Louisiana v. Moultrie
Opinion Date: June 29, 2017
Judge: Per Curiam
Areas of Law: Constitutional Law, Criminal Law
Defendant Joseph Moultrie was found guilty as charged of possession with intent to distribute cocaine, based on approximately two ounces of crack cocaine found by officers in a barbeque grill in a driveway between two trailers, one of which belonged to defendant’s mother. Officers noticed defendant standing in the street in front of the trailer at approximately 11 p.m. in a high crime neighborhood. Defendant quickly retreated out of view into the driveway when he saw the officers before returning to the street. One officer approached defendant while two others entered the driveway to see if defendant had discarded drugs or a weapon. They noticed that there were torn baggies on the ground that appeared to have cocaine and marijuana residue. At the end of the driveway farthest from the street, one officer also noticed a grill whose lid was slightly askew with dew that had been disturbed on the handle. Inside the grill was the large quantity of cocaine. When arrested, defendant claimed he lived in the trailer, the grill belonged to his family, and he disavowed any knowledge of the cocaine. On appeal, defendant contended the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress and that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction. Although the state ultimately bears the burden of establishing the validity of a warrantless search, in challenging the search a defendant bears an initial threshold burden of showing that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the premises. Defendant thus was in the difficult position of having to both distance himself from the barbeque grill, if he hoped to be found not guilty of possession of the cocaine found inside it, and tie himself more closely to the grill, if he hoped to obtain a favorable ruling on the motion to suppress. The Louisiana Supreme Court found, after review, that ownership of the grill was never established: it was never seized as evidence and never identified from any photograph as the grill belonging to defendant’s mother. Although defendant’s sister testified that her mother used a grill, her testimony did not establish that the grill in which the drugs were found belonged to defendant’s mother. Because defendant failed at the threshold to make a showing of any reasonable expectation of privacy in the barbeque grill, the inquiry ended. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the court of appeal and remanded for consideration of defendant’s claim that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction.
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