to contain child pornography. A subsequent forensic examination revealed that external data-storage devices had been connected to the laptop. Because these devices were not located during the initial search, Kreider applied for a second warrant, which specifically identified Houck's RV as a location to be searched. The second search led to the seizure of two digital cameras.

         After his indictment, Houck moved to suppress the evidence seized during the initial search of his RV. He also sought to suppress as fruits of the poisonous tree his statements to officers at the residence, his admissions during the stationhouse interview, and the evidence seized during the second search. See Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 484-88 (1963). The district court referred the motion to a magistrate judge, who issued a report and recommendation ("R&R") finding that nearly all of the challenged evidence should be excluded. This conclusion was based primarily on an analysis of the Supreme Court's application of the "automobile exception" to the warrantless search of a motor home in California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386 (1985). Despite recognizing that the officers here had a valid search warrant, the magistrate judge applied Carney and determined that, while Houck's RV was "readily mobile, " it qualified as a residence rather than a vehicle. The district court adopted the R&R in its entirety and granted Houck's motion to suppress all evidence obtained after he left his mother's property. The Government now appeals, arguing that the warrant's authorization to search "any vehicles" included the RV and that, even if mistaken, the officers' reading of the warrant was reasonable.

         II.

         The Fourth Amendment protects the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. "Ordinarily, evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment is subject to the exclusionary rule and, therefore, cannot be used in a criminal proceeding against the victim of the illegal search and seizure." United States v. Cannon, 703 F.3d 407, 412 (8th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, "suppression is not an automatic consequence of a Fourth Amendment violation. Instead, the question turns on the culpability of the police and the potential of exclusion to deter wrongful police conduct." Herring v. United States, 555 U.S. 135, 137 (2009). Indeed, the Supreme Court has described the exclusionary rule as an "extreme sanction, " United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 916 (1984), "calculated to prevent, not repair. Its purpose is to deter-to compel respect for the constitutional guaranty in the only effectively available way-by removing the incentive to disregard it, " Elkins v. United States, 364 U.S. 206, 217 (1960). With these principles in mind, when considering challenges to the suppression of evidence, we review a district court's "factual findings for clear error and application of law de novo." United States v. Rodriguez, 834 F.3d 937, 940 (8th Cir. 2016).

          On appeal, the Government renews its argument that the plain language of the warrant authorized the search of the RV, as it was a vehicle located on the premises at the time of the original search. The Government notes that an RV is a "vehicle" under the common meaning of the word. See Vehicle, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) (defining "vehicle" as "[a]n instrument of transportation or conveyance"). It also claims that Missouri, Pennsylvania, and federal statutory definitions recognize fifth-wheel trailers like Houck's RV as vehicles. See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 301.010(62) (defining "trailer" as "any vehicle without motive power designed for carrying property or passengers on its own structure and for being drawn by a self-propelled vehicle"); 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 102 (defining "trailer" as "[a] vehicle designed to be ...


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