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United States of America v. LATECIA WATKINS
Case Number: 18-14336
Judge: ED CARNES
Court: IN THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT
Plaintiff's Attorney: United States Attorney’s Office
Atlanta, Georgia - Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant with four drug-related crimes charges.
Two packages were sent into this country from Trinidad and Tobago. Both
had cocaine hidden inside. And both were oddly addressed. One was addressed to
“Margaret Simpson” at the Boca Raton Post Office, but with no post office box
number. The other was addressed to “Jason Stanley” at a UPS Store that was a
couple of hundred feet from the Boca Raton Post Office, but there was no box
number included in that address either. The absence of box numbers was notable
because neither a post office nor a UPS store accepts packages addressed for
delivery there unless the addressee rents a box at that location.
At the international mail facility, after finding cocaine hidden in the two
packages, law enforcement agents had removed the drugs from them, placed a GPS
tracking device and sham cocaine into each package, and then put both packages
into the mail stream, headed to their original destinations.
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The agents monitored the packages’ locations using both the inserted
tracking devices and the Postal Service’s internal tracking system, which is
routinely used on all packages. They also set up surveillance of the Boca Raton
Post Office on the morning of August 11, 2017, when they expected the packages
to be delivered. But that morning the GPS tracking devices the agents had put into
both packages unexpectedly stopped working. That happened around 9:42 a.m.
Unlike the GPS tracking devices used by law enforcement, the Postal
Service’s routine package tracking system does not continuously pinpoint a
package’s location as it moves or is stationary. Instead, it uses scans of a
package’s unique tracking number to show the history of its journey: where the
package came into the postal system, some of the stops along the way, and where it
was finally delivered. The package is scanned at each stage, and unless it is
tampered with, the tracking system automatically updates to the database the
location, date, and time a package is manually scanned as it proceeds through the
postal system to delivery.
A few of the codes that are routinely entered as a package is scanned while it
proceeds along the way are important here. One of them is the code that occurs
when a package is scanned as it comes into a post office en route to its final
destination; the resulting code shows when the package arrived at the post office.
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Another code results from the scanning that occurs when the package is delivered
to its intended address. That final code records the delivery time.
One wrinkle is that if a package is addressed to a post office box but is too
large to fit into that box, it is scanned into the tracking system with the code:
“Scanned Notice Left.” That means the postal carrier left a notice slip in the
recipient’s post office box, which she can take to the counter to exchange for her
As for the two packages involved in this case, law enforcement agents could
tell from the codes produced by the routine postal tracking system that both
packages had been on a journey that was not routine. The package addressed to
Jason Stanley was reported by the postal tracking system to have arrived (having
been scanned in) at the post office at 8:33 a.m. that morning. The system also
reported that the package had then been delivered to the UPS store near the post
office at 11:06 a.m. But when the agents called the UPS store, they learned that no
one named “Jason Stanley” rented a box there, and that no package addressed to
that name had been delivered to the store.
The package tracking system also told an odd tale about the package
addressed to Margaret Simpson. According to the system, that package had been
delivered to the Boca Raton Post Office at 11:06 a.m. that same morning. But, as
we’ve mentioned, there was no post office box number in the address on the
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package, no one named “Margaret Simpson” rented a post office box there, and
without a rented box generally no one could receive mail or a package at that post
office. Not only that, but even though the package was too large to fit into a post
office box, it had not been scanned as “Scanned Notice Left.” And neither of the
two packages of (sham) cocaine was anywhere to be seen.
How could all of this be? To the agents all signs pointed to an inside job. A
postal employee had to have been helping sneak the packages through the mail
system, leaving only a few otherwise inexplicable traces. And the culprit most
likely was not just any postal employee. The agents knew that a supervisor would
have had what one agent called “unique access to certain aspects” of the scanning
system. That unique access would allow a supervisor to scan the two packages in
ways that indicated they had arrived and been delivered at times and places they
had not been. From the facts they knew, the agents deduced that a supervisor had
known that the packages would be arriving, had manipulated their scan history
once they did arrive, and had taken the packages.
One postal worker stood out as a suspect: Latecia Watkins. She was a
supervisor, which was important. She also had “some issues with the postal
service,” and one of the agents believed that “her character fit this” crime. Because
of their suspicions, the agents looked up Watkins in one of their databases and
obtained her driver’s license information and home address.
