Suspected drug dealer who used alias to rent condo wins reversal at 7th Circuit

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Although he had used an alias to hide from law enforcement and rent a condo, law enforcement did not have the right to search a suspected drug dealer’s residence with only his landlord’s consent, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

Federal officials had suspected Michael Thomas of supplying large amounts of illegal drugs in Indiana. He was also wanted by state officials, and warrants had been issued for his arrest.

In order to keep a low profile, Thomas obtained fake identification documents, including one issued in North Carolina under the name Frieson Dewayne Alredius. Using that name, he was able to lease a condo in Atlanta.

From there, federal officials tracked Thomas and arrested him outside the condo building. With the landlord’s consent, they searched the condo and found drugs, drug paraphernalia and six cellphones.

After obtaining warrants to search the phones, federal officials found evidence that Thomas was trafficking methamphetamine. A grand jury subsequently indicted him for conspiracy to distribute meth.

Thomas filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of the condo, arguing his landlord could not consent to the search of property he had leased. The government admitted the lease gave Thomas the expectation of privacy, but because he had used a fake identity to obtain the lease — a crime in Georgia — the expectation of privacy was unreasonable.

The Indiana Southern District Court agreed and denied the motion.

Thomas then pleaded guilty but reserved his right to appeal the suppression order. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Thomas then appealed the denial of the suppression order, and the 7th Circuit reversed and remanded.

“The warrantless search of his condo violated the Fourth Amendment if he had a subjective expectation that his landlord could not invite the police to search his residence and society is prepared to recognize that expectation as reasonable,” Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote, citing Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967). “That Thomas had a subjective expectation of privacy is not in dispute. The question, then, is whether deceiving one’s landlord to obtain a lease alters society’s understanding that a landlord may not consent to a search on the tenant’s behalf.”

The appellate court then cited Chapman v. United States, 365 U.S. 610 (1961), which holds that a tenant can lawfully exclude others, including the police, even if the landlord consents to a search.

“To be sure, some people may consent to a search even when they cannot evict a tenant,” Easterbrook wrote. “… But Chapman holds that a landlord is not among them. … Thomas’ landlord could not summarily terminate his protections without violating the Georgia Code, nor could she consent to a warrantless search of his condo.

“… Under the approach proposed by the United States, by contrast, a search may be deemed valid or invalid depending on facts discovered later, in the course of prosecution,” Easterbrook continued. “At the time of the search, law enforcement knew that Thomas was a fugitive but did not know whether he had shown a fake identity card to the landlord, whether the landlord ran background checks, and so on.

“What the agents knew at the time of the search,” the 7th Circuit concluded, “was not enough to defeat Thomas’s expectation of privacy in the condo.”

The case of United States of America v. Michael Thomas, 21-3169, was thus remanded for further proceedings.

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