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State v. Valentin

Superior Court of Delaware, Kent

May 29, 2018


          Submitted: May 24, 2018

         Upon Defendant's Motion to Suppress Granted in Part, Denied in Part


         On this the 29th day of May 2018, having considered Defendant Juan Valentin's (hereinafter "Mr. Valentin") motion to suppress and the State's response, it appears that:

         Mr. Valentin challenges the validity of a search pursuant to warrant of 42 Mystic Lane, Grandview Meadows, Magnolia, Delaware (hereinafter the "Residence"), his silver Chevrolet Equinox (hereinafter the "Vehicle"), and his storage unit at Airbase Mini Storage (hereinafter the "Storage Unit"). Mr. Valentin alleges that the warrants issued for the searches were not supported by probable cause. The facts cited herein are as they appear to the Court following consideration of the parties' written submissions as well as arguments at the hearing on May 24, 2018.

         At various dates throughout 2017, Delaware State Police were contacted by three separate confidential informants (hereinafter the "Confidential Informants") who advised that a Hispanic male known as Juan "Nacho" Valentin was distributing cocaine and heroin from a single story home in Grandview Meadows. Subsequent investigation revealed that the Residence matched the description of the home by the Confidential Informants and that Mr. Valentin lived there. Delaware State Police also observed the Vehicle outside the house, and they discovered that Mr. Valentin was the registered owner. In July and August of 2017, Delaware State Police, assisted by the Confidential Informants, made several controlled purchases of cocaine and oxycodone from Mr. Valentin and others from the Residence. In one of these purchases, law enforcement observed an unknown male leave the Residence in a maroon Toyota Scion, sell cocaine to a Confidential Informant at a nearby Walgreens, and immediately return in the vehicle to the Residence.

         Alleging the above to a magistrate, affiants from the Delaware State Police (hereinafter the "Affiants") obtained a search warrant to search the Residence and any vehicles located outside the Residence (hereinafter the "First Warrant"). On September 13, 2017, Delaware State Police executed the warrant and discovered drug contraband and firearms inside the Residence and an additional firearm inside the Vehicle. During the search, a billing invoice for the Storage Unit was also discovered. Mr. Valentin was asked about the Storage Unit and made deceptive statements denying any knowledge of it. Ultimately, Mr. Valentin confirmed that the Storage Unit was his and that he had stored equipment there. The Affiants alleged this to a magistrate and obtained a second search warrant to search the Storage Unit (hereinafter the "Second Warrant"). Upon execution of the Second Warrant, drug contraband was discovered in the Storage Unit.

         When a motion to suppress challenges the validity of a search warrant, the defendant bears the burden of establishing that the challenged search or seizure was unlawful.[1] Search warrants may not be issued unless there is a showing of a factual basis for probable cause within the "four corners" of the affidavit submitted to the magistrate in the officer's application for the search warrant.[2] The party with whom the burden rests must persuade the Court by a preponderance of the evidence.[3]

         A magistrate's determination of probable cause "should be paid great deference by reviewing courts" and should not "take the form of a de novo review."[4] For a warrant to evidence probable cause to search a particular place, "a nexus between the items to be sought and the place to be searched" must exist.[5]

         As an initial matter, the Court finds that probable cause existed to search the Residence. While the motion to suppress requests the suppression of "all evidence in this matter, " Mr. Valentin's counsel stated at oral argument that he is challenging the search of the Vehicle and the Storage Unit, not of the Residence.

         The Court then turns to the question of whether probable cause existed to search the Vehicle. While the Vehicle was identified in the affidavit of probable cause attached to the First Warrant, it was not described as being associated with any of the alleged criminal activity. The affidavit merely states that the Vehicle was parked near the Residence and registered to Mr. Valentin. While the First Warrant's affidavit also included an allegation that one of the controlled purchases was alleged to have been performed using a motor vehicle, it was the maroon Toyota Scion, not the Vehicle (a silver Chevrolet Equinox). More generally, the Affiants alleged that a drug trafficker will often store their drugs "at his or her residence ... or [in] vehicles located on the property."

         The First Warrant authorized the search of "[a]ny and all vehicles that are located on the property at the time the search warrant is executed." Such a general authorization to search is troubling, as it would encompass not only Mr. Valentin's vehicles, but those of any other neighbor or visitor whose vehicle happened to be parked near the premises. The United States Supreme Court's opinion in Ybarra v. Illinois indicated that a "person's mere propinquity to others independently suspected of criminal activity does not, without more, give rise to probable cause to search that person, " and that principle forbids the search of vehicles whose only connection to the Residence is their proximity to it.[6]

         The only additional facts alleged that might render the existence of evidence in the Vehicle more probable-that the Vehicle was registered to Mr. Valentin, that the Affiants suspected he was a drug dealer, and that the Affiants opined that drug dealers hide evidence in their vehicles-are insufficient to establish a nexus between the items to be seized and the Vehicle. The law requires a fact-based connection between the Vehicle and the evidence sought.[7] An officer's expert opinion that contraband is likely to be found in a given location is, absent more, insufficient to provide a nexus.[8] The First Warrant affidavit lacks any factual allegation within its four corners that the Vehicle was ever used in any illegal activity. Officers never observed "illegal or suspicious activity" in which the Vehicle was involved and received no information that Mr. Valentin was using the vehicle "to deal drugs or to store drugs, drug paraphernalia, or any other evidence of drug transactions."[9]

         Even under this Court's deferential review of the magistrate's finding, the Court finds the allegations within the affidavit of probable cause insufficient to provide a nexus sufficient to justify the issuance of a warrant to search the vehicle. To permit a warrant to issue merely because the vehicle was registered in Mr. Valentin's name and parked outside his Residence would sanction "virtually automatic" searches of the vehicles of any individual suspected of a drug crime.[10] In its decision in Dorsey v. State, the Delaware Supreme Court made clear that such authorizations were impermissible: "that someone is a suspect does not constitute probable cause to search that suspect's home or automobiles."[11] When law enforcement have probable cause to arrest a suspect for drug dealing, it may render the probability that contraband will be found amongst the suspect's other possessions more likely but does not automatically confer probable cause to search the suspect's home and automobile.[12] The Court requires something more to sustain the magistrate's rinding of probable cause.

         However, the Court does find something more with regard to the Second Warrant. Law enforcement acquired additional information suggesting a reasonable probability that contraband would be found in the Storage Unit. After the discovery of drugs and weapons inside Mr. Valentin's home, when law enforcement asked him about whether or not he had a storage unit, Mr. Valentin denied that fact, and answered evasively as to what he was keeping in the Storage Unit.[13] This, when combined with officers' knowledge that Mr. Valentin did in fact have a storage unit, Mr. Valentin's later admission to that fact, and probable cause to believe that Mr. Valentin was involved in drug dealing, established that Mr. Valentin's ...

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