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The agents’ suspicion of Watkins grew throughout the day that the packages
were delivered. At one point that day, two of the agents entered the post office to
see if they could find the packages. As they were entering, they encountered
Watkins. Her response to seeing them, one of whom she knew to be a postal
inspector, was dramatic. Even before they had spoken a word to her she appeared
anxious, nervous, and scared –– so much so that her knees buckled and she looked
like she was going to faint. When they asked Watkins if she was okay or if
anything was wrong, she just stared at them. Only after the agents told her that
they were there to get some documents (which was a ruse) did she finally calm
down. Watkins’ extreme reaction to seeing them deepened the agents’ suspicions
that she was involved in smuggling the drugs.
The agents maintained surveillance at the post office until it closed at 6:30
p.m. that same day. As the supervisor in charge of closing the office that night,
Watkins was the last employee to leave. No agent followed her or otherwise
attempted to surveil her. With the post office closed, the agents decided to enter
and search for the packages because they had not noticed anyone leave there with
the packages during the day. They expected their search of the post office to take a
couple of hours.
As the agents searched the post office, they did not have a fixed plan for
what they would do if they did not find the packages there. But, later in testimony
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that the magistrate judge credited, the agents stated that their next step “probably”
would have been to conduct a knock and talk at Watkins’ house, which was located
at an address they had already looked up before the tracking device unexpectedly
came back to life. The agents would have done a knock and talk anyway because
she was their “prime suspect” and, in fact, their only suspect. They did not have
“any other leads.”
One agent testified that a knock and talk at Watkins’ house “was the plan
being discussed,” and “that was the plan [they] had begun to formulate” and were
in the process of formulating when the tracking device began to function again.
They had felt pressure to “act quickly” because “it would have been
exponentially harder to locate the packages” had they not. One of the agents
testified that if the device had not come back on they would have done the knock
and talk that night anyway after searching the post office instead of waiting until
the next day to do it.
But, as we have mentioned, while the search at the post office continued and
the agents were discussing their next step, one of the two tracking devices
unexpectedly began working again at 8:29 p.m. (Both devices had gone silent
nearly eleven hours earlier, around 9:42 a.m. that morning.) The device indicated
that it was in a location that the agents immediately recognized as the area where
Watkins lived, and they used a Google search to confirm that her house was at that
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location. At that point, they stopped searching the post office and went
immediately to Watkins’ house.
At least six law enforcement agents drove there in unmarked vehicles. At
least five of the agents approached the front of Watkins’ house and three of those
five approached her front door wearing tactical vests over civilian clothes. They
arrived at the door at around 9:08 p.m.
One of the agents knocked on Watkins’ door in a “normal” way, without
pounding on it. Before the door opened, at least one of the three agents at the door
could smell marijuana, and after Watkins opened the door all three of them could
smell marijuana coming from inside the house. At that point, Agent Rivera
identified herself as a law enforcement officer and calmly asked Watkins, “Do you
know why we are here[?]” In response, Watkins “just put her head down” and
answered either, “Yes, the boxes,” or, “The packages.”
Agent Rivera then asked Watkins to step outside the house so they could
talk. She did so. They walked to the end of the driveway, and Agent Rivera asked
her, “You know why we [are] here about the boxes.” Again, Watkins said “yes.”
Then Agent Rivera asked her, “Can I take a look at the boxes? Can you show me
wh[ere] they are?” At that point, Watkins turned and, without saying anything,
began walking back to her house. Though Watkins had not expressly said so,
Agent Rivera interpreted her actions as consent to follow her into the house.
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Before they actually went into the house, two other agents stopped them so a
security sweep could be completed inside the house. The sweep was in response to
the smell of marijuana and the agents’ concern that the evidence of the marijuana
might be destroyed. The agents also planned to apply for a search warrant based
on that smell, and one of them did get a warrant after the sweep, but no additional
evidence relevant to this case was located through the warrant. During the sweep,
which took only a few minutes, the agents found marijuana in plain view. They
also saw in plain view two packages lying on the floor in Watkins’ bedroom,
which they recognized as being the packages with the fake drugs in them.
Once the security sweep was done, Agent Rivera followed Watkins to her
bedroom where the packages were. Watkins, who was not in handcuffs, signed
written Garrity and Miranda waiver forms, consented to a search of her cellphone,
and in a recorded interview made several incriminating statements. See Garrity v.
New Jersey, 385 U.S. 493 (1967); Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).
