Court Erred in Siding With Marijuana Growers
(CN) - The 9th Circuit gave the government a second shot at an Alaska couple who successfully argued that investigators could not possibly have smelled marijuana growing on his property because they had taken extra steps to conceal the odor.
In a matter of first impression, The Federal appeals court in Seattle found that a District Judge had improperly reversed a magistrate's denial of a motion to suppress in the case without hearing further live testimony.
After being arrested in 2010 for cultivating about 400 marijuana plants on their property in Wasilla, Jennifer and Trace Thoms challenged the government's search warrant. Kyle Young, an Alaska state trooper, had obtained the warrant primarily by claiming that he had smelled the weed from his car. The defendants argued that Young must have lied to get the warrant because they had worked hard to suppress any odor that might give their operation away, including "insulating and taping the garage doors, installing two filtration systems, and even 'ma[king] a conscious effort to grow marijuana that was less odorous,'" according to the court. The couple also offered the expert testimony of Professor Richard Doty, the director of the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Unconvinced, a magistrate judge recommended denying the motion.
The Thomses objected, and U.S. District Judge John Sedwick, skeptical of the investigator's claims, reversed without holding a new hearing.
Prosecutors appealed to the 9th Circuit on procedural grounds, arguing that Sedwick should have held a de novo evidentiary hearing with live testimony, rather than just reviewing the facts in the record.
A District Court may reverse a magistrate judge's credibility determinations without holding a new hearing only when those determinations have "no legally sufficient evidentiary basis," a panel of three 9th Circuit judges ruled Friday.
"In the business of judging, there is nothing more important than getting the facts right," wrote Judge Carlos Bea for the unanimous panel. "In many cases, factual determinations are made after hearing live testimony regarding two competing versions of critical events. To further the accuracy and integrity of these determinations, we hold that a district court abuses its discretion when it reverses a magistrate judge's credibility determinations, made after receiving live testimony and favorable to the government, without viewing key demeanor evidence, with one exception: where the district judge finds that the magistrate judge's credibility determinations had no legally sufficient evidentiary basis, so that, were they jury determinations, judgment as a matter of law would issue for the defendant."
The panel vacated the suppression orders and remanded the case for a new hearing.