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United States v. Austin

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

June 22, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
CHRISTOPHER AUSTIN, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DAVID C. NORTON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the court on a motion to suppress and a motion to dismiss count 2 of the indictment filed by defendant Christopher Austin (“Austin”). For the reasons set forth below, the court grants in part and denies in part the motion to suppress, and denies the motion to dismiss.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On the morning of September 8, 2016, Austin was in a truck parked in a field in Dorchester County, South Carolina. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”) Officer Adam Bedard (“Bedard”) was on patrol when he saw a truck parked in the middle of a peanut field at 1:15 PM. In his experience as a DNR officer, Bedard frequently utilized the “open fields” doctrine to check on trucks parked in open fields to determine if hunters had hunting permits. In Bedard's experience, people would park their truck in an open field and then go back into the forest to continue hunting.

         Bedard approached the truck, and when he was approximately ten feet behind the tailpipe of the truck could see a rifle pointing out of the driver's side window almost parallel to the ground. Bedard approached the vehicle and observed Austin in the driver's seat looking at pornography on a tablet and masturbating. Bedard asked Austin what he was doing, to which Austin replied “hunting.” Bedard then asked to see Austin's hunting license, to which Austin replied that he did not have a hunting license. Bedard then asked Austin for his driver's license and registration, to which Austin replied that he had neither a license nor registration. While Bedard was asking Austin these questions, Bedard observed a shotgun on the passenger seat, and walked over to clear the loaded shotgun of ammunition. Bedard then asked Austin for his full name and date of birth to run through the system, at which point he also asked Austin to step out of his car. Austin gave a false name to Bedard. Bedard again asked Austin to get out of the truck as he ran the truck's license plate. Bedard ran the license plate to determine whether the truck was stolen, and the radio transmission in his car asked Bedard to call headquarters in Columbia. Upon hearing this, Austin began to run away into a nearby peanut field.

         Bedard pursued Austin and handcuffed him. After handcuffing him, Bedard walked Austin back to his truck and asked him a series of questions, including asking Austin why he ran, to which Austin responded “I've got warrants out for arrests” and “I have meth on me.” Austin also periodically said “I can't breathe, I can't breathe.” Bedard then asked Austin if he had used meth that day, to which Austin said “yes.” Bedard then asked a follow-up question of how long before the encounter Austin had used meth, and Austin replied “10 minutes.”

         Bedard called Emergency Medical Services (“EMS”) because Austin was short of breath. After EMS arrived, the EMS workers and Bedard searched Austin. On Austin's person, Bedard found four needles, $151.74 in currency, and two baggies with 2.3 grams and 0.48 grams of meth respectively. Austin was then taken to the hospital by EMS. Bedard ran Austin's real name through the system and received information about all of the pending warrants for Austin's arrest. After running the license plates on Austin's truck, Bedard saw that the plates were registered to the original owner of the truck. Bedard called the Dorchester County Sheriff's Department, and shortly thereafter a Dorchester County deputy arrived on the scene and informed Bedard that the truck was stolen and that he had contacted the truck's owner who was coming to get the truck. The truck's owner arrived on the scene and told Bedard that the truck had been stolen for “a long time, ” and that none of the items in the truck were his and stated “You can do what you want to do” with the items in the truck.

         When a vehicle is identified as stolen or the owner informs officers that the vehicle is stolen, DNR practice is to inventory the truck and then return the items as personal property after the interaction. It was only after the owner gave consent to search the truck that Bedard opened the doors of the truck, at which point he began to inventory the truck and began to take pictures of the items in the truck. In the truck, Bedard observed: assorted tools; one Tom-Tom nagivation device; two iPads; many different speakers, amps, and subwoofers; and a laptop bag in the back passenger seat containing lighter fluid, instant cold packs, coffee filters, rock salt, CVS pseudoephedrine blister packs, lithium batteries, rubbing alcohol, a bottle of muriatic acid, as well as hypodermic needles and digital scales as well as 18.75 grams of ephedrine. Bedard also seized a Remington .308 rifle on the passenger seat of the truck, a Remington 12 gauge shotgun on the passenger seat of the truck, and a High Standard .22 LR pistol under the seat on the driver's side floor. All of the firearms were loaded. Bedard also found bags of ammunition including ammunition for the pistol in the truck. Bedard called the Dorchester County Narcotics Department to inform the department that the laptop contained meth paraphernalia, and a narcotics officer took the laptop bag and the meth found in Austin's pockets. After Bedard inventoried all of the items in the truck, he returned the items to Austin's mother, who confirmed that the items were Austin's personal items and signed off on the items. The truck's actual owner then took possession of the truck and drove it home.

         Austin was charged with one count of possessing pseudoephedrine with intent to manufacture methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(c)(1). In count two, Austin is charged with using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1). In count three, Austin was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) for possessing a Remington .308 caliber rifle and ammunition, a Remington 12 gauge shotgun and ammunition, and a High Standard .22 caliber pistol and ammunition.

         On March 20, 2018, Austin filed this motion to suppress. The government responded on April 5, 2018. On March 19, 2018, Austin filed a motion to dismiss. The court held a hearing on June 12, 2018, and instructed the government to file a response to Austin's motion to dismiss. The government complied on June 22, 2018. The motions have been fully briefed and are now ripe for the court's review.

         II. DISCUSSION

         The questions before the court are discrete: (1) should certain statements made by Austin be suppressed because they violate the rights established by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, (1966); (2) should the warrantless search of the truck by upheld; and (3) should count two of the indictment, which charges Austin with use of a firearm in commission of drug trafficking, be dismissed? The court addresses each in turn.

         A. Motion to Suppress

         Austin asks the court to suppress the drugs, guns, and ammunition found in the search of the truck after his arrest. He also asks the court to suppress certain statements that he made directly before and after his arrest. The court finds that Austin has no standing to challenge the physical evidence that was found when Bedard conducted a search of the stolen truck, but grants the motion as it relates to statements Austin made after being handcuffed by Bedard.

         1. Warrantless Search of Truck

         Austin contends that the officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they searched his car without a warrant. What Austin does not mention is that he was in a stolen truck at the time of the search. As the Supreme Court recently reiterated in Byrd v. United States, 138 S.Ct. 1518, 1529 (2018), “a person present in a stolen automobile at the time of the search may [not] object to the lawfulness of the search of the automobile, ” and “[n]o matter the degree of possession and control, the car thief would not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a stolen car.” Id. at 1529 (internal citations and quotations ...


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