Watkins explained to the agents how she had met her co-defendant, as well as their
scheme for him to mail drugs into the country and for her to use her position to get
the drugs through the post office without detection. Watkins also told the agents
that her co-defendant’s telephone was going straight to voicemail when she called
it, that she had no other way to get in touch with him, and that she thought he had
already been arrested.
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II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Watkins was charged with four drug-related crimes.1
She moved to suppress
“all physical evidence and statements obtained as a result of law enforcement’s
warrantless installation of and surveillance using tracking devices hidden inside
two postal packages.”
A. The Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation
Watkins’ motion to suppress was referred to Magistrate Judge William
Matthewman. He held an evidentiary hearing, which included four government
witnesses, three of whom were law enforcement agents who had been involved in
the search of the post office and the knock and talk at Watkins’ house. Watkins
called two of her own witnesses; they had been with her in the house when the law
enforcement agents arrived.
The judge issued a report recommending that Watkins’ motion be denied. In
it, he expressly and repeatedly found that the testimony of the law enforcement
agents was credible in all respects. He also found that Watkins’ witnesses were not
1 Those charges were: Conspiracy to import five kilograms or more of cocaine into the
United States, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 963, 952(a), and 960(b)(1)(B) (Count 1); importation
of five kilograms or more of cocaine into the United States, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 952(a)
and 960(b)(1)(B) (Count 2); conspiracy to possess five kilograms or more of cocaine with the
intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(a)(1), and 841(b)(1)(A) (Count 3); and
attempted possession of five kilograms or more of cocaine with attempt to distribute, in violation
of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(a)(1), and 841(b)(1)(A) (Count 4).
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credible. The facts set out in this opinion are based on those credibility findings
and the testimony of the government’s witnesses at the evidentiary hearing.
The magistrate judge’s report gave several reasons for recommending denial
of the motion to suppress. It said that the initial search and seizure of the two
packages was lawful, and that the monitoring of the one tracking device that was
functioning inside Watkins’ house was also lawful. In the alternative, the report
concluded that even without the reactivated tracking device, law enforcement had
reasonable suspicion to do a knock and talk at Watkins’ house that night, and that
they would have gone to her house to do it anyway. According to the report,
Watkins consented to the agents entering her home, and her consent and all of her
incriminating statements were voluntary. Finally, it concluded that after Watkins
opened the door, probable cause and exigent circumstances justified a security
sweep of the house because of the marijuana smell and concerns about the
destruction of evidence as well as for the safety of the agents.
B. The District Court’s Orders
Watkins objected to the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation.
Without conducting a new evidentiary hearing, the district court issued an order
sustaining Watkins’ objections and granting her motion to suppress. The court
agreed with the magistrate judge that the initial search and placement of the
tracking devices by the government was lawful. But relying on the Supreme
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Court’s Karo and Jones decisions, the district court concluded that the government
had to have a warrant to monitor the tracking device inside Watkins’ house
because the package was no longer open to visual surveillance from a public place
and Watkins had a justified privacy interest in her house. See United States v.
Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012); United States v. Karo, 468 U.S. 705 (1984). Because
the agents did not have a warrant at that time, the court concluded that Watkins’
Fourth Amendment rights were violated by the government agents’ warrantless
monitoring of the tracking device when it reactivated and showed them that the
packages were in her house.
The district court also ruled that, even though Watkins’ consent to the search
of her home was voluntary, that consent was tainted because it was the product of
the unlawful monitoring of the tracking device and, for that reason, the attenuation
exception to the exclusionary rule did not apply. The court acknowledged that the
magistrate judge had “found that even without the tracking of the box, law
enforcement would have conducted a ‘knock and announce.’” But the district
court viewed that finding as irrelevant “in view of the fact that law enforcement
did, in fact, track the box with the monitoring device which led them to [Watkins’]
The government filed a motion for reconsideration of the district court’s
order, contending that the inevitable discovery exception made the evidence
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admissible. It noted that the court had declined to consider the inevitability of the
discovery based on the court’s finding that law enforcement had illegally tracked
one of the packages. But, as the government pointed out: “analysis under the
inevitable discovery doctrine presupposes an illegal search did, in fact, occur, [and]
considers whether there is a reasonable probability that the evidence would
otherwise have been discovered by lawful means.” It argued that the suppressed
evidence would inevitably have been discovered anyway because, even before the
tracking device came back to life, Watkins was the sole suspect; and the agents had
already searched for and found her address; and they testified that going to
Watkins’ house that same night to do a knock and talk was probably the next step
in their investigation. They had no other leads.
