In 2017, United States Postal Service (“USPS”) letter carrier Jasia Girard was delivering mail in Lafayette, Louisiana. As she was picking up a package for delivery to 109 Hogan Drive, her thumb slipped through a preexisting hole. After feeling a plastic bag containing little balls she thought to be marijuana, Girard removed her thumb and decided she would not deliver the package because she did not feel comfortable leaving it “with all those kids around there.”
She then looked through the hole and observed what appeared to be aluminum pans with a little Ziploc bag. At this point, Girard lifted a previously torn flap of the package to better assess what was inside and saw hard white rocks. Upon researching hard white rock substance on the internet with her phone, she determined that these rocks were probably methamphetamine.
According to Girard, she was freaked out and felt morally obligated not to deliver the package on account of the children in the area as well as her experience with a relative’s methamphetamine addiction. Instead of leaving it with her supervisor or contacting the Postal Inspection Service—USPS’s law enforcement arm—Girard brought this package and two others addressed to 109 Hogan Drive to the property manager, Billie Love. She informed Love that she believed the packages contained methamphetamine and suggested that Love may want to call the police.
Girard then left but was later contacted by Special Agent Douglas Herman of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to whom she relayed what had happened. As a letter carrier, she received no law enforcement training, and aside from the instant incident, she had never interacted with law enforcement during her employment with USPS.
Lafayette police officer Brandon Lemelle responded to Love’s call and met with her at the property manager’s office. Love relayed to Lemelle what Girard had told her about the discovery of the suspected methamphetamine. Lemelle also spoke with Herman, who arrived five to ten minutes after him and informed Lemelle that 109 Hogan Drive was a suspected methamphetamine stash house.
A K-9 officer sniffed the three packages and “hit,” leading Lemelle to believe that they contained narcotics and that he had probable cause for a search warrant that a state judge approved. Execution of the search warrant uncovered a combined eighteen pounds of methamphetamine. In an interview with officers, the owner of the residence stated that Alfonzo Johnlouis had informed her the packages would arrive at her address.
Johnlouis was indicted for (1) conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, and (2) attempted possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. He subsequently filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the narcotics evidence had been seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment following an illegal search of a parcel by a USPS letter carrier.
Adopting the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation, the district court denied Johnlouis’s motion. It determined that despite her position as a USPS letter carrier, Girard did not carry out law enforcement action within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment; as such, it did not apply to her inspection of the package and the contents were not subject to suppression. In the alternative, the district court held that even if Girard did carry out law enforcement action within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, such action did not rise to the level of misconduct warranting application of the exclusionary rule.
Next, it determined that Lemelle’s subsequent search of the package pursuant to a warrant was done in good faith and that the contents would have inevitably been discovered. Finally, the district court reasoned that Herman’s statement to Lemelle that 109 Hogan Drive was a suspected stash house provided independent probable cause for the search of the package after the K-9 officer hit on it.
Johnlouis ultimately pled guilty to the conspiracy count, and the attempt count was dismissed pursuant to the terms of his plea agreement. The district court sentenced him within the guidelines range to 120 months of imprisonment, followed by five years of supervised release. Johnlouis reserved his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. The 5th affirmed.
Federal courts have consistently construed the Fourth Amendment as proscribing only governmental action; it is wholly inapplicable to a search or seizure, even an unreasonable one, effected by a private individual not acting as an agent of the government or with the participation or knowledge of any governmental official. The arrival of police on the scene to confirm the presence of contraband and to determine what to do with it does not convert a private search into a government search subject to the Fourth Amendment.
Notably, this court’s precedents assessing the constitutionality of searches by USPS employees have involved searches by members of the Postal Inspection Service, not letter carriers. We are not aware of any case finding that suppression is justified based upon the acts of a letter carrier without any intervening act by a postal inspector or other law enforcement officer.
However, there are several cases that suggest being a government employee does not make one a government actor for Fourth Amendment purposes. Each requires something more—namely, a connection to law enforcement.
Consider Ferguson v. City of Charleston, 532 U.S. 67 (2001). In this case, public hospital staff conducted urine tests of obstetrics patients who were subsequently arrested after testing positive for cocaine and who brought successful Fourth Amendment claims. The Supreme Court concluded that the members of the state hospital staff were government actors, subject to the strictures of the Fourth Amendment. However, in doing so, the Court repeatedly emphasized that these staff members were carrying out the tests for law enforcement purposes, that it was law enforcement officials who helped develop and enforce the policy, and that there was extensive involvement of law enforcement officials at every stage.
Crucially, Girard’s role as a letter carrier did not involve law enforcement duties, she received no law enforcement training, and she never interacted with law enforcement during her employment with USPS outside of this incident.
Of course, courts have never limited the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures to operations conducted by the police. See New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985). We have held the Fourth Amendment applicable to the activities of civil as well as criminal authorities, including building inspectors, firefighters, teachers, healthcare workers, and, yes, even USPS employees.
But the building inspectors, firefighters, teachers, healthcare workers, and USPS employees that courts have identified as government actors to whom the Fourth Amendment applies were all carrying out law enforcement functions. The same cannot be said of Girard. Surely her inspection of the package addressed to 109 Hogan Drive does not resemble the arbitrary invasions by government officials that the Fourth Amendment was ratified to protect against.
It was not even motivated by a desire to investigate a legal violation. The record reflects that Girard’s thumb slipped through a hole in a package, and that she inspected this package after feeling its contents because of her concern for children and her experience with a relative. She was not inspecting the package to enforce law. We therefore hold that the Fourth Amendment does not per se apply to Girard.
As such, we offer a narrow holding tailored to the peculiar facts of this case and the particular activities of individual government actors. Here, despite working for an agency that employs inspectors who undertake law enforcement activities, Girard is not one of them. Notwithstanding that she works for the government, she is not a government actor to whom the Fourth Amendment applies.
Ordinarily, this resolution would not dispose of Johnlouis’s Fourth Amendment claim because he could argue that Girard was a private person acting in the capacity of a government agent by searching the package with the knowledge of, or in order to assist, law enforcement.
Where a search is conducted by someone other than an agent of the government, this court has held that it still violates the Fourth Amendment if (1) the government knew of and acquiesced in the intrusive conduct and (2) the party performing the search intended to assist law enforcement efforts or to further his own ends.
But Johnlouis explicitly disclaims any such alternative argument, calling the district court’s characterization of the inspection as a private citizen search “legal error.” He maintains that “the letter carrier is a government employee/actor” who “cannot search a Priority Mail, First Class Mail (sealed mail), without a search warrant” even though “none of her job duties entail law enforcement duties.” Johnlouis has thus abandoned any argument that the Fourth Amendment applies to Girard outside of his contention that her employment by USPS per se renders her subject to the Fourth Amendment.
Accordingly, because the Fourth Amendment does not per se apply to Girard, the district court correctly concluded that she did not perform an unconstitutional warrantless search of a package that could justify the suppression of evidence. We therefore do not reach Johnlouis’s arguments with respect to the exclusionary rule, the good faith exception, and the inevitable discovery and fruit of the poisonous tree doctrines.
For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the district court is AFFIRMED.