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United States v. Williams

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Florence Division

May 14, 2018



          Donald C. Coggins, Jr. United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion to Suppress. ECF No. 43. The Government filed a Response. ECF No. 50. Accordingly, the Motion is ripe for consideration.


         On January 23, 2018, Defendant was indicted for numerous drug and firearm charges resulting from a traffic stop in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Defendant filed a Motion to Suppress the drugs and firearms seized during the traffic stop, and the Court held a suppression hearing on May 3, 2018.

         At the suppression hearing, the Government offered the testimony of Officer Ed Gordon, a patrol officer with the Horry County Police Department with more than twenty-years of experience and extensive experience in drug investigations; Officer Gordon testified as follows. On the evening of Defendant's arrest, November 29, 2016, Officer Gordon was conducting surveillance of the Sea Mist Resort. On prior occasions, officers had observed street level drug deals at the Sea Mist Resort, which led to Officer Gordon's surveillance on the evening of Defendant's arrest. Officer Gordon positioned himself across the street from the Sea Mist Resort and observed what appeared to be hand-to-hand drug transactions. Specifically, Officer Gordon observed runners standing outside of a hotel room. These runners appeared to deliver drugs to pedestrians and individuals in vehicles who approached the Sea Mist Resort. When Officer Gordon observed an alleged hand-to-hand drug transaction with an individual in a vehicle, he called out the identity of the vehicle to narcotics officers nearby in unmarked vehicles. Officers in the unmarked vehicles would follow the subjects until they committed a traffic violation, and then a marked unit would pull the subjects over.

         After witnessing a number of these apparent hand-to-hand drug transactions, Officer Gordon observed Defendant appearing to emerge from the area of the room where the runners were standing and watched Defendant interact with the runners. Additionally, Officer Gordon stated Defendant spoke with another man, but they walked out of Officer Gordon's line of sight. The other man got into a red Cadillac while Defendant got into a white Audi; then, both men left the Sea Mist Resort. Officer Gordon called out the identity of both vehicles and they were stopped by law enforcement.[1] Officer Gordon testified that his familiarity with drug dealing in the Horry County area, combined with Defendant's actions, gave rise to a reasonable suspicion that Defendant was engaged in criminal activity.

         On cross-examination, Officer Gordon admitted that he prepared no report on the evening of the arrest. Officer Gordon also admitted that simply being in the proximity of drug transactions does not mean a person is involved in drug dealing. Defendant introduced evidence that Defendant was a registered guest at the Sea Mist Resort on the evening of his arrest. Accordingly, Defendant had a valid reason for being at the Sea Mist Resort; however, this information was not known by law enforcement on the evening of Defendant's arrest. Nevertheless, Officer Gordon testified that his opinion would not have changed even had he known Defendant was a registered guest.

         The Government offered Corporal Justin Miller as its second witness. Corporal Miller conducted the traffic stop on the evening of the arrest and has been employed by the Horry County Police Department for fourteen years. Corporal Miller was assigned to the Street Crimes Unit on the evening of Defendant's arrest. Corporal Miller testified that Officer Gordon called out two vehicles-Defendant's Audi and a red Cadillac. An unmarked vehicle driven by another officer observed Defendant commit a traffic violation, and Corporal Miller then stopped Defendant's vehicle. Corporal Miller testified that he believed he had reasonable suspicion to detain Defendant based on his knowledge of why Officer Gordon was at the Sea Mist Resort and based on Officer Gordon calling out Defendant's vehicle.

         Corporal Miller stopped Defendant and asked him for his license, registration, and proof of insurance. Corporal Miller relayed this information to dispatch, and while he was waiting for a response, asked Defendant to step out of the vehicle for questioning. Defendant explained that he was staying at the Sea Mist Resort while in Myrtle Beach doing hurricane relief work. Corporal Miller asked the Defendant for consent to search his vehicle, and Defendant declined. Corporal Miller then returned to his patrol car and radioed that he needed a drug dog at the scene because he could not get into Defendant's vehicle. While waiting on the canine, Corporal Miller started to write Defendant a ticket. He finished writing the ticket and running Defendant's information through dispatch before the canine officer arrived at the scene.

         When the canine officer arrived, she walked her dog around the vehicle. It is not entirely clear from the video's angle, but it appears that the dog alerted on the driver's side of Defendant's vehicle. Officers searched Defendant's vehicle and found a variety of drugs and firearms, which resulted in Defendant's arrest.