The district court denied the motion to reconsider. First, the court stated that
it was “purely speculative to conclude” that law enforcement agents would have
gone to Watkins’ house after they completed their search at the post office, and
that Watkins would have responded in the same way if they had approached her
house “at a different time and under different circumstances.” Second, the court
ruled that the inevitable discovery exception did not apply because, the court
found, although the lawful means of obtaining the evidence — the knock and talk
— was being considered, it “was not actually being pursued when the unlawful
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tracking occurred, and law enforcement abandoned their search of the post office
to approach” Watkins’ house.
In its brief to this Court, the government concedes that law enforcement
violated Watkins’ Fourth Amendment rights by the warrantless monitoring of the
tracking device once it reactivated inside Watkins’ house. We are not bound to
accept that concession, see Roberts v. Galen of Va., Inc., 525 U.S. 249, 253
(1999), but for purposes of this case we will.
A. The Exclusionary Rule and the Ultimate Discovery Exception
A Fourth Amendment violation can trigger the exclusionary rule, which
requires courts to suppress illegally obtained evidence, but that rule has several
exceptions. Exceptions exist because the exclusionary rule “has always been our
last resort, not our first impulse.” Utah v. Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056, 2061 (2016)
(quotation marks omitted). We are not quick to “indiscriminate[ly] appl[y]” the
rule because it “generates substantial social costs, which sometimes include setting
the guilty free and the dangerous at large” and which take a “costly toll upon truthseeking and law enforcement objectives.” United States v. Delancy, 502 F.3d
1297, 1314 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Hudson v. Michigan, 547 U.S. 586, 591
(2006)). Instead, we reserve the exclusionary rule “only [for] where its remedial
objectives are thought most efficaciously served — that is, where its deterrence
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benefits outweigh its substantial social costs.” Id. (quoting Hudson, 547 U.S. at
591). And to justify application of the rule those deterrence benefits cannot be
merely incremental, marginal, or simply possible; they must be substantial and
must actually outweigh the costs. Herring v. United States, 555 U.S. 135, 141,
One of the exceptions to the exclusionary rule is for inevitable or ultimate
discovery, which “allows for the admission of evidence that would have been
discovered even without the unconstitutional source.” Strieff, 136 S. Ct. at 2061.
This exception is akin to the harmless error rule that is applied for constitutional
violations generally, a kinship that the Supreme Court pointed out in its
Nix opinion. See Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431, 443 n.4 (1984) (“The ultimate or
inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule is closely related in purpose
to the harmless-error rule . . . .”); see generally United States v. Roy, 855 F.3d
1133, 1167 (11th Cir. 2017) (en banc) (recognizing that “the harmless error
doctrine is alive and well” because it “serves vital interests and promotes public
respect for the criminal process”).
“If the prosecution can establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the
information ultimately or inevitably would have been discovered by lawful
means . . . then the deterrence rationale has so little basis that the evidence should
be received.” Nix, 467 U.S. at 443 (footnote omitted), accord Watkins, 2021 WL
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3700295, at *5 (“[W]e hold that the standard of predictive proof the government
must satisfy in order to establish the proper application of the ultimate discovery
exception is preponderance of the evidence . . . .”). As the Supreme Court has
explained: “Anything less would reject logic, experience, and common sense.”
Nix, 467 U.S. at 444. The reason it would is that the purpose of the ultimate
discovery exception is to “put the police in the same, not a worse, position tha[n]
they would have been in if no police error or misconduct had occurred.” Id. at
443; accord United States v. Johnson, 777 F.3d 1270, 1275 (11th Cir. 2015),
overruled by Watkins, 2021 WL 3700295.
2 Excluding evidence where it would
have been discovered anyway “would not restore the parties to their previous
positions and would upset the careful weighing of competing interests underlying
the exclusionary rule.” Jefferson v. Fountain, 382 F.3d 1286, 1296 (11th Cir.
2004), overruled by Watkins, 2021 WL 3700295. It would “put the police in a
worse position than they would have been in if no unlawful conduct had
transpired,” and would “fail to take into account the enormous societal cost of
excluding truth in the search for truth in the administration of justice.” Nix, 467
U.S. at 445. Courts would be “withholding from juries relevant and undoubted
2 Johnson, like many of our other earlier decisions, applied the “reasonable probability”
standard. See Johnson, 777 F.3d at 1274. We rejected that standard in our en banc decision in
this case and adopted the preponderance of the evidence standard instead, Watkins, 2021 WL
3700295, at *5. Our en banc decision overruled decisions like Johnson only to the extent that
they applied the reasonable probability standard.
