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Valentine v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

March 20, 2019

LAMONT VALENTINE, Defendant Below, Appellant,
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: January 9, 2019

          Court Below-Superior Court State of Delaware Cr. ID No. N1603023004

          Benjamin S. Gifford, IV, Esquire, Wilmington, Delaware for Appellant Lamont Valentine.

          Brian L. Arban, Esquire, Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware for Appellee State of Delaware.

          Before VALIHURA, SEITZ, and TRAYNOR, Justices.

          TRAYNOR, Justice

         Based upon an informant's tip and some largely unproductive surveillance activity, two Wilmington police detectives applied for a warrant to search Lamont Valentine's apartment and automobile for evidence that Valentine, a convicted violent felon, was in possession of a firearm or ammunition. A magistrate issued the warrant, and when the officers conducted the search, they found marijuana, drug paraphernalia, and ammunition in the apartment and a firearm in the vehicle. These discoveries and other information provided by another resident of the apartment building resulted in numerous criminal charges against Valentine, including possession of a firearm by a person prohibited, drug dealing, aggravated possession of marijuana, terroristic threatening, and conspiracy.[1]

         Valentine moved to suppress the fruits of the search on the grounds that the warrant affidavit and application did not establish probable cause that he had committed or was committing the offense of unlawfully possessing a firearm or that evidence of that crime was likely to be found in his apartment or car. The Superior Court denied the motion, and Valentine was eventually convicted of drug dealing, aggravated possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, and endangering the welfare of a child.[2] Valentine was sentenced to six years of Level V incarceration, suspended for 18 months of Level III probation.[3] He then filed this appeal, which is confined to the Superior Court's denial of his suppression motion.[4]We agree with Valentine that the warrant application was insufficient to support a finding of probable cause that he had committed or was committing the crime identified in the warrant-possession of a firearm by a person convicted of a violent crime felony-or that a firearm was in his apartment or car. Accordingly, Valentine's convictions must be reversed.

         I. FACTS

         During the first week of March 2016, a confidential informant told Wilmington Police Department detectives that she[5] "had information [that Valentine] was in possession of illegal narcotics and a handgun, [which were] kept inside his residence . . . [at] 2901 Broom Street, Apartment 4"[6] in Wilmington. A couple weeks later, Valentine, who had been convicted of a felony drug offense in Pennsylvania in 2009, was arrested and charged with possession of a firearm by a person prohibited after the Delaware State Police stopped a car Valentine was driving and found a weapon in the car.

         During the third week of March, the detectives began surveillance of Valentine's Broom Street apartment. Beyond seeing Valentine leave the building and climb into a Dodge Challenger, it does not appear as though the detectives saw much of interest during the first week of surveillance. At some unidentified time during the next week-that is, the second week of surveillance and now the fourth week of March-the detectives observed Valentine meeting and exchanging a duffle bag with an unidentified male outside the building. So far as we know, this encounter was the only arguably suspicious behavior witnessed by the detectives during the entire surveillance period.

         On March 30, a woman who lives in the Broom Street apartment building and who also provides cleaning services there made a terroristic-threatening complaint against Valentine. Although the record is murky on this point, it appears as though Valentine may have believed that the woman had stolen some of his money and had demanded that she return it. In her report to the police, the woman described Valentine as a known drug dealer.

         On these facts and on the same day as this terroristic-threatening complaint, the detectives applied for a warrant to search Valentine's Broom Street apartment and his Dodge Challenger for firearms and documents tending to show that Valentine lived in the Broom Street apartment. A magistrate issued the warrant, which the detectives promptly executed, finding cash on Valentine's person, ammunition, marijuana, and drug paraphernalia in his apartment, and a loaded handgun in his car. Valentine moved to suppress the evidence seized from his apartment and car on the grounds that the detectives' search warrant affidavit did not set forth sufficient facts within its four corners from which the magistrate could conclude that probable cause for the searches existed. The State countered-and the Superior Court agreed-that, reviewing the totality of the circumstances, including the informant's tip, Valentine's March 19 arrest and his past criminal history, the duffle bag exchange, and the purported altercation with the cleaning woman, probable cause existed.


         We review the Superior Court's grant or denial of a motion to suppress for an abuse of discretion.[7] But where the facts are not undisputed and only a constitutional claim that a search warrant was issued upon an insufficient showing of probable cause is at issue, we review the Superior Court's ruling de novo.[8]


         Valentine contends that the searches of his home and car violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution[9] and that, therefore, the evidence seized during those searches should have been excluded at his trial. The Fourth Amendment provides that "no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized."[10] Thus, under the Fourth Amendment a search warrant may issue only upon a showing of probable cause.

