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United States v. Mobley

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

May 21, 2018



          Max O. Cogburn Jr. United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on defendant's Motion to Suppress and Motion for Discovery, Dismissal, or Preclusion (“Motion to Dismiss”). Having considered defendant's motions, reviewed the pleadings, and conducted an evidentiary hearing, the Court enters the following Order.


          I. 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.

         II. The Stop

         Based on the testimony received at the hearing, the facts underlying the challenged stop are as follows. On the night of April 3, 2017, defendant was driving a black 2008 Dodge Charger and had come to a stop in the left-hand turn lane at the intersection of Remount Road and West Boulevard in Charlotte, North Carolina. That intersection was controlled by a stoplight and CMPD Officers J. Helms and J. Rubino were directly behind defendant in a marked police car. Both officers testified that while waiting in the turn lane directly behind the Charger, they observed that the rear license tag was obscured by a tinted plate cover. After the left turn arrow changed to green, Officer Helms initiated a traffic stop by activating the patrol car's blue lights and defendant pulled the Charger over in a reasonable time.[1]

         At least four cameras were in use that night: three body warn cameras (“BWCs”) of Officers Helms, Rubino, and Gonzales (a backup officer who did not testify); and the DMVR camera, which would have shown the events immediately prior to the stop. Portions of video from all three officers' BWCs were received in evidence and played during the hearing. While the officers testified that police vehicle was equipped with a DMVR and that it would automatically record when the blue lights or other emergency equipment was activated, the video from the DMVR was lost. An expert from CMPD testified that clips from Officers Helms' and Rubino's BWCs showed a flashing red light or circle from the interior of the patrol vehicle which indicated that the DMVR was recording at the time of the stop. The CMPD expert also testified that while he does not know why the video of the stop failed to upload, it could have been due to failing to label the video or activating a program called “Arbitrator” when the patrol car arrived at the station later that night. When it was discovered that the recording was missing, the CMPD expert attempted to recover the file but has been unable to find it.

         The passenger in the Charger, the mother of defendant's child, testified that she was familiar with the Charger and with the plate cover as it was affixed that night. She testified that the plate cover did not obscure the view of the plate.

         During the hearing, Officers Helms and Rubino testified consistently that the reason they pulled the Charger over was that it had a tinted license plate

         III. Discussion

         A. ...

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