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truth that would have been available to police absent any unlawful police activity,”
which would “add nothing to either the integrity or fairness of a criminal trial.”
Id. at 445–46.
Illegally obtained evidence is admissible under the ultimate discovery
exception if the government can make two showings. One is a showing by a
preponderance of the evidence that if there had been no constitutional violation, the
evidence in question would have been discovered by lawful means. Nix, 467 U.S.
at 444. Absolute certainty is not required, only a showing that it is more likely
than not the evidence would have been discovered without the violation. See
Bourjaily v. United States, 483 U.S. 171, 176 (1987) (summarizing Nix as holding
that “inevitable discovery of illegally seized evidence must be shown to have been
more likely than not”); Watkins, 2021 WL 3700295, at *5.
The other requirement the government must meet is “that the lawful means
which made discovery inevitable were being actively pursued prior to the
occurrence of the illegal conduct.” Johnson, 777 F.3d at 1274 (quotation marks
omitted). “Active pursuit” in this sense does not “require that police have already
planned the particular search that would obtain the evidence” but only “that the
police would have discovered the evidence by virtue of ordinary investigations of
evidence or leads already in their possession.” Id. (quotation marks omitted).
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B. Application of the Ultimate Discovery Exception
After conducting an evidentiary hearing in this case, the magistrate judge
found the three agents to be not just credible but “very credible” and credited their
testimony. (He also found the two defense witnesses whose testimony went to
another issue not credible.) The report and recommendation concluded that the
motion to suppress should be denied based on the ultimate discovery exception.
Watkins’ objections brought the matter before the district court. Without hearing
any testimony itself, the district court twice rejected the government’s inevitable or
ultimate discovery argument. Both times it erred.
1. Whether the Evidence
Would Have Been Discovered Anyway
In its initial order suppressing the evidence, the only place that the district
court addressed the magistrate judge’s finding that the evidence ultimately would
have been found even without the Fourth Amendment violation is in a twosentence footnote that stated:
The Court recognizes that the Magistrate Judge found that even without
the tracking of the box, law enforcement would have conducted a
“knock and announce” of Defendant’s residence in any event.
However, in view of the fact that law enforcement did, in fact, track the
box with the monitoring device which led them to Defendant’s
residence, and this Court has concluded a warrant was required, the
analysis required by Delancy and Santa must be performed.
Doc. 113 at 9 n.3.
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The district court cited the parts of Delancy and Santa that deal with whether
consent to search is sufficiently attenuated from a constitutional violation to be
voluntary. See Doc. 113 at 9–10 (citing Delancy, 502 F.3d at 1308–10; United
States v. Santa, 236 F.3d 662, 676–77 (11th Cir. 2000)). The court did not cite the
ultimate discovery exception part of Delancy, and Santa did not mention ultimate
More fundamentally, the fact that a constitutional violation occurred never
precludes applying the exception. To the contrary, the ultimate discovery
exception does not even come up unless there is a real or assumed constitutional
violation to begin with. There must be a real or assumed violation for it to make
any sense to ask whether the violation made a difference. As the Supreme Court
has observed: “It is clear that the cases implementing the exclusionary rule begin
with the premise that the challenged evidence is in some sense the product of
illegal governmental activity.” Nix, 467 U.S. at 444 (quotation marks omitted).
The Court followed up that observation of the obvious by stating: “[o]f course, this
does not end the inquiry,” and if that evidence would have been discovered
anyway by lawful means “the deterrence rationale has so little basis that the
evidence should be received.” Id. (footnote omitted). Anything else, the Court
stressed, “would reject logic, experience, and common sense.” Id.
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In its motion for reconsideration, the government pointed out this flaw in its
reasoning to the district court and asked the court to rule that the ultimate
discovery exception did apply. In its order denying reconsideration, the court did
not stick with its earlier rationale, but replaced it with this one: “The Court rejects
the premise of the Government’s motion that, absent the tracking of the package as
being located in Defendant’s residence, the law enforcement officers would have
conducted the ‘knock and announce’ and the events would have unfolded in the
That replacement rationale is flawed in two respects. First, it arguably
misstates the predictive standard. The standard is not whether the evidence in fact
“would have” been discovered, but whether the preponderance of the evidence
indicates it would have been –– whether it more likely than not would have been.
