United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division
ORDER AND OPINION
Margaret B. Seymour Senior United States District Judge.
Gillians (“Defendant”) is the sole individual
named in a one-count Indictment filed on March 13, 2018. ECF
No.1. Count One charges Defendant with knowingly possessing a
firearm and ammunition after committing a crime punishable by
imprisonment exceeding one year, in violation of 18 U.S.C.
§§ 922(g)(1), 924(a)(2), and 924(e). Id.
The discovery of the firearm that serves as the basis for the
Indictment stems from a traffic stop and subsequent search of
a vehicle in which Defendant was traveling.
September 28, 2018, Defendant filed a motion to suppress
“the fruits of the stop, search, and seizure which
resulted in the indictment in this case.” ECF No. 47 at 1.
In his motion, Defendant argues that the underlying traffic
stop in this case was invalid, as no traffic violation
occurred, and as such, there was no reason to stop the
vehicle in which Defendant was traveling. Id. at 3.
Thus, Defendant asserts that because the officer in this
matter had no reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop
Defendant, the firearm in question should never have been
government filed a response on October 15, 2018. ECF No. 50.
In response, the government contends that: 1) there was a
traffic violation and the stop was justified; 2) even if the
officer was mistaken about the violation, suppression is not
the appropriate remedy; 3) the pat-down of Defendant was
warranted based on the presence of drugs and the
officers' prior knowledge of Defendant's criminal
history; and 4) the officers had probable cause to search the
vehicle based on a strong odor of marijuana emanating from
it. Id. at 1.
court held an evidentiary hearing on October 25, 2018.
Officer Tommy Plyler (“Officer Plyler”), the
officer who pulled over the vehicle in which Defendant was
traveling, and the driver of the vehicle, M.W., a minor,
Officer Plyler's testimony
Plyler testified that on January 5, 2018, he was on patrol at
the intersection of Chuck Dawley Boulevard and Bowman Road in
Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Trial Tr. 10, 5. Officer
Plyler further testified that he was on patrol in response to
a slew of break-ins occurring in that area. Id. at.
15-23. At approximately 5:20 PM, Officer Plyler observed a
Dodge Avenger driving towards him. Id. at 15.
Officer Plyler testified that he was not able to see who was
driving the Dodge. Trial Tr. 22, 12-15. Officer Plyler pulled
behind the Dodge to run its license plate to see if the plate
was suspended or stolen. Trial Tr. 16, 23-25. At the time
that Officer Plyler approached the Dodge in his cruiser, the
Dodge “made an abrupt right turn” into a business
park. Trial Tr. 17, 1-3. Officer Plyler therefore did not
have the opportunity to immediately run the license plate.
Id. at 24-25. Officer Plyler testified that because
of a recent ice storm in the area, the business park was
closed. Trial Tr. 18, 17-21. Officer Plyler also noted that
many of the businesses in the park were for sale, so the park
was typically empty. Id. at 21-24. Officer Plyler
testified that at that point, his “reasonable suspicion
grew” because there was “no reason for that car
to be going into [that] parking lot.” Id. at
24-25; Trial Tr. 19, 1-2. Officer Plyler elaborated that he
had witnessed people “avoid [his] police car in the
past” and that he had a “gut feeling” the
Dodge was trying to avoid him in this instance. Trial Tr. 21,
4-7. After the Dodge turned into the business park, Officer
Plyler continued driving, and turned around to wait for the
car to exit the business park. Id. at 18. The Dodge
exited the business park after ten to fifteen seconds.
Id. at 21-22. Officer Plyler followed the vehicle,
and observed it 1) fail to utilize its turn signal to move
from the travel lane to the median and 2) fail to signal for
100 feet prior to turning into a gas station. Trial Tr. 23,
13-20. The officer commenced a traffic stop at the gas
station, citing the 100 foot lane change violation as the
reason for the stop. Trial Tr. 24, 16-17. Officer Plyler
testified that he committed to the traffic stop “when
[he] observed the violations.” Trial Tr. 33, 19-20.
testified that she was she was driving to the Blue Water gas
station in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Trial Tr. 85, 11.
M.W. stated that the purpose for her visit to the gas station
was to “get some Sprite for [Defendant's] little
sister.” Id. at 13. M.W. was driving, and had
3 other people in her car - including Defendant. Id.
at 9. M.W. noticed Officer Plyler's cruiser while she was
stopped at a traffic light. Trial Tr. 86, 6-7. M.W. testified
that she was in the left lane, and in order to turn into the
gas station, she needed to be in the right lane. Trial Tr.
87, 23-25. M.W. stated that she was not able to enter the
right lane in time to turn into the gas station. Trial Tr.
88, 1-4. M.W. therefore had to turn into the business plaza
in order to turn around and then enter the gas station.
Id. at 4-5. M.W. specifically testified that she did
not attempt to avoid Officer Plyler. Trial Tr. 89, 1-2. After
entering the parking lot of the business plaza, M.W.
immediately exited the parking lot, stating that she used her
turn signal. Id. at 12-17. Specifically, M.W. stated
that she used her signal to enter the median, and then again
to turn into the gas station. Id. M.W. testified
that she used her signal for “at least 100 feet”
before entering the gas station, but could not remember
exactly. Trial Tr. 90, 14-15.
Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects
the “right of the people to be secure in their persons,
houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches
and seizures.” U.S. Const. Amend. IV. The Constitution
also guarantees that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon
probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and
particularly describing the place to be searched, and the
persons or things to be seized.” Id. It is
therefore imperative that warrantless searches and subsequent
seizures are evaluated through the most critical of lenses.
It follows that it is the government's burden to prove by
a preponderance of the evidence that a warrantless search was
nonetheless valid. See generally United States v.
Matlock, 415 U.S. 164 (1974); see also Lego v.
Twomey, 404 U.S. 477, 489 (1972).
“may effectuate a traffic stop based on probable cause
or reasonable suspicion of a violation of the law.”
United States v. Mobley, C/A No. 3:14cr122, 2014
WL6791425 at *4 (E.D. Va. Nov. 25, 2014)(quoting United
States v. Williams,740 F.3d 308, 312 (4th Cir. 2014)).
Traffic stops must not be pretextual; that is, law
enforcement officers cannot go on fishing expeditions in
order to uncover suspected illegal activity in automobiles.
Whren v. United States,517 U.S. 806, 819
(1996)(“Here the District Court found that the officers
had probable cause to believe that petitioners had violated
the traffic code. That rendered the stop reasonable under the
Fourth Amendment. . . .”). The Court of Appeals for the
Fourth Circuit detailed its own standard for traffic stops in
United States v. Hassan El,5 F.3d 726 (4th Cir.
1993). There, the court found that an objective test applies.
Id. at 730. Specifically, the court held that
“if an officer has probable cause or a reasonable
suspicion to stop a vehicle, there is no intrusion upon the