         In Delaware, the procedure for making this showing to a judicial officer is set forth in Chapter 23 of Title 11 of the Delaware Code. Particularly, 11 Del. C. § 2306 describes the necessary elements of a search warrant application:

The application or complaint for a search warrant shall be in writing, signed by the complainant and verified by oath or affirmation. It shall designate the house, place, conveyance or person to be searched and the owner or occupant thereof (if any), and shall describe the things or persons sought as particularly as may be, and shall substantially allege the cause for which the search is made or the offense committed by or in relation to the persons or things searched for, and shall state that the complainant suspects that such persons or things are concealed in the house, place, conveyance or person designated and shall recite the facts upon which such suspicion is founded. (emphasis added)

         Section 2307(a) addresses the issuing magistrate's role and the contents of the warrant itself:

(a) Issuance of search warrants; contents - If the judge, justice of the peace or other magistrate finds that the facts recited in the complaint constitute probable cause for the search, that person may direct a warrant to any proper officer or to any other person by name for service. The warrant shall designate the house, place, conveyance or person to be searched, and shall describe the things or persons sought as particularly as possible.

         It is well settled that any finding of probable cause must be based on the information that appears within the four corners of the application or affidavit.[11] By requiring that the facts relied upon by the issuing magistrate be recorded in the affidavit, the ability of a reviewing court to assess whether the probable cause requirement has been satisfied without the need to resort to extrinsic testimony is preserved.[12] Sticking to only those facts and circumstances set forth in the affidavit, the magistrate is charged with making "a practical, common-sense decision whether . . . here is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.[13]

         A. "Four Corners" Review

         The key factual assertions in the affidavit can be summarized as follows:

• The two detectives who filed the application and affidavit collectively have "over (15) fifteen years police experience and (7) seven years of investigative experience," have "attended schools and seminar specifically dealing with narcotics investigations," and have "authored and/or co-authored over (100) one hundred search warrants."[14]
• During the first week of March 2016, an individual identified by the detectives as a "past proven reliable informant" told the detectives that Valentine "was known to sell marijuana" and kept "illegal narcotics and a handgun" inside his home at 2901 North Broom Street, Apartment 4, in Wilmington. [15]
• On March 19, which was between when the detectives received the tip and when they filed the warrant application on March 30, Valentine was arrested by the Delaware State Police. He was charged with possession of a firearm by a person prohibited, carrying a concealed deadly weapon, and speeding.
• In 2009, Valentine had been convicted of a "controlled substance charge" in Pennsylvania.[16]
• Police surveillance confirmed that Valentine appeared to live at the Broom Street address provided by the informant and regularly drove a 2016 Dodge Challenger-the car named in the search warrant.
• During the fourth week of March, Valentine was observed leaving 2901 Broom Street "and briefly meeting with an unknown black male where a duffle bag was exchanged between the two men."[17] Valentine then got into the Dodge Challenger and drove to Pennsylvania.
• On March 30, the same day that the officers applied for the search warrant, another resident of the Broom Street apartment building made a "terroristic threatening complaint" against Valentine, claiming that he had called her on her cell phone and stated: "I know you have my money. Don't come home unless you have my f---ing money."[18] This person also alleged that Valentine's girlfriend also said something similar in person to her and that Valentine is a "known drug dealer."[19]

         In denying Valentine's motion to suppress, the Superior Court recognized the centrality of the informant's tip during the first week of March to the determination of whether the detectives alleged sufficient facts upon which the magistrate could find probable cause for the search. But the Superior Court's decision was not based exclusively on the informant's tip:

The warrant at issue in the present case contains more than the tip from the past-proven reliable confidential informant. The tip coupled with the officers' surveillance of Defendant, Defendants past criminal history including his arrest on March 19, and the altercation with the victim on March 30 establish probable cause to search Defendant's house and vehicle.[20]

         Thus, the court found that the totality of these circumstances-the tip, corroborative facts gathered by way of surveillance, Valentine's criminal history, and the March 30 argument with the cleaning woman-supported the magistrate's probable cause finding. We disagree.

         A. The Informant's Tip

         Much has been written over the years about the extent to which the police, when applying for a search warrant, may rely on hearsay statements of informants whose identity is not disclosed in the search warrant affidavit. It is now settled that the assessment of informants' tips must take into account the reliability or veracity of the informant, [21] the basis of the informant's knowledge, [22] ...

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