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Drugs, gun found in locked bedroom were circumstantial evidence that add up to guilt
A man’s attempt to shed blame on his roommates for drugs and a gun found in his locked bedroom during a no-knock search gained no traction with the Court of Appeals.
The court’s decision Monday in State v. Burrell affirmed a Hennepin County trial court’s admission of evidence found during the search of a multi-occupancy house.
The unanimous, nonprecedential opinion by Judge Randall J. Slieter also refused to allow so-called “reverse-Spreigl evidence” that someone other than the defendant, Larry Eugene Burrell, Jr., committed the crime.
Finally, the court refused to convene a Franks hearing to contest the search warrant’s veracity.
Deputies executed a no-knock search warrant for a residence on the 2900 block of Sheridan Avenue North in Minneapolis on Oct. 22, 2019. An investigation was conducted following reports from a confidential informant about two individuals living at that residence. The informant did not identify Burrell.
The search warrant did not identify the address as a single- or multiple-occupancy residence. It was a split level with bedrooms on each floor. One of the people identified by the informant was present during the search of the residence. In the upstairs area, deputies found drugs, cash, paraphernalia and bullets belonging to the person who was present.
They then moved to the lower level, finding a locked bedroom that they forced open. In it, they found drugs, a gun, a prescription bottle and mail addressed to Burrell. Burrell was then charged with multiple felony offenses.
In February 2020, a jury convicted him on two felony drug counts and one count of weapons possession by a prohibited person. He was sentenced to 81 months in prison.
At trial, Burrell challenged the search warrant for lacking the particularity necessary to search a multiple-occupancy building. He argued that the warrant was invalid because it did not sufficiently describe the particular unit to be searched.
But there is an exception to this rule of particularity, which was employed by the District Court. That exception applies when police, acting reasonably, do not learn until executing the warrant that the building is multiple occupancy.
Writing for the Court of Appeals, Slieter noted that there was nothing visible from the outside to suggest multiple occupancy, and nothing in the record suggests the deputies conducting the search knew of the locked bedroom doors.
Nor did deputies know, based the facts available to them at the time, “that appellant’s room was a separate residence,” Slieter writes.
A Franks hearing derives its name from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1985 Franks v. Delaware opinion. It allows a defendant to challenge the truthfulness of statements made in the affidavit accompanying a warrant.
The defendant must show that the affiant deliberately made a statement that was false or recklessly disregarded the truth, and that the statement was material to a probable cause determination. If the defendant does not, the judge may deny a Franks hearing.
The Court of Appeals rejected Burrell’s argument that the deputy knew, based on two weeks’ surveillance, that the residence was multiple-occupancy and omitted that information from the warrant affidavit. The defendant also argued that police surveillance of the property showed multiple vehicles coming and going. The Court of Appeals found this argument speculative.
The trial court found that the deputy acted reasonably in not identifying the multiple occupancy of the building in the search warrant. Slieter said that finding is supported by the record.
“This conclusion necessarily means that the mere absence of such a statement in the search warrant is not evidence of ‘intentionally or recklessly’ omitting information,” he wrote.
“Reverse-Spreigl evidence” is evidence that an alternative perpetrator may have committed a crime.
On appeal, Burrell reasserted his alternative-perpetrator claim from the trial. The two individuals identified by the police informant had recently sold drugs while carrying firearms for intimidation and protection, he argued.
That evidence not only was relevant, Burrell claimed, it was fundamentally important to his case, to show that the seized drugs and the firearm belonged to them.
However, the appeals court said the trial jury learned that deputies were surveilling two other individuals named by the informant. It was information related to those two people, not to Burrell, that led deputies to obtain the warrant, the jury was told.
The jury also learned that evidence implicating Burrell was found in his locked bedroom. All the other drugs and weapons seized were found in upstairs bedrooms or with other items that identified them as belonging to other people in the house, the Court of Appeals found.
Therefore, Slieter’s ruling says, denial of reverse-Spreigl evidence, even if in error, was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
Sufficiency of the evidence
Burrell argued in his pro se brief that the state did not show he had exclusive control over the contraband or the area in which it was found.
The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that the state relied on circumstantial evidence that the appellant constructively possessed the drugs and the gun. The evidence was found in a locked bedroom along with mail bearing the appellant’s name. Those circumstances are consistent with guilt and inconsistent with any rational hypothesis other than guilt, the court continued.
Thus, the court ruled, the evidence was sufficient to support the conviction