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United States v. Venters

August 27, 2008

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
ERIC S. VENTERS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. No. 06 CR 40064-William D. Stiehl, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kanne, Circuit Judge

ARGUED MAY 15, 2008

Before RIPPLE, KANNE, and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.

Police officers searched Eric Venters's house and tool shed and recovered materials and equipment they suspected were being used to manufacture methamphetamine. See 21 U.S.C. § 843(a)(6). Venters moved to suppress the items, but the district court denied the motion. We affirm.

I. HISTORY

In August 2006, police officers in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, arrested Venters at his house while investigating a report that he neglected to care for his three young children. See 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. 130/2. The officers subsequently executed two search warrants on Venters's property, where they found various equipment and materials suspected to be used to manufacture methamphetamine. For instance, officers found in Venters's house large quantities of pseudoephedrine pills, numerous lithium batteries, a jar of liquid that tested positive for meth, and coffee filters that also tested positive for the drug; in a tool shed located behind Venters's house officers recovered more items that tested positive for meth, such as a blender covered with a white residue and a container of drain cleaner. Based on the items seized, a grand jury indicted Venters on one count of possessing materials and equipment for manufacturing meth while knowing that the items would be used to make the drug. See 21 U.S.C. § 843(a)(6).

Shortly after the grand jury indicted him, Venters filed a motion to suppress the items recovered from his residence on the basis that they were the "fruits of [an] unlawful entry." Specifically, Venters asserted that the police officers obtained the warrants to search his property only after they entered his house without a warrant while investigating the report of child neglect. But for that illegal entry, Venters argued, the officers would not have had the requisite probable cause to obtain the search warrants that allowed them to locate and seize the contraband found on his property.

The district court held a hearing on Venters's motion. Venters introduced no evidence in support of his motion, but the government presented two witnesses: Vanessa Shaw, a Child Protective Investigator with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), and Officer Rodney Sweetin, a patrolman with the Mt. Vernon Police Department. Together, Shaw and Sweetin testified to the following:

On the morning of August 2, 2006, the DCFS central office in Springfield, Illinois, forwarded to Shaw at her office in Mt. Vernon a report of suspected child neglect. The report contained allegations made by Sue Houseworth, the stepmother of Venters's wife, Natalie, that Venters and Natalie had been neglecting to care for their three children: Steven (age seven at the time of the report), Ellen (age six), and Sebastian (age five). Specifically, the report*fn1 stated that the Venters' house was "filthy, stinks, and [was] full of human and animal feces," and that Sebastian "smear[ed] feces all over the house." The report further stated that Venters made, sold, and used meth. The report explained that Venters "used to make the drug in the shed behind the house," but that he had since moved his operations to a field. However, the report also recounted that Venters's son, Steven, had stated that "he goes with his daddy sometimes where his daddy cooks in the barn."

After reviewing the DCFS report, Shaw contacted Detective Sergeant Ken McElroy, the Mt. Vernon Police Department's Juvenile Officer, and explained to him the allegations contained in the report. McElroy, in turn, opined that they needed to confirm the allegations, so he and Shaw telephoned Houseworth. During their conversation, Houseworth both confirmed her initial report and elaborated on her description of Venters and his children. Houseworth explained that Venters had a history of using and manufacturing meth, and that he had been arrested for crimes related to the drug. She further described the Venters' house as "terrible"-"it was nasty and ha[d] an odor" because Venters both used and manufactured meth in it. In fact, Houseworth stated, when Steven, Ellen, and Sebastian visit her, she makes it a habit to bathe them and to give them clean clothes because "she can smell the meth" on the clothes that they are wearing. Houseworth further explained that "three or four days" earlier, Natalie was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Mt. Vernon after she was bitten by a spider, and that since then only Venters had been caring for the three children.

After Shaw and Sergeant McElroy spoke with Houseworth, they visited Natalie at Good Samaritan Hospital. Like her stepmother, Natalie stated that Venters was addicted to meth, and that because of his addiction his health had greatly deteriorated: he had "lost a lot of weight, [did] not sleep, and [looked] terrible." Natalie also stated that Venters was "probably" making the drug as well. When asked if Venters was making meth at their house, Natalie responded that although he had in the past, she did not think that he currently was. However, Natalie could not confirm that Venters had not made the drug at the house since she had been in the hospital.

Shaw and Sergeant McElroy then decided to visit Venters's house to investigate the report of child neglect. Whileen route to the house, Shaw and McElroy met with Officer Sweetin, the patrolman on duty. McElroy recounted to Sweetin Houseworth's and Natalie's statements, and asked him to accompany them in the event that they had to arrest Venters for child neglect.

When Shaw, Sergeant McElroy, and Officer Sweetin arrived at Venters's house, McElroy and Sweetin walked up to the front porch to see if anyone was home, while Shaw remained behind in McElroy's car. Sweetin knocked on the front door, but received no response. Sweetin then peered through a set of windows located next to the door; he was able to see into the living room, and observed that there were feces on the floor and that the room was extremely cluttered. McElroy then began to "pound" on the front door "quite hard and loud[ly]." No one responded to McElroy either, and after he pounded on the door for "one to two minutes," he peered through another window next to the door and yelled to Sweetin and Shaw that he saw "a child on the couch" who "raised his head," but did not otherwise move. McElroy then opened the unlocked front door, announced the officers' presence, and yelled several times that they were there "to check on the welfare of the children." Although McElroy yelled at "the top of his voice," the child on the couch did not move.

Seeing that the child was not moving, Sergeant McElroy "went straight to the couch" to check on the child's welfare, with Officer Sweetin immediately in tow. The child, who turned out to be Steven, had no clothes on, and had only a small blanket covering him. Sweetin asked Steven where his father was, but Steven responded that he did not know. Meanwhile, McElroy found Ellen and Sebastian in a ...


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