Weapons Seized in Airport Inspection Not Admissible in Upcoming Trial

District Judge Curtis Gomez (File photo)
District Judge Curtis Gomez (File photo)

The seizure of two firearms from mailed packages passing through an international postal facility will not be allowed to be used as evidence in an upcoming trial, according to a court order entered a few days before the scheduled start of a weapons smuggling case.

District Court Judge Curtis Gomez ruled on a motion to suppress evidence in the case of Steven Baxter. The judge rejected an assertion by U.S. Attorney Gretchen Shappert over the circumstances leading up the seizure of two handguns concealed in Priority Mail cartons.

According to court documents filed by an agent of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the weapons were detected by a security dog trained to sniff out contraband.

Two firearms – a 9 mm pistol and a .38 caliber handgun – were discovered in two separate packages, which were opened by Customs officers once alerted by the dog in March 2017. Court documents say one weapon was found disassembled and wrapped in a sweater; the other was discovered upon opening a second Priority Mail parcel.

Both were addressed to a third party at an address in Savan. The sender listed an originating address in South Carolina.

One defendant, Shalica Baxter, was apprehended a few days later after postal inspectors and CPB officers switched the real handguns for fakes in one of the seized parcels, and a third item, and carried out a controlled delivery to the Sugar Estate Post Office on St. Thomas.

A second defendant, Steven Baxter, was indicted in the case by a grand jury earlier this year. Both are charged with importing/manufacturing of firearms. A trial was scheduled to begin Monday.

But on Nov. 26, Gomez issued an opinion in response to a motion to suppress evidence filed by the defense. Attorney Michael Sheesley asked the court to disallow the discovery of the two weapons because authorities violated his client’s Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure.

The judge agreed, rejecting a claim by Customs that they had “border search authority” to seize and open the defendant’s mail without their permission and without a warrant.

“The government’s position not only seems to be contrary to well-established Constitutional law, remarkably, it is even contrary to the regulations regarding sealed mail packages,” Gomez said. “Because Priority Mail is the equivalent of a “wrapped parcel” sealed against inspection, law enforcement officers were required to obtain a warrant before opening the packages. Accordingly, their failure to obtain a warrant was unconstitutional.”

To reach that conclusion the court cited three points. One, that the U.S. Virgin Islands was part of the United States Postal Service system. Two, that as an unincorporated territory, citizens of the U.S. Virgin Islands did not enjoy full protection under the Constitution but are covered by the first 10 amendments, including the right against a warrantless seizure.

Gomez also noted that while Customs might have the right to open a package arriving in the U.S. Virgin Islands from an international address, these two were mailed from South Carolina.

Shappert has since filed a Notice of Appeal. The Baxters’ trial date has been put on hold, pending the outcome of that appeal.