Otter House Owners Try to Suppress Evidence in Raid
An apparent error in the search warrant affidavit could hurt the prosecution of the two co-owners on misdemeanor charges of keeping a public nuisance.
The owners of the Otter House are trying to suppress evidence found during the July 27 raid of the business stating that the police department did not show probable cause for the early-morning search.
According to the suppression motion filed Wednesday in General District Court by attorney Andrew Cornick, the chief basis for the argument is that the search warrant affidavit contains an error in which Fredericksburg Detective Jason Pitts states that 2.27 ounces of marijuana were found in the business on Dec. 28, 2011, when the alleged discovery reportedly happened in a private residence inhabited by one of the co-owners and his brother. That error easily could have misled the magistrate into approving the search warrant.
Cornick's motion details how police conducted the raid just before closing, some wearing masks to disguise their identities and carrying assault rifles with extra magazines. They "herded," at gunpoint, the band, patrons and employees into a corner of the upstairs bar while they conducted the search.
"In the ensuing search of the entire building, the officers recovered two pills believed to be a Schedule I or II substance (in plain view near where all the detained persons were huddled) and a smoking device believed to contain marijuana," the motion states. "Outside the building but in an adjacent alley the officers recovered a second smoking device and a small amount of suspected marijuana."
The motion, which is attached to this story in a PDF, was filed for the case against Otter House co-owner Stephen Andrew Cameli, who was charged with maintaining a public nuisance. Co-owner Paul Stoddard also was charged with the misdemeanor.
The motion attempts to dispel each allegation in the search warrant affidavit, which is also attached to this story in a PDF, with arguments that the detective did not present enough probable cause to the magistrate or make a strong enough connection with the Otter House to the other separate events detectives allegedly witnessed during the seven-month-long investigation.
Fredericksburg Detective Jason Pitts requested a search of the Otter house at 1005 Princess Anne St. and the adjacent 1009 Princess Anne St. (two apartments) that is not owned or rented by the Otter House owners. The motion argues that the detective used the prior Dec. 28, 2011, arrest of Cameli and his brother, Joshua, on possession of 2.27 ounces of marijuana as the basis for asserting that there would be contraband in the Otter House. But the affidavit in error states that the marijuana was found in the Otter House, when it was allegedly found in the Camelis' residence on Littlepage Street.
"Whether or not this misstatement was intentional, a plain reading of this paragraph leads the reader to believe that 2.27 ounces of marijuana was recovered from the Otter House, which is patently untrue," the suppression motion states.
"At the very least, Detective Pitts' statement implying marijuana was seized from the Otter House in December was sloppy and it certainly resulted in a misstatement of material fact in the affidavit."
The suppression motion states that Cameli was charged with simple possession of marijuana after that December search and he was eventually convicted of possession of paraphernalia in his residence, but that the search warrant for Otter House was to seek evidence on drug distribution.
The suppression motion also argues that the affidavit cites an incident on April 18 when an officer reported observing Michael Acors urinating on a trash can in the alley by Otter House. The officer allegedly found marijuana on Acors, but the detective fails to make any reasonable connection to the Otter House, the motion states.
"The magistrate is left to wonder what connection, if any, Michael Acors has to the Otter House other than having chosen it as a good place to urinate," the motion states. "Detective Pitts did not describe the amount of marijuana seized from the unfortunate Mr. Acors, and whether or not, based on his training and experience, that amount is consistent or inconsistent with personal use."
The motion goes on to mention how the detective used an "unreasonable leap of logic" and a "vague layer of intrigue" to infer other allegations in the affidavit in an attempt to paint the Otter House "as a den of iniquity, with a paucity of usable information in the determination of probable cause to search the Otter House." The motion also argues that the detective fails to make a strong connection between the two apartments at 1009 Princess Anne St., where police suspected drug dealing, and Otter House, yet the detective makes numerous attempts at tying the two together throughout the search warrant affidavit.
"Simply put the Affidavit failed to provide a 'nexus' linking the information detailed therein, be it from informants, observations by the officers or from any other source, to the Otter House," the suppression motion states. "The bulk of Detective Pitts' affidavit focuses on 1009 Princess Anne Street, a location it bears repeating is separate and apart from the Otter House."
Cornick concludes in the motion that people are free from unreasonable searches and seizures in the Unites States and that the detective used incorrect information "mixed with irrelevant and needlessly scandalous information" to get the search warrant approved.
"Members of the public, including the defendant and the staff of the Otter House, were ambushed like so many members of a drug cartel, all based on the flimsiest of ties to Detective Pitts' investigation," the suppression motion states.
The co-owners next court appearance is scheduled for Oct. 18.