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United States v. White

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 28, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff - Appellee
v.
Charles F. White Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: November 15, 2018

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

          Before GRUENDER, KELLY, and GRASZ, Circuit Judges.

          KELLY, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         In May 2012, Charles F. White and his co-defendant Anthony L. Bearden were charged with one count of manufacturing marijuana in violation of federal law. A superseding indictment charged additional counts in 2013, and pursuant to a conditional plea agreement, White pleaded guilty in 2017 to one count of conspiracy to manufacture 1, 000 or more marijuana plants, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(a)(1), and 841(b)(1)(A). The district court[1] sentenced White to the statutory minimum of 10 years' imprisonment. He now appeals the district court's[2] denial of his motion to suppress and its[3] denial of his motion to dismiss the indictment on equal protection grounds.

         I

         A

         Our decision in Bearden's appeal, United States v. Bearden, 780 F.3d 887 (8th Cir. 2015), provides the necessary background for this case, which we recite in abridged form here. Officer Billy Simpson and Detective Ken Minica of the Polk County Sheriff's Department first encountered White's property in rural Missouri when they were attempting to locate an address for an unrelated criminal investigation. Unable to do so, the officers sought to contact local residents for assistance and came upon White's property. The officers drove down its long driveway, which is lined with dense woods and loops around a house, and continued to the south side of the house until they reached what they believed was the front. They exited their vehicle and immediately smelled a strong odor of green marijuana. After briefly speaking with White about the unrelated criminal investigation, the officers left.

         Later in the day and accompanied by COMET[4] Drug Task Officers, Detective Simpson and Officer Minica returned to White's property. Two officers drove through White's driveway until they reached what they believed was the front door. The officers knocked on the door in an attempt to contact White, but no one answered. During this second visit, the odor of marijuana was even stronger than it had been earlier in the day. After no one answered the door, the officers decided to apply for a warrant to search White's property, and three officers remained there to secure the area while awaiting the warrant. The officers did not search anything while they waited.

         The officers who stayed behind then encountered Bearden, who told them that he rented the adjoining property from White. When questioned, Bearden stated that he had "personal use marijuana" in his residence and allowed the officers to enter his property. There, the officers again smelled a strong odor of green marijuana. Based on these observations and interactions with Bearden, officers sought a warrant to search Bearden's property as well. Both warrants were issued, and officers found hundreds of marijuana plants growing inside the shop building on White's property and inside the shed on Bearden's property.

         B

         White and Bearden were indicted. They each filed motions to suppress, alleging violations of the Fourth Amendment. After the magistrate judge held a joint evidentiary hearing, both motions were denied in a single order. Shortly thereafter, in October 2013, Bearden conditionally pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to manufacture 1, 000 or more marijuana plants and to one count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense. White continued to litigate several motions before the district court, including the motion to dismiss the indictment that he challenges in this appeal.

         While White's case continued its way through the district court, Bearden appealed. Among other things, he challenged the denial of his motion to suppress evidence seized from White's property. We affirmed, rejecting Bearden's contention that the officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights both times they "drove up White's driveway and entered his curtilage without a warrant or a showing of exigent circumstances." Bearden, 780 F.3d at 893. We accepted the government's concession that the officers entered White's curtilage and reached several conclusions relevant to the instant appeal.

         First, we held that the officers' initial visit to White's property was constitutionally permissible because "no Fourth Amendment search occurs when police officers who enter private property restrict their movements to those areas generally made accessible to visitors-such as driveways, walkways, or similar passageways." Id. at 894 (quoting United States v. Wells, 648 F.3d 671, 679 (8th Cir. 2011)). The Fourth Amendment did not prohibit the officers from entering White's curtilage to "obtain assistance in locating an address" while "investigating criminal activity wholly unrelated to White or Bearden." Id. Second, we rejected Bearden's contention that the officers' return visit was constitutionally infirm. We held that the officers' second entry into the curtilage did not constitute a search, but was rather a "knock-and-talk" permitted by the Fourth Amendment.[5] We explained that "[o]nce Officer Simpson and Detective Minica discovered evidence of criminal activity, based on the strong odor of marijuana, they were permitted to return to the property for a 'legitimate law enforcement objective.'" Bearden, 780 F.3d at 894 (quoting United States v. Robbins, 682 F.3d 1111, 1115 (8th Cir. 2012)).

         Against this backdrop, ...


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