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United States v. Crawford-Stark

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

December 10, 2019




         The government charged defendant Andrew Crawford-Stark with theft and destruction of mail. 18 U.S.C. §§ 1709, 1703(b). Defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence, and the magistrate judge handling pre-trial proceedings held an evidentiary hearing, then issued a recommendation that the motion be denied. Defendant objects, requiring me to review the matter de novo. Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(b).


         Neither side specifically objects to the magistrate judge's statement of the background facts. I accordingly adopt that statement (R. 27 at 3-8) and present an abbreviated version of events herein.

         On October 24, 2017, a postal customer complained that two “Kwik Trip” gift cards she mailed from Milton, Wisconsin to Whitewater, Wisconsin had not been received. (Evid. Hr'g Tr. [R. 17] at 7.) Special Agent John Todd investigated, discovering that one of the cards had been used at a Kwik Trip location in Wales, Wisconsin on October 5, 2017. (Tr. at 9.) Todd obtained the store's surveillance footage and showed a still image to the Whitewater postmaster, who identified defendant, a part-time clerk at the Whitewater post office, as the person who used the card. (Tr. at 15.)

         On the morning of November 2, 2017, the postmaster advised Todd that defendant abruptly resigned his position. (Tr. at 16.) Concerned that defendant may have been tipped off to the investigation (Tr. at 17),[1] Todd, accompanied by Special Agent Jonathan Sawant, traveled to defendant's residence that morning to conduct an interview (Tr. at 20, 79).

         Defendant lived with his mother in a rural part of Wales, with the house located at the top of a long gravel driveway. (Tr. at 22.) After locating the residence, the agents parked in a turnaround area between the house and a detached garage (Tr. at 26-28; Ex. 3B), and on exiting their vehicles they noticed a fire burning in a fire pit in the yard (Tr. at 30.) Although the agents could not from their vantage point-20 to 40 feet from the pit-tell what was burning (Tr. at 39-40, 82), they were concerned that defendant was destroying evidence (Tr. at 30-31, 85-86.) However, before they could investigate the fire, defendant exited the house, and the agents spoke to him in the driveway by their vehicles. (Tr. at 31-32.) Defendant admitted that he used the gift card but claimed that he found it in the parking lot of his gym and denied stealing any mail. (Tr. at 33- 34.) He further stated that he quit his job because it was too hard and he was having personal issues. (Tr. at 34.) Defendant then walked back inside the house, and his mother came out, indicating that she would cooperate in the investigation and that the agents could stay and do what they needed to do; she then walked back inside the house as well. (Tr. at 34, 36, 83, 89-90.)

         At that point, Sawant walked over to the fire pit, observing what appeared to be burning mail. Most of the material was burned beyond recognition, but Sawant was able to salvage two coupons, one addressed a person in Palmyra, Wisconsin, the other to a person in Whitewater, both of which would have been sorted at the Whitewater post office. (Tr. at 38-42, 86-87; Ex. 4, 5.) Defendant then came back out of the house, indicating that the coupons were probably out of Palmyra, and that he had started the fire about 20 minutes ago. (Tr. at 41, 43.) However, he again denied stealing mail. (Tr. at 41.)

         The agents then turned their attention to defendant's vehicle, which was parked next to the garage, about 20 to 30 feet away. Todd knew from his investigation that defendant had used the vehicle as part of his postal duties, and he suspected there might be U.S. mail inside. (Tr. at 44-46.) Todd walked over to the vehicle, looked in the window, and observed what appeared to be U.S. mail. (Tr. at 47-48.) Defendant followed the agents over to the vehicle, and the agents asked him to show them the items they observed. (Tr. at 48-49, 93.) Defendant got into the vehicle, put his hands over the storage compartment (as if to shield the contents from view), then exited the vehicle, shut the door, and told the agents to leave. (Tr. at 49-50, 84.) Up until that point, defendant had given no indication he wanted to end the interview or eject the agents from the property. (Tr. at 50.)

         The agents decided to freeze the scene and apply for a search warrant for the vehicle, which a magistrate judge issued that afternoon. (Tr. at 50-51; Ex. 6.) On execution, agents recovered gift cards, coupons, magazines, and other mail matter, and defendant subsequently made an inculpatory statement. (Tr. at 51, 53; Ex. 6, 7.)

         Defendant seeks suppression of the coupons pulled from the fire pit, the mail found in his vehicle, and (as fruit of the poisonous tree) his resulting statement. The magistrate judge concluded that the agents did not physically intrude on a constitutionally protected area-the home's “curtilage”-when they examined the fire pit and looked in the vehicle. (R. 27 at 11- 16.) In the alternative, he concluded that exigent circumstances justified the search of the fire pit (R. 27 at 17-20), and that defendant impliedly consented to the search of the vehicle (R. 27 at 21-22). He accordingly recommended the motion be denied.


         A defendant objecting to the search of a particular area bears the burden of proving a legitimate expectation of privacy in the area searched. United States v. French, 291 F.3d 945, 951 (7th Cir. 2002). A reasonable expectation of privacy exists when the complainant exhibits an actual (subjective) expectation of privacy and the expectation is one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable. Id.

         Nowhere are expectations of privacy greater than in the home, Segura v. United States, 468 U.S. 796, 820 (1984), and warrantless searches inside the home are presumptively illegal, Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 586 (1980). This protection extends beyond the four walls of the house to the “curtilage” as well. French, 291 F.3d at 951; see also Collins v. Virginia, 138 S.Ct. 1663, 1670 (2018) (“When a law enforcement officer physically intrudes on the curtilage to gather evidence, a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment has occurred. Such conduct thus is presumptively unreasonable absent a warrant.”) (internal citation omitted); Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1, 6 (2013) (“[T]he right to retreat would be significantly diminished if the police could enter a man's property to observe his repose from just outside the front window.”). A home's curtilage encompasses the area outside the house itself but so close to and intimately connected with the home and the activities that normally go on there that it can reasonably be considered part of the home. French, 291 F.3d at 951; United States v. Pace, 898 F.2d 1218, 1228 (7th Cir. 1990). To determine whether an area falls within the curtilage, the court considers (1) the proximity of ...

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