7th Circuit upholds denial of motion to suppress gun evidence

The denial of a man’s motion to suppress evidence of a gun that resulted in his firearm conviction will stand, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

Allen County law enforcement officers attempting to serve an arrest warrant for a probation violator in November 2017 ended up arresting a different individual that night for possessing a firearm as a convicted felon.

Two officers knocked on a motel door where Whitney Gosnell was supposed to be, but instead found Larry Jones Jr. Jones said Gosnell was not in the room, but he eventually opened the door and allowed the officers to “verify” that she wasn’t around. The officers told Jones they “would not open small drawers and things like that.”

Before checking under a bed in the room, Jones stated, “Well, she couldn’t be under there.” Rather than Gosnell, officers found a firearm, and Jones was eventually indicted and arrested in 2019 for possessing a firearm as a convicted felon.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana denied Jones’ motion to suppress evidence of the gun, and the 7th Circuit affirmed Thursday in United States of America v. Larry A. Jones, Jr., 21‐1293.

On appeal, Jones argued the district court erred by concluding that he was not seized prior to any arguable consent to search his motel room, that he voluntarily consented to such a search and that looking under a bed was within the scope of his arguable consent. He also alleged the district court did not correctly apply a de novo standard of review to the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation that his motion be denied.

But the 7th Circuit ultimately agreed that Jones was not seized at the time he opened the motel room door, in light of the totality of the circumstances. It noted that the officers spoke in a conversational, nonthreatening tone, and that Jones recognized why the officers were there: for Gosnell.

“Jones even requested and received additional time before opening the door,” Judge Amy St. Eve wrote. “… [T]he district court properly concluded that a reasonable person in Jones’s position would have felt free to decline the officers’ request to open the door.”

Further, the appellate court declined to entertain Jones’ argument that the encounter ripened into a seizure when the officers “flashed” the arrest warrant for Gosnell after he opened the door, noting he raised that issue for the first time on appeal.

The 7th Circuit next concluded Jones’ consent was voluntary. It found that the government easily satisfied its burden of proving that Jones voluntarily consented, and that Jones’ counterarguments consisted primarily of things the officers could have done but did not do.

“For example, he suggests the officers should have informed him of his right to refuse consent, explained the difference between an arrest warrant and a search warrant, and retrieved consent forms from their vehicle,” St Eve wrote. “This line of argument is squarely foreclosed by (Schneckloth v Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973)), which clarified that officers are not required to inform individuals of their right to refuse consent and that consent need not be in writing.”

For the same reasons that Jones’ consent was voluntary, the 7th Circuit concluded there was no plain error regarding the effect of the arrest warrant on his consent. There was also no clear error as to the scope of his consent, as a reasonable person would not have considered the officers’ assurances that they would not open small drawers as stipulating that they would conduct a strictly visual search.

Additionally, the appellate panel found no plain error in the district court’s lack of findings about the limiting effect of Jones’ statement that Gosnell couldn’t be under the bed.

Finally, the 7th Circuit addressed Jones’ concerns regarding the de novo review, concluding that in context, the district court simply used the term “erroneous” in response to Jones’ objections to the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation.

“Nothing suggests the district court failed to properly apply the de novo standard of review to each of the magistrate judge’s proposed findings and recommendations,” St. Eve concluded. “The district court’s denial of the motion to suppress is affirmed.”

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that the case originated out of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana.

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