(CN) - A shoebox full of a "white substance" and a Gucci bag full cash found in the home of a suspected drug dealer were obtained in an illegal search, the 9th Circuit ruled Friday.
Agents arrested Omar Arreguin after a "knock and talk" at his residence one morning in 2008. The agents did not know who lived in the house, only that it had been associated with drug activity in the past, according to the ruling. Elias Valencia Jr., a guest in the home, answered the door and talked briefly with Agent John Rubio.
The agent later claimed to have seen Arreguin from the porch holding a shoebox inside the house and moving back and forth from a room in the back.
Valencia allowed the agents to enter the home, after which they moved past the front entryway, walked into the master bedroom and the master bathroom, and discovered the shoebox in a cabinet beneath a sink. It contained what the ruling describes only as "a white substance."
The agents also searched the garage, where they found a Gucci bag stuffed with $176,990 in cash. Arreguin then signed a consent-to-search form and led agents to a secret compartment inside his Toyota Corolla that contained five bricks of methamphetamine.
After entering a conditional guilty plea, Arreguin challenged the search in a motion to suppress the shoe box, the Gucci bag and the cash. U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips rejected the move, and did so again on remand from the 9th Circuit.
The federal appeals court reversed Judge Phillips' latest ruling on Friday while also ordering the court to "consider whether Arreguin's inculpatory statements, the five packages of methamphetamine, and any other evidence found after the unconstitutional searches should be suppressed as 'fruits of the poisonous tree.'"
The three-judge panel found that the agents had known too little about the home, its contents and its residents to legally conduct such a sweeping search.
"When the agents obtained Valencia's consent to 'look around' the residence, they knew virtually nothing about: (1) him; (2) the various separate rooms and areas inside the residence; or (3) the nature and extent of Valencia's connection to those separate areas," Judge Alfred Goodwin wrote for the unanimous panel. "And the agents did not ask Valencia any additional questions at that time. Instead, Agents McQuay and Corbin quickly rushed past him and started 'rummaging around [the Arreguins'] home,' inspecting various rooms, and satisfying 'the curiosity police always have about what they might find.'" (Brackets in original).
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