Opinion Analysis: One warrant was valid and discovery of the fruits of the second was inevitable, in United States v. Eppes
CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. Eppes, __ M.J. __, No. 17-0364/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on April 10, 2018. Resolving challenges to two separate searches, the court unanimously concludes that one search was proper, and a majority find the fruits of the second search technically problematic but ultimately admissible. Accordingly, the appellant’s conditional pleas of guilty and the decision of the Air Force CCA are affirmed.
Judge Sparks writes for the court, joined by Chief Judge Stucky and Judge Ohlson. Judge Ryan writes separately, concurring in part and in the result. Senior Judge Effron dissents in part and would reverse the pleas.
CAAF granted review of two issues:
I. Whether the search of Appellant’s personal bags exceeded the scope of the search authorization where the agent requested authority to search Appellant’s person, personal bags, and automobile, but the military magistrate authorized only the search of Appellant’s person and automobile and did not authorize the search of Appellant’s personal bags.
II. Whether Appellant’s right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment was violated when there was no probable cause for the 7 December 2012 warrant.
Captain (O-3) Eppes conditionally pleaded guilty to various offenses primarily involving travel claim fraud. The conditional pleas preserved his motion to suppress the evidence discovered in two searches: one on December 7, 2012 (of Eppes’ residence; Issue II), and the second on February 5, 2013 (of Eppes’ bags; Issue I). The December search was authorized by a warrant issued by the District of Columbia, while the February search was authorized by a military search authorization.
CAAF unanimously rejects the second issue, with Judge Sparks writing that “the December 7, 2012, search of Appellant’s residence was supported by probable cause and was therefore valid.” Slip op. at 7. Emphasizing that “probable cause is a flexible, commonsense standard,” slip op. at 7 (citation omitted), Judge Sparks explains that the civilian judge who permitted the search “was presented with sufficient facts to reasonably infer evidence of Appellant’s crimes, namely fraud against the government and other offenses, would probably be recovered on a computer in Appellant’s home.” Slip op. at 9 (citation omitted). The entire court, including Judge Ryan and Senior Judge Effron, agrees with that analysis.
But the first issue fractures the court somewhat, with Judge Sparks and the majority applying the inevitable discovery doctrine (while doubting that the exclusionary rule should apply under the circumstances); Judge Ryan finding that even though the search authorization did not explicitly mention Eppes’ bags, the bags were fairly included in the authorization to search Eppes’ person; and Senior Judge Effron finding prejudicial error justifying reversal of the conditional pleas.