         Fourth Amendment and Traffic Stops

         “The Fourth Amendment provides in relevant part that ‘[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.'” United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400, 404 (2012) (quoting U.S. Const. amend. IV). “Time and again, [the Supreme] Court has observed that searches and seizures conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment-subject only to a few specifically established and well delineated exceptions.” Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366, 372 (internal quotation marks omitted). “The exclusionary rule ‘generally prohibits the introduction at criminal trial of evidence obtained in violation of a defendant's Fourth Amendment rights.” United States v. Stephens, 764 F.3d 327, 335 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting Penn. Bd. of Prob. & Parole v. Scott, 524 U.S. 357, 359 (1998)). The purpose of the exclusionary rule “is to deter future Fourth Amendment violations.” Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229, 236- 37 (2011).

         “Temporary detention of individuals during the stop of an automobile by the police, even if only for a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a ‘seizure' of ‘persons' within the meaning of [the Fourth Amendment].” Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10 (1996) (citations omitted). “An automobile stop is thus subject to the constitutional imperative that it not be ‘unreasonable' under the circumstances.” Id. at 810. “As a general matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe a traffic violation has occurred.” Id. (citations omitted). Thus, “[o]bserving a traffic violation provides sufficient justification for a police officer to detain the offending vehicle for as long as it takes to perform the traditional incidents of a routine traffic stop.” United States v. Branch, 537 F.3d 328, 335 (4th Cir. 2008).

         “[O]nce a motor vehicle has been lawfully detained for a traffic violation, the police officers may order the driver to get out of the vehicle without violating the Fourth Amendment's proscription of unreasonable searches and seizures.” Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 111 n.6 (1977). Officers may then conduct unrelated investigations by questioning the driver or passengers. Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609, 1615 (2015) (“An officer, in other words, may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop.”). A traffic stop “can become unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete [the] mission” of performing the necessary checks on the driver and issuing a warning or ticket. Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 406 (2005); see also Branch, 537 F.3d at 335 (“[P]ursuant to such a stop, a police officer may ‘request a driver's license and vehicle registration, run a computer check, and issue a citation.'” (quoting United States v. Foreman, 369 F.3d 776, 781 (4th Cir. 2004)).

         The goal of pretextual traffic stops is simple. It is to find a constitutionally permissible way to search the vehicle. While the Supreme Court has held that officers do not need a warrant to search a vehicle for contraband, they must have probable cause that the vehicle contains contraband. See California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 390 (1985) (recognizing the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement); see also Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940 (1996) (“If a car is readily mobile and probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband, the Fourth Amendment thus permits police to search the vehicle without more.” (citing Carney, 471 U.S. at 393)). Often during traffic stops, law enforcement will observe contraband in plain view the vehicle, which provides probable cause for a search. United States v. Green, 599 F.3d 360, 376 (4th Cir. 2010). Other times, the driver may consent to a search of the vehicle. Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973).

         When neither of these situations applies, there are still means by which law enforcement can develop probable cause. For example, “[a] canine sniff is . . . constitutionally acceptable if performed within ‘the time reasonably required' to issue a traffic citation.” Branch, 537 F.3d at 335 (quoting Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005)). “This is because a dog sniff is not a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and it therefore requires no additional justification.” Id. at 335-36 (citations omitted). The timing of the canine sniff, however, is critical when evaluating the propriety of a search during a traffic stop. This issue was most recently addressed by the Supreme Court in Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609 (2015).

         In Rodriguez, the Supreme Court “granted certiorari to resolve a division among lower courts on the question whether police routinely may extend an otherwise-completed traffic stop, absent reasonable suspicion, in order to conduct a dog sniff.” 135 S.Ct. at 1614. The Court first outlined the “mission” of a traffic stop-”to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop and to attend to related safety concerns.” Id. (internal citations omitted). “Beyond determining whether to issue a traffic ticket, an officer's mission includes ‘ordinary inquiries incident to [the traffic] stop.'” Id. at 1615 (quoting Caballes, 543 U.S. at 408). “Typically such inquiries involve checking the driver's license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile's registration and proof of insurance.” Id. (citations omitted). The Court noted “[a] dog sniff, by contrast, is a measure aimed at ‘detect[ing] evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.'” Id. (quoting Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 40-41 (2000). The Court thus determined that “a dog sniff is not fairly characterized as part of the officer's traffic mission.” Id. Because of this, the Court held that law enforcement may not extend an otherwise-completed traffic stop to conduct a dog sniff absent reasonable suspicion. Id. at 1616-17 (remanding the case to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals for a determination of whether officers had reasonable suspicion to detain Mr. Rodriguez beyond completion of the traffic infraction investigation).

