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United States v. Valen

May 22, 1973



Author: Aldisert

Before SEITZ, Chief Judge, and ALDISERT and ADAMS, Circuit Judges


ALDISERT, Circuit Judge.

In this appeal by the government from a district court order suppressing the admission of two suitcases of marijuana in a prosecution under 21 U.S.C. ยง 8411(a) (1), we are called upon to decide whether a government agent, having probable cause to search the suitcases, nevertheless should have obtained a warrant before doing so. The district court held that the general principles of search and seizure applied and that the agent should have obtained the warrant. We are to determine whether "exigent circumstances" were present, United States v. Menke, 468 F.2d 20 (3d Cir. 1972), so as to obviate the necessity for the warrant.

Two suitcases were left at the Tucson, Arizona, offices of Emery Air Freight Corporation on the morning of May 25, 1971, to be shipped by Emery to Eric Valen, the appellee, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Emery scheduled shipment of the suitcases on a flight leaving Tucson at approximately 12:30 p.m. that same day. Sometime between 11:30 a.m. and 12 o'clock, noon, an Emery employee, Dennis Thompson, detected an odor of marijuana emanating from this baggage. He immediately opened the suitcases and discovered them to be chock-full of the contraband weed.

Thompson notified the U.S. Customs office at Tucson International Airport, and thereafter delivered the suitcases to the airport and identified them to Special Agent Donald Clements. Thompson advised Agent Clements that he had smelled marijuana but did not tell him he had opened the suitcases and seen the contents.

Special Agent Clements learned that the suitcases were scheduled to be shipped to Scranton, Pennsylvania, on a flight departing within the hour and, upon examining the suitcases, he too detected the smell of marijuana. He, too, opened them and saw the marijuana. The suitcases were thereafter turned over to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) for further investigation.

BNDD agents conducted a further search of the suitcases preliminary to arranging for a controlled delivery at Scranton, Pennsylvania. Twelve hours after their originally scheduled departure, the suitcases were shipped to Scranton via New York City by commercial airline under the surveillance of BNDD agents.

On May 27, 1971, Valen appeared at the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre Airport office of Emery, claimed the suitcases, left the airport building, placed the suitcases in the trunk of his car and began to drive away. He was arrested leaving the airport by BNDD agents who opened the trunk of Valen's car, seized the suitcases and immediately opened them, verifying the contents to be forty-four pounds of marijuana.

Valen filed a motion to suppress, contending that the various openings of his suitcases were warrantless searches and, as such, offended the Fourth Amendment. The district court agreed, observing that the critical search was the examination by Agent Clements. The court specifically found that although Clements had probable cause to search, and "under the circumstances a search warrant could not have been obtained at the [Tucson] airport [,...he] could have notified government officials at either New York or Scranton and a warrant [could have been] obtained and the suitcases searched at either of these locations." United States v. Valen, 348 F. Supp. 1163, 1167-68 (M.D. Pa. 1972).

At the suppression hearing, Thompson testified that on a previous occasion he had supplied Customs agents with similar information for which assistance he had been paid $375.00, and that he was told by Agent Clements to notify Customs officials if he came across anything suspicious in the future. For the information supplied in this case, Thompson was paid $100.00 by the government. Valen would have us conclude that this association with a government law enforcement agency was sufficient to render Thompson himself a government agent. Such a conclusion is essential to justify suppression on the theory that Thompson's search was tantamount to that of a government agent. Activities of government agents, as distinguished from those of private persons, come within the ambit of the exclusionary rule if the conduct is violative of the Fourth Amendment. Burdeau v. McDowell, 256 U.S. 465, 65 L. Ed. 1048, 41 S. Ct. 574 (1921); United States v. Goldberg, 330 F.2d 30, 35 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 377 U.S. 953, 12 L. Ed. 2d 497, 84 S. Ct. 1630 (1964). We are satisfied that the minimal contacts between Thompson and the government do not make out a prima facie case of government participation in Thompson's search.

Circumstances are not present here as existed in Corngold v. United States, 367 F.2d 1 (9th Cir. 1966) (en banc), in which a search by an airline employee was conducted at the request and under the supervision of government agents. Thompson was requested to do no more than report suspicious parcels; no attempt was made by the government to use him to do that which the agents themselves were forbidden to do. Thompson's testimony fully supports the court's conclusion that his search was conducted solely as a private party in order to protect himself and his employer, Emery. See Gold v. United States, 378 F.2d 588 (9th Cir. 1967).

Moreover, the district court found that the status of Thompson as a private party or a government agent was immaterial because Thompson had not told Clements that he had previously opened the suitcases; he had told him only that he had detected the odor of marijuana. We agree with the district court's conclusion that no activity on the part of Thompson tainted the subsequent activity of Agent Clements. We therefore do not have the problem of the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine, Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 487-488, 9 L. Ed. 2d 441, 83 S. Ct. 407 (1963). As we said in United States v. Barrow, 363 F.2d 62, 66 (3d Cir. 1966), cert. denied, 385 U.S. 1001, 17 L. Ed. 2d 541, 87 S. Ct. 703 (1967): "The doctrine 'excludes evidence obtained from or as a consequence of lawless official acts, not evidence obtained from an "independent ...

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