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United States of America v. Trace Rae Thoms & Jennifer Anne Thoms

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF ALASKA


April 28, 2011

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
TRACE RAE THOMS & JENNIFER ANNE THOMS, DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: John W. Sedwick United States District Judge

ORDER AND OPINION

[Re: Motion at Docket 192]

I. MOTION PRESENTED

At docket 192, the United States of America ("the government") moves for reconsideration of the order at docket 186, which rejected the report and recommendation at docket 174 and granted the defendants' motion to suppress at docket 57.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under Federal Rule 59(e), the court may "reconsider and amend a previous order."*fn1 A motion under Rule 59(e) "should not be granted, absent highly unusual circumstances, unless the district court is presented with newly discovered evidence, committed clear error, or if there is an intervening change in the controlling law."*fn2

III. DISCUSSION

A. The Government's Motion Is Not In Compliance With the Local Rules

Local Rule 59.1(c) limits a motion for reconsideration to five pages.*fn3 The present motion is ten pages. Despite its deficiency, the court has decided to consider the government's motion in its entirety to avoid delay.

B. A De Novo Evidentiary Hearing Was Not Required

Section 636(b)(1)(B) of Title 28 provides that "a judge may . . . designate a magistrate judge to conduct hearings, including evidentiary hearings, and to submit to a judge of the court proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition, by a judge of the court."*fn4 Section 636(b) also provides as follows:

[a] judge of the court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made. A judge of the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.*fn5

The government argues that the court was required to conduct its own de novo evidentiary hearing prior to rejecting Magistrate Judge Roberts' report and recommendation.*fn6 In support of its contention, the government cites United States v. Bergera*fn7 and United States v. Ridgway.*fn8 Neither case requires an additional hearing in the circumstances of this case.

In Bergera, the magistrate judge recommended granting the defendants' motion to suppress.*fn9 The district judge reversed the magistrate and denied the motion.*fn10 The Ninth Circuit determined that "[i]f . . . [a] district court chooses to reject the recommendation of the magistrate judge, it must itself hear the testimony and see the evidence before deciding the motion."*fn11 The court reasoned that a "defendant is entitled to the assurance that important factual conclusions will be drawn from the testimony and other evidence itself. That assurance is provided if the district court decides the motion in accordance with the recommendations of [the magistrate judge] . . . [b]ut . . . is . . . absent if the district court is allowed to disregard the recommendation of the magistrate and decide the motion" without conducting its own evidentiary hearing.*fn12

In Ridgway, as in Bergera, the district judge rejected the magistrate judge's recommendation to grant a motion to suppress, and "denied the motion to suppress without conducting a de novo evidentiary hearing."*fn13 The Ninth Circuit clarified that "[u]nder the law of this circuit, a district court errs when it does not conduct a de novo evidentiary hearing if it rejects the credibility finding of a magistrate judge who recommends the granting of a motion to suppress."*fn14 After first acknowledging that the Supreme Court has viewed the issue in terms of a defendant's right to due process, the Ridgway court noted that under its reading of the Bergera rule, "[t]hat specific holding is not undercut either by [United States v.] Raddatz*fn15 or by the amendments to the Federal Magistrates Act."*fn16 As this court reads the law, Ridgway recognized that the necessity of a de novo evidentiary hearing is properly framed "in terms of a defendant's right to due process."*fn17

In Raddatz, the Supreme Court determined that acceptance of a magistrate judge's credibility determination without a de novo evidentiary hearing is consistent with due process. The Court emphasized that 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) requires a de novo "determination" and not a de novo hearing.*fn18 The Court stated that "nothing in the legislative history of the statute . . . support[s] the contention that [a] judge is required to rehear the contested testimony in order to carry out the statutory command to make the required 'determination.'"*fn19

The Court also noted that "[n]either the statute nor its legislative history reveals any specific consideration of the situation where a district judge after reviewing the record in the process of making a de novo 'determination' has doubts concerning the credibility findings of the magistrate."*fn20 In the absence of such "specific consideration," courts are left with the text of the statute, which, as extensively discussed in Raddatz, requires only a de novo determination. The Court "assume[d] it . . . unlikely that a district judge would reject a magistrate's proposed findings on credibility when those findings are dispositive" because "to do so without seeing and hearing the witness or witnesses whose credibility is in question could well give rise to serious questions."*fn21

However, there is no identifiable source for such serious question beyond the Due Process Clause.

Because a defendant's due process rights are not at issue when a motion to suppress is granted over a magistrate judge's recommendation, a de novo evidentiary hearing is not necessarily required. That is not to deny that in many cases, a district court might need to conduct a second evidentiary hearing. However, here, this court has had access to a transcript of the original evidentiary hearing and has explained at length how the evidence presented renders it highly improbable (indeed, it seems to this court in light of all the evidence, virtually impossible) that Investigator Young could smell the marijuana grow under the circumstances that existed at the time. That conclusion would not change simply because this court heard the evidence all over again. The issue here does not turn on the demeanor of the witnesses, but rather on the implausibility of the officer's conclusion that he smelled the marijuana grow inside a sealed building at least 450 feet away, which was screened by forest vegetation and a hill with a house on it. These considerations, which are paramount in rendering Young's conclusion unbelievable, are either derived directly from or are entirely consistent with Investigator Young's own testimony.*fn22 It would serve no purpose but delay to conduct a second hearing to hear the testimony all over again. This court concludes that in the circumstances of this case it is not inconsistent with the case law to have suppressed the evidence without first conducting a second evidentiary hearing. Moreover, that conclusion is indisputably consistent with the relevant statutes.

IV. CONCLUSION

For the reasons above, the government's motion at docket 192 for reconsideration of the order at docket 186 is DENIED.


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