         Reasonable Suspicion

         “The concept of reasonable suspicion, like probable cause, is not ‘readily, or even usefully, reduced to a neat set of legal rules.'” United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7 (1989) (quoting Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 232 (1983)). Courts have struggled to neatly define the concept of reasonable suspicion, “[b]ut the essence of all that has been written is that the totality of the circumstances-the whole picture-must be taken into account.” United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417 (1981). “Based upon that whole picture the detaining officers must have a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.” Id. at 417-18 (citations omitted). “[T]he evidence thus collected must be seen and weighed not in terms of library analysis by scholars, but as understood by those versed in the field of law enforcement.” Id. at 418; see also United States v. Lender, 985 F.2d 151, 154 (4th Cir. 1993) (“Reasonable suspicion is a commonsensical proposition. Courts are not remiss in crediting the practical experience of officers who observe on a daily basis what transpires on the street.”). Indeed, “[r]easonable suspicion is a commonsense, nontechnical standard that deal[s] with the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men, not legal technicians, act.” United States v. Bowman, 884 F.3d 200, 213 (4th Cir. 2018) (internal quotations and citations omitted). “[I]n determining whether the officer acted reasonably in such circumstances, due weight must be given, not to his inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or ‘hunch, ' but to the specific reasonable inferences which he is entitled to draw from the facts in light of his experience.” Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 27 (1968) (citation omitted).

         Fourth Circuit Jurisprudence

         In recent years, the Fourth Circuit has addressed the issue of reasonable suspicion in the context of traffic stops in several opinions. A brief overview of several of these opinions follows.

         United States v. Foreman (2003)

         In United States v. Foreman, 369 F.3d 776 (4th Cir. 2003), the defendant was stopped early one morning by a Virginia State Police Trooper who was working a narcotics interdiction assignment on the highway. The Trooper observed the defendant in a “tense posture” driving a vehicle while “holding the steering wheel with both hands and staring straight ahead as he passed [the Trooper] on Route 13.” Id. at 778. The Trooper observed two traffic violations-(1) driving at an excessive speed and (2) obstruction of the defendant's view by several air fresheners-and pulled the defendant over. Id. When the Trooper approached the vehicle, he observed the defendant's “pulse beating through his shirt, his hands visibly shaking, and the carotid artery on his neck throbbing more noticeably than the ‘thousands of people' that [the Trooper] had stopped in the past. Id. Additionally, the Trooper observed a “fold of currency” in the center console but saw no luggage in the vehicle. Id. at 778-79.

         The Trooper checked the defendant's driver's license and had the defendant sit in the passenger's seat of the Trooper's vehicle. Id. at 779. While the Trooper waited for the license check to come back, another officer arrived with a drug dog and the Trooper began to question the defendant about his trip. Id. The defendant responded that he was returning from a one-day trip to New York City where he helped his brother, who had recently been evicted from his home. Id. The Trooper spoke to the defendant about the problem of gun and drug smuggling on the highway and “observed that [the defendant's] breathing became heavier and the pulsating of his carotid artery became more obvious.” Id.

         The defendant's license check came back clean, and the Trooper gave him a verbal warning. Id. The Trooper and the defendant exchanged a sweaty handshake and, though the defendant was free to leave, the Trooper asked the defendant if he could ask a few more questions, and the defendant agreed. Id. However, the defendant declined the Trooper's request for consent to search the vehicle. Id. The Trooper then had his colleague walk the drug dog around the vehicle, and the dog alerted to the exterior of the vehicle. Id. at 780. Officers searched the vehicle, found $800 in cash, one kilogram of cocaine, and 10.5 grams of cocaine base, and the defendant was arrested. Id.

         The defendant was indicted and moved to suppress the evidence obtained during the search of his vehicle. Id. at 780-82. The district court found that the initial stop ended once the Trooper and the defendant shook hands and held that the Trooper seized the defendant for a second time when the dog sniff was conducted. Id. at 782. Because of this, the district court held that the Trooper “was not entitled to rely on any factors tending to show reasonable suspicion that occurred prior to the termination of the ...

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