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Search of Wrong Apartment Was Reasonable Under Fourth Amendment

A family in Chicago, the Wades, was subjected to an invasive search of their second-floor apartment by police officers who ended up in their home by mistake. They sued, alleging a violation of their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. The police argued that the mistake was reasonable, and the family argued that it was not. The district court agreed with the police and the Seventh Circuit recently affirmed in Wade v. Ramos, No. 20-1241, --- F.4th --- (7th Cir. 2022).

In Wade, the police officers’ search was based on information from a confidential informant who had identified the Wade family’s second-floor apartment as that of a suspected heroin dealer. This confidential informant had provided information to law enforcement on hundreds of occasions, resulting in dozens of arrests, and he was generally known to be trustworthy. Police therefore obtained a search warrant for the second-floor unit. However, the confidential informant had actually meant to identify the first-floor unit—he just described it as a second-floor unit because there was a short flight of stairs from the ground level to access the first-floor unit.  

The officers involved in this instance did very little to try to corroborate the confidential informant’s tip before obtaining and executing the search warrant. They pulled a picture of the alleged drug dealer from a database and the confidential informant confirmed his identity. Officers did not otherwise try to confirm the suspected dealer’s address, nor did they conduct any surveillance of the apartment prior to executing the warrant. They also did not check to see if anyone else was living in the unit in question.

At the time that the warrant was executed, the Wades were not home. They arrived home at some point during the search and their apartment was thoroughly searched despite their protests. No drugs were found, though large quantities of drugs were found in the first-floor unit. 

The Wades asserted that the officers’ search was unreasonable because the officers knowingly or recklessly omitted the fact that the confidential informant was a registered informant when they submitted their affidavit in support of the warrant application. The officers did not dispute that this information was omitted. So the court applied the “straightforward method” to determine whether there was a constitutional violation: incorporating the omitted fact, it evaluated whether the resulting “hypothetical” affidavit would have established probable cause anyway.

The Seventh Circuit held that the Wades’ arguments failed because the other grounds for probable cause included in the officers’ affidavit were “robust.” The court did note that “the one weak point was corroboration.” The officers “could and should have done more to confirm” which unit was occupied by the suspected drug dealer. Nevertheless, “the totality-of-the-circumstances approach means a deficiency in one respect may be compensated for by some other indicia of reliability.” Here, the court held that the other circumstances compensated for the lack of corroboration. Moreover, the court pointed out that disclosing to a judge that a confidential informant is “a registered informant, not an unknown tipster, will usually increase, not decrease, reliability.”

Finally, the Wade family also argued that the search was unreasonable because it went on long after it should have become obvious to officers that they were in the wrong apartment. However, they failed to develop a sufficient record to support their position. There was no evidence of when police learned that drugs were found in the first-floor apartment, how far police had progressed into the search when the Wades returned home, at what point the Wades told police they had the wrong apartment, or when the search of the building was complete. Without those basic facts, no reasonable jury could make a determination about whether any officer had realized his mistake but nevertheless continued his search.

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