Bourjaily, 483 U.S. at 176; Watkins, 2021 WL 3700295, at *5.
Second, the district court’s reasoning is wrong because it is based on that
court’s own findings of fact instead of those of the magistrate judge. The
magistrate judge heard all of the testimony and was in a position to make
credibility determinations, and he made findings based on his credibility choices.
The district court did not hear any of the testimony and without conducting its own
evidentiary hearing was in no position to substitute its own credibility
determinations and findings of fact for those of the magistrate judge. It abused its
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discretion in doing so. See United States v. Powell, 628 F.3d 1254, 1256–57 (11th
Cir. 2010) (recognizing that “a district court abuses its discretion when it squarely
reject[s] the magistrate judge’s findings of fact and credibility determinations and
substitute[s] its own, without hearing so much as a single witness”) (alterations in
original) (quotation marks omitted); Amlong & Amlong, P.A. v. Denny’s, Inc.,
500 F.3d 1230, 1245 (11th Cir. 2007) (noting that our decisions “have
unambiguously and repeatedly observed that a district court may not reject a
magistrate judge’s factual and credibility findings” that were based on testimony
the magistrate judge heard, unless the district court conducts its own evidentiary
Third, given the magistrate judge’s findings, which the district court was
bound to accept unless it held its own evidentiary hearing, the court clearly erred in
finding that the government had failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence
that if the tracking device hadn’t reactivated and been monitored, the agents would
have conducted a knock and talk at Watkins’ house that night anyway and with the
The evidence the magistrate judge relied on to reach the opposite finding
bears repeating. The oddly addressed packages had been received at the post
office and taken out of the mail stream by an insider. The person who had done
that had also manipulated the post office’s internal scan-and-track system to evade
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detection. To do that, the culprit more than likely had to be a supervisor. Watkins
was a supervisor and was on duty that day. She had also had “issues with the
postal service.” And when she encountered two of the agents, one of whom she
knew to be a postal inspector, in the post office that day, she acted in a highly
suspicious way. Before the two agents said anything to her, Watkins appeared
anxious, nervous, and scared, her knees buckled, and she seemed ready to faint.
When the agents asked if she was okay, she just stared at them. It is no wonder
that Watkins was the lead suspect — in fact, the only suspect.
And it is no wonder that while conducting the search of the post office after
it closed, the agents discussed going to Watkins’ house and conducting a knock
and talk if they did not find the packages at the post office. All three agents
testified, without dispute, that even if the tracking device had not come back to life
and let them know where one of the packages was, they probably still would have
gone to Watkins’ house and done the knock and talk just like they did after the
tracking device reactivated. They had, after all, already obtained Watkins’ address
before they knew they would hear from the device again. The magistrate judge
found all of that testimony credible.
Despite all of those facts, which the district court was not at liberty to
ignore, it dismissed as “purely speculative” the magistrate judge’s finding that
even if the tracking device had not reactivated, the agents still would have gone to
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Watkins’ house that night and conducted a “knock and announce.” The only
authority the district court gave for dismissing that finding as pure speculation is
the statement in Nix that “inevitable discovery involves no speculative elements
but focuses on demonstrated historical facts capable of ready verification or
impeachment.” Nix, 467 U.S. at 444 n.5.
But that statement in Nix cuts against what the district court did, not in favor
of it, because the magistrate judge’s subsidiary and ultimate findings were not
based on speculative elements. They were based on historical facts proven by the
consistent testimony of three agents, each of whom had personal knowledge of the
facts. All of that testimony was subject to verification or impeachment through the
usual means employed at evidentiary hearings: examination, cross-examination,
and the opportunity to present other evidence. The findings the district court
dismissed were not based on speculation, much less “pure speculation.”
The magistrate judge’s finding of ultimate or inevitable discovery
incorporates an implicit subsidiary finding that if the knock and talk had taken
place one or two hours later than it did, Watkins would have reacted the same way
she actually had earlier, which would have resulted in discovery of the same
incriminating evidence. See Calixto v. Lesmes, 909 F.3d 1079, 1093 (11th Cir.
2018) (“We recognize that in the context of a bench trial we can ‘infer[ ] from
a . . . court’s explicit factual findings and conclusion [other] implied factual
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findings that are consistent with its judgment although [they are] unstated.”)
