By: Diana C. Castro

Today, in United States v. Jayad Zainab Ester Conteh, the Fourth Circuit affirmed by unpublished per curiam opinion the District Court of Maryland’s denial of a motion to suppress, holding there was probable cause to justify the issuance of a search warrant. The Fourth Circuit reviewed the District Court’s factual findings for clear error and its legal conclusions de novo.

Defendant Argues the Sworn Application Supporting her Arrest Warrant Was Insufficient to Establish Probable Cause.

On appeal the defendant raised three issues: (1) the sworn application supporting her arrest warrant was insufficient to establish probable cause; (2) the officer executing the warrant did not act in reasonable good faith reliance on the state commissioner’s determination of probable cause; and (3) the District Court abused its discretion in qualifying a witness as an expert in Sierra Leoneon Creole.

Defendant was Convicted of Conspiracy to Commit Bank Fraud, Aggravated Identity Theft, and Exceeding Authorized Access to a Computer Thereby Obtaining Information Contained in a Financial Record of a Financial Institution.

Conteh, a teller for the bank, accessed accounts with information personally identifying the account holders in a way that suggested her access was unauthorized. Several bank accounts were compromised when information for the accounts was changed and checks were ordered without authorization. Further, the owner of a vehicle observed attempting to retrieve checks ordered without authorization from one of the compromised accounts relied on a bank insider to provide him information.

Probable Cause to Justify an Arrest Means a Police Officer is Aware of Facts and Circumstances That Are Sufficient to Warrant a Prudent Person in Believing That the Suspect Has committed an Offense, Under the Circumstances Shown.

Determined by the totality of the circumstances, probable cause is a fluid concept that turns on the assessment of probabilities. United States v. Dickey-Bey, 393 F.3d 449, 453–54. In reviewing the state commissioner’s probable cause determination, the court may only ask whether the commissioner had a substantial basis for concluding there was probable cause. Under this standard, the court grants much deference to the commissioner’s assessment of the facts presented to him. United States v. Blackwood, 913 F.2d 139, 142 (4th Cir. 1990).

Taking the facts of this case as a whole, the commissioner had a substantial basis to conclude that the supporting application established probable cause.

Alternatively, the Fourth Circuit Rejects the Defendant’s Claim That the Officer Did Not Rely on the Warrant in Good Faith.

Under the good faith exception, created by the Supreme Court of the United States in United States v. Leon, evidence obtained from an invalid warrant will not be suppressed if the officer’s reliance on the warrant was objectively reasonable. United States v. Perez, 393 F.3d 457, 461 (4th Cir. 2004).

Leon identifies four ways in which an officer’s reliance on a warrant would not qualify as good faith reliance. Conteh argued one of these exceptions, noting that an officer’s reliance on a warrant would not qualify as good faith if the warrant was so facially deficient that no reasonable officer could presume its validity.

However, the Court rejected, as unsupported by the record, Conteh’s assertion that probable cause is lacking because the application contains a “significant misstatement” that she was the individual who changed the information.

Reviewing for Abuse of Discretion, the Fourth Circuit Affirmed the District Court’s Decision to Qualify an Expert Witness.

In ensuring that evidence is reliable under Fed. R. Evid. 702, a district court “must decide whether the expert has ‘sufficient specialized knowledge to assist the jurors in deciding the particular issues in the case.’” Belk, Inc. v. Meyer Corp., U.S., 679 F.3d 146, 162 (4th Cir. 2012). In making this decision, the court should “consider the proposed expert’s full range of experience and training.” United States v. Pansier, 576 F.3d 726, 737 (7th Cir. 2009). Federal Rule of Evidence 702 “does not require any particular imprimatur.” United States v. Gutierrez, 757 F.3d 785, 788 (8th Cir. 2014).

Despite the facts that the witness does not hold degrees in Sierra Leoneon Creole, works as a teacher in another field, and had not acted as a translator for any government agency prior to his involvement in the case at bar, the Court concluded that the witness was properly qualified as an expert in Sierra Leoneon Creole based on his education and experience with the language. The witness testified regarding messages in Sierra Leoneon Creole obtained from the cellular phone seized from Conteh incident to her arrest.

Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Affirmed.