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United States v. Seabrooks

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

April 30, 2018



          Max D. Cogburn United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on defendant's Motion to Suppress. On June 11, 2017, defendant, a passenger in a car that was parked in the middle of a public road with both the driver and defendant passed out or asleep, was arrested after a firearm was found in the front passenger area of the car. In moving to suppress, defendant contends that the seizure and search of his person violated the Fourth Amendment because officers lacked an objectively reasonable suspicion of criminal activity on his part, and because the search of his pockets was not limited to a search for weapons and took place before any formal arrest. In addition, defendant moves to suppress statements attributed to him as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” An evidentiary hearing was conducted on April 30, 2018.


         I. The “Stop”

         Chad Paxton, an Officer with Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, testified that at around 5:15 a.m. to 5:20 a.m., while in his patrol vehicle on the way to work, he saw a silver Mercedes Benz stopped on a public road with two wheels across the double yellow line, just before a train crossing on Old Dowd Road. Officer Paxton approached the driver's side of the vehicle. There he observed the driver and the passenger, later identified as the defendant, either passed out or asleep. Rather than wake the occupants at that time, Officer Paxton called for backup for officer safety. Once backup arrived, Officer Paxton and Officer Mintz approached the vehicle and woke up the occupants.

         When Officer Paxton began making attempts to awaken the driver, the driver, later identified as “R.W.” appeared confused and had glassy, red eyes. Paxton observed that the driver had the smell of alcohol about his person. While Paxton did that, Officer Mintz scanned the passenger side of the vehicle and observed a black semi-automatic pistol on the seat next to the defendant. The pistol was under his right thigh, pointed toward the front of the vehicle, with the grip pointed towards the door. Mintz notified the other officers of the presence of a gun in a loud voice. Defendant at this point was beginning to wake up. The officers gave defendant and R.W. commands to get their hands up and not to move. R.W. complied, but defendant did not and appeared to be incoherent but did not make any attempt to grab the firearm. Defendant then passed out again.

         The driver was first removed from the vehicle and then the defendant. Officer Paxton was able to get the driver, R.W., out of the car, and brought him to the back of the Mercedes. Officers Mintz and Wassel at this point both had their firearms drawn and pointed toward defendant, who was still seated in the passenger seat. Officer Wassel then moved to the driver's door and unsuccessfully tried to unlock all of the car doors, but did manage to lower the front passenger side window. Once Wassel had lowered the window, Officer Mintz reached through the open window and grabbed the firearm that was under defendant's right thigh. Mintz then took the black pistol to the back of the Mercedes and turned it over to Officer Paxton. Officer Wassel maintained cover on defendant, who was still seated in the passenger seat. Officer Wassel then had defendant get out of the Mercedes. Wassel had defendant move to the rear of the Mercedes where he put handcuffs on defendant.

         In the body camera footage played, Officer Wassel can be heard advising defendant that he was not under arrest but that he was being detained. Officer Wassel conducted a pat down of the outside of defendant's clothing and felt what appeared to be a small packet of pills in the pocket on the front right side of his pants. Wassel then reached into the pocket and removed a small plastic baggie of oblong pills. As also heard on the bodycam footage, Wassel stated after retrieving the baggie and asking defendant what they were that he believed the pills were a controlled substance, possibly MDMA (“Ecstasy”), rather than vitamins as defendant stated they were. The pills were later analyzed by the CMPD Crime Lab and determined to be 1.89 grams of methamphetamine.

         Officer Wassel then put defendant in the rear of his patrol vehicle. Officer Wassel then ran an NCIC on defendant, which indicated defendant had a prior felony conviction punishable by more than a year imprisonment. When defendant's felon status was confirmed by CMPD's DCI, Officer Wassel then informed defendant he was under arrest for being a felon in possession. Defendant was arrested on North Carolina State charges for possession of firearm by a felon, possession of a Schedule I controlled substance and possession of marijuana.

         II. Applicable Standard

         Traffic stops implicate the Fourth Amendment because they amount to seizures of the subject vehicle's occupants. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (1996). Traffic stops are akin to investigatory detentions; thus, the standard announced in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968) for determining the legality of an investigatory detention also guides a court's determination as to the legality of a traffic stop. United States v. Digiovanni, 650 F.3d 498, 506 (4th Cir. 2011). When presented with a motion to suppress in the context of a traffic stop, a court must first determine whether the stop was justified at its inception, which requires that law enforcement officers possessed a reasonable suspicion that crime was afoot before detaining the suspect. Terry, 392 U.S. at 20. If so, a court next determines whether the search and any resulting seizure was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances justifying it, Terry, 392 U.S. at 20, which means that it was limited in scope and duration. Digiovanni, 650 F.3d at 507.

         A police officer may conduct a brief investigatory stop of a vehicle, when the “officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.” Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 123 (2000) (citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S.1, 30 (1968)). “[I]n connection with such a seizure or stop, if presented with a reasonable belief that the person may be armed and presently dangerous, an officer may conduct a protective frisk.” United States v. Black, 525 F.3d 359, 364 (4th Cir. 2008). In assessing whether a Terry stop was supported by reasonable, articulable suspicion, a court must consider the “totality of the circumstances . . . to see whether the detaining officer has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting legal wrongdoing.” United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273 (2002) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “Thus, factors which by themselves suggest only innocent conduct may amount to reasonable suspicion when taken together.” United States v. Perkins, 363 F.3d 317, 321 (4th Cir. 2004). While an officer's “hunch” will not justify a stop, Terry, 392 U.S. at 27, courts “give due weight to common sense judgments reached by officers in light of their experience and training.” Perkins, 363 F.3d at 321.

         A reasonable and articulable suspicion that a traffic violation has occurred is a valid basis to conduct a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Botero-Ospina, 71 F.3d 783, 787 (10th Cir. 1995). “[A] traffic stop is valid under the Fourth Amendment if the stop is based on an observed traffic violation or if the police officer has reasonable articulable suspicion that a traffic or equipment violation has occurred or is occurring.” Id. Under North Carolina law, a reasonable suspicion of impaired driving arises where an officer observes a car parked on the road with its engine running, but not moving. State v. Barnard, 362 N.C. 244 (2008).

         III. ...

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