(alterations in original) (citations omitted); United States v. Robertson, 493 F.3d
1322, 1334 (11th Cir. 2007) (inferring that the trial court made implicit findings
consistent with its conclusion); United States v. $242,484.00, 389 F.3d 1149, 1154
(11th Cir. 2004) (“[W]e and other federal appellate courts have inferred from a
[trial] court’s explicit factual findings and conclusion implied factual findings that
are consistent with its judgment although unstated.”); see generally Hightower v.
Terry, 459 F.3d 1067, 1072 n.9 (11th Cir. 2006) (“[A] trial court’s dispositive
ruling may contain implicit findings, which, though unstated, are necessary to that
The district court rejected that implicit finding of the magistrate judge with
the same “purely speculative” characterization it had applied to the judge’s explicit
findings. But, like the explicit findings of the magistrate judge, this implicit one
was not speculative. It is undisputed that when the agents went to her house after
the tracking device reactivated, Watkins was anxious and nervous; she had not
been able to get in touch with her co-conspirator; she thought that he had been
arrested, leaving her all alone in the crime. The record reveals that he was not in
the country at the time, meaning that the person most likely to retrieve the
packages from her could not have done so and, as a result, they likely still would
have been in her house later that evening.
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Within moments after the agents knocked on her door, Watkins began
making incriminating statements and let the agents into her house where the
packages were. There is no reason at all to believe that an hour or two later that
night her reaction to seeing the agents would have changed: that she would not
have been anxious and nervous, that she would not have feared her co-conspirator
had been caught, or that for some other reason she would not have made the
statements she did or let the agents into the house as she did an hour or two earlier.
The magistrate judge not only found that “even without the tracker notification to
law enforcement that the package was located in Defendant’s residence, the agents
would have gone to Defendant’s home and conducted a knock and talk in this
case,” the context in which that finding appears makes it clear that the judge also
found the agents would have done it that same evening.
The district court’s rejection of the magistrate judge’s ultimate or inevitable
discovery finding as speculation may have reflected discomfort with the lack of
3 The government argued to the magistrate judge that it had “established that . . . law
enforcement would have gone to [Watkins’] house that evening to conduct a knock and talk.”
(Emphasis added.) The judge found that “law enforcement in the case at hand clearly had
reasonable suspicion to conduct a knock and talk at [Watkins’] home on the evening of August
11, 2017, even if” the tracking device had not shown them that one of the packages was in
Watkins’ house. (Emphasis added.) And given that reasonable suspicion, the magistrate judge
found, even without the tracking device notification “the agents would have gone to [Watkins’]
home and conducted a knock and talk in this case.”
There was sufficient evidence to support the finding that the knock and talk would have
been done that night. The agents who testified at the evidentiary hearing were unanimous that
they probably would have conducted a knock and talk at Watkins’ house anyway, and they were
discussing doing that when the device reactivated. And they also felt an urgency to do it before
the packages became harder to retrieve.
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certainty about what would have happened if something that happened had not
happened. But, as we have said: “Certainty is illusory in human affairs.” United
States v. Roy, 855 F.3d 1133, 1167 (11th Cir. 2017) (en banc). Which probably is
why the law seldom, if ever, requires certainty. Instead of certainty, what the law
requires in ultimate discovery determinations is only that it be more likely than not
the evidence would have been discovered without the constitutional violation.
Bourjaily, 483 U.S. at 176; Watkins, 2021 WL 3700295, at *5.
2. Evidence or Leads Already in the Possession of Law Enforcement
The district court gave another reason for its ruling that the inevitable or
ultimate discovery exception was inapplicable: under our Satterfield decision and
others, “the prosecution must demonstrate that the lawful means which made
discovery inevitable were possessed by the police and were being actively pursued
prior to the occurrence of the illegal conduct [of the police].” United States v.
Satterfield, 743 F.2d 827, 846 (11th Cir. 1984) (emphasis in original), superseded
by statute on other grounds as stated in United States v. Edwards, 728 F.3d 1286,
1292 & n.2 (11th Cir. 2013). The Satterfield decision did say that in the
circumstances of that particular case. Id. at 846. Those circumstances were that
the lawful means by which the evidence in a house would have been discovered
was a search warrant that had not been obtained until after the defendant’s rights
were violated. See id. at 846–47. We stressed the importance of that fact,
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explaining: “Because a valid search warrant nearly always can be obtained after
the search has occurred, a contrary holding would practically destroy the
requirement that a warrant for the search of a home be obtained before the search
takes place. Our constitutionally-mandated preference for substituting the
judgment of a detached and neutral magistrate for that of a searching officer would
be greatly undermined.” Id. (citation omitted).
We have since made clear Satterfield’s requirement that the alternative
means of discovery be actively underway before the constitutional violation occurs
is limited to cases where that alternative means of discovery is a search warrant.
See Johnson, 777 F.3d at 1274–75. As we have explained: “In Satterfield, we were
concerned with the efficacy of the warrant requirement. . . . Any concern about
circumnavigating warrants is misplaced here, where no one argues that [the
officer] would have applied for a search warrant.” Id. at 1276.
Johnson held that in cases where the means by which the challenged
evidence would have been discovered anyway is not a search warrant, “active
pursuit” does not require the government to “have already planned the particular
[legal] search that would obtain the evidence.” Id. at 1274. Instead, the
government must show only “that the police would have discovered the evidence
by virtue of ordinary investigations of evidence or leads already in their
possession.” Id. (quotation marks omitted) (emphasis added). That requirement,
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we noted, is enough to serve the purpose of the active pursuit requirement, which
is to “exclude evidence that was not being sought in any fashion.” Id. at 1275.
The evidence incriminating Watkins would have been discovered through
ongoing investigation and the pursuit of leads that were already in the possession
of the agents at the time the device started functioning and they monitored it. She
was their lead suspect and for good reason. See supra at pp. 22–23. They had
already looked up information about her and obtained her address. They were
discussing doing a knock and talk at her house, which would not have required a
search warrant. Not only was it their probable next step, but at the moment the
tracking device reactivated, they were actively discussing doing it. And it is not as
if the knock and talk is a novel or unfamiliar investigative technique: collectively
the agents had done hundreds of them.
IV. THE SCOPE OF THE REMAND
If the district court does not hold an evidentiary hearing itself, it is bound to
accept the fact findings of the magistrate judge, and the testimony of the law
enforcement witnesses, all of whom the magistrate judge found to be fully
credible. If accepted, those predicate findings and that testimony compel the end
finding that it is more likely than not the challenged evidence ultimately would
have been discovered, without the constitutional violation, through lawful means
and investigation of evidence or leads already in the officer’s possession. Any
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contrary finding about ultimate discovery would be clearly erroneous if the
magistrate judge’s predicate findings are used, as they must be absent a new
At the time the district court entered the suppression order, the law of this
circuit was that the prospects of ultimate discovery were to be gauged under the
reasonable probability standard. The controlling standard has changed. It is now
the preponderance of the evidence, more likely than not, standard. Under the
historical or subsidiary facts the magistrate judge found, every reasonable
factfinder would find that it was more likely than not the challenged evidence
ultimately would have been discovered without the constitutional violation. The
contrary finding would be clearly erroneous. But if the historical or subsidiary fact
findings change, the predictive fact finding may change as well.
We are remanding the case to the district court to give it an opportunity to
decide in its discretion whether to conduct a do-over evidentiary hearing or to
accept the fact findings the magistrate judge made after conducting the hearing that
he did. If the district court decides not to hold another evidentiary hearing, it
should enter an order denying the motion to suppress. If the court does decide to
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conduct another evidentiary hearing, it should make credibility decisions, enter fact
findings of its own, and rule on the motion to suppress based on those findings.
If another appeal results from the district court’s ruling on remand, the
Clerk’s Office is directed to treat that appeal as it would the return of a case from a
limited remand so that any appeal of a future suppression order will return to this
panel, given our familiarity with the record and issues. See, e.g., Ballard v.
Comm’r, 429 F.3d 1026, 1027 (11th Cir. 2005) (“This is a limited remand, and
should either party seek appellate review following this new ruling by the Tax
Court, such appeal should be assigned to this panel.”) (footnote omitted); Pettway
v. Am. Cast Iron Pipe Co., 681 F.2d 1259, 1269 (11th Cir. 1982) (“We retain
jurisdiction so that if either party is dissatisfied with the district court’s order, on
remand the matter can come back to the same panel. . . . That course will promote
efficiency and spare three other members of this Court the task of wading through”
the record.); see also United States v. Hough, 803 F.3d 1181, 1196 (11th Cir. 2015)
(“These circumstances call for a limited remand.”).
Outcome: The suppression order is REVERSED, and the matter is REMANDED to the
district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.