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United States v. Haskins

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

December 12, 2019



          OSTEEN, JR., District Judge

         Before this court is Defendant's motion to suppress all evidence seized as a result of a traffic stop on June 3, 2018, in Durham, North Carolina. (Doc. 14.) The Government filed a response. (Doc. 18.) On November 5, 2019, this court held a hearing on the motion to suppress. (See Minute Entry 11/05/2019.) The Government called as a witness Durham Police Officer J.C. Kellar (“Kellar”). At the conclusion of the hearing, this court made preliminary findings of fact. This court also requested additional briefing based upon those findings of fact. Both the Government and Defendant filed supplemental briefs. (Docs. 23, 24.) A second round of supplemental briefing was requested by the court, (Text Order 11/18/2019), and filed by the parties. (Docs. 26, 27.) A second, final hearing was held on December 2, 2019, where the parties addressed several of the court's lingering questions of law. (Minute Entry 12/02/2019.) The matter is now ripe for ruling. For the reasons stated below, the court will grant Defendant's motion to suppress.

         In summary, the Government contends Kellar had a reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity based upon the following factors: time of the occurrence, the high crime nature of the area, the observation of individuals around a vehicle stopped in the roadway, Kellar's recognition of the individuals standing beside the car as having some history of drug-related criminal activity, and the fact the stopped vehicle pulled away as Kellar subsequently approached the area where the vehicle was stopped.

         This court finds Kellar had an inchoate suspicion of criminal activity, later proved correct, to some degree, [1]following his stop of Defendant. However, this court is of the opinion that Kellar's suspicion did not provide an objective, reasonable suspicion of criminal activity sufficient to stop and detain Defendant. This court made its findings of fact on the record. They will be supplemented and further addressed as necessary here. This court will correct one finding made in open court.


         There is no dispute that Defendant was seized when Kellar turned on his blue lights and pulled over Defendant in the Five Star Tobacco parking lot off of Holloway Street. The issue in this case is whether Kellar's earlier observation of Defendant when he was stopped on North Briggs Avenue provided a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity sufficient to support the subsequent traffic stop.

To be lawful, a Terry stop “must be supported at least by a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the person seized is engaged in criminal activity.” The level of suspicion must be a “particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.” As such, “the officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.” There is no reasonable suspicion merely by association.

United States v. Black, 707 F.3d 531, 539 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Reid v. Georgia, 448 U.S. 438, 440 (1980); United States v. Griffin, 589 F.3d 148, 152 (4th Cir. 2009); Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21 (1968)).In conducting a reasonable suspicion analysis, a court “must look at the ‘totality of the circumstances' of each case 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) (quoting United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417-18 (1981)). “A determination that reasonable suspicion exists . . . need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct.” Id. at 277. A court is required to give due weight to factual inferences drawn by law enforcement officers. Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 699 (1996). A court must examine the totality of the circumstances by considering “all information available to an officer and any reasonable inferences to be drawn at the time of the decision to stop a suspect.” United States v. Crittendon, 883 F.2d 326, 328 (4th Cir. 1989). Courts must also “evaluate the ‘cumulative information available' to the detaining officer, rather than engaging in ‘piecemeal refutation' of the individual facts upon which the officer relied during the Terry stop.” United States v. McBride, 676 F.3d 385, 392 (4th Cir. 2012) (quoting United States v. Branch, 537 F.3d 328, 336 (4th Cir. 2008)); United States v. Whitehead, 849 F.2d 849, 858 (4th Cir. 1988)).

         “Judicial review of the evidence offered to demonstrate reasonable suspicion must be commonsensical, focused on the evidence as a whole, and cognizant of both context and the particular experience of officers charged with the ongoing tasks of law enforcement.” Branch, 537 F.3d at 337. Reasonable suspicion is a burden “less demanding than that for probable cause” and “considerably less than proof of wrongdoing by a preponderance of the evidence.” United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7 (1989). However, an officer “must be able to articulate something more than an ‘inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch.'” Id. (quoting Terry, 392 U.S. at 27). The factors articulated “together must serve to eliminate a substantial portion of innocent [persons] before the requirement of reasonable suspicion will be satisfied.” United States v. Brugal, 209 F.3d 353, 359 (4th Cir. 2000) (en banc).

         II. ANALYSIS

         Although the reasonable suspicion analysis “must account for the ‘totality of the circumstances,' rather than employ a ‘divide-and-conquer analysis, '” United States v. Williams, 808 F.3d 238, 247 (4th Cir. 2015) (citing Arvizu, 534 U.S. at 274), “this court ‘will separately address each of the factors before evaluating them together with the other circumstances of the traffic stop, '” United States v. Bowman, 884 F.3d 200, 214 (4th Cir. 2018) (quoting United States v. Powell, 666 F.3d 180, 187- 88 (4th Cir. 2011)).

         A. Individual Analysis of Articulated Factors

         Two of the facts articulated by Kellar reasonably and objectively contribute to the reasonable suspicion analysis in this case and are not disputed: (1) the lateness of the hour, and (2) the high crime nature of the neighborhood. Neither of these facts, however, independently support a finding of reasonable suspicion.

         First, Kellar initially observed Defendant's vehicle at approximately 11:40 p.m. The time of day is not disputed. Kellar did not testify that the lateness of the hour contributed significantly to his assessment of the situation. He did not describe, in his experience, that any particular times of day were more indicative of criminal conduct than any other times of day. Nevertheless, the hour was late, although not unreasonably so. See, e.g., United States v. Glover, 662 F.3d 694, 698 (4th Cir. 2011) (noting that a time of 4:40 a.m. was a relevant factor); United States v. Slocumb, 804 F.3d 677, 679 (4th Cir. 2011) (noting that the fact activity took place at midnight was a factor that contributed to reasonable suspicion). The lateness of the hour in this case, 11:40 p.m., is an objective, articulated fact that will be considered in the analysis below. However, while the late hour is a factor, it is not independently sufficient to support a finding of reasonable suspicion.

         Second, the fact that North Briggs Avenue was a high crime area is relatively undisputed. This court credits Kellar's testimony that this was in fact a high crime area and subject to heightened enforcement by Durham police. “[A]n area's disposition toward criminal activity is an articulable fact.” United States v. Moore, 817 F.2d 1105, 1107 (4th Cir. 1987). However, while the nature of the area around North Briggs Avenue is relevant, “presence in an area of expected criminal activity, standing alone, is not enough to support a reasonable, particularized suspicion that the person is committing a crime.” Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 124 (2000). “[A]lthough the high-crime nature of the area in which a stop is performed is plainly not alone enough to support a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, it is one of ‘the relevant contextual considerations' that a court may credit in the Terry analysis.” United States v. Bumpers, 705 F.3d 168, 175 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Wardlow, 528 U.S. at 124). The court will, therefore, consider the high crime nature of the neighborhood in its analysis.

         Other than these two facts, about which there is not any real dispute, there are several other factual contentions that are less clear and require a more thorough discussion.

         First, while Kellar had no information as to the identity of the occupant of the car, Kellar testified the three individuals standing outside the car were known to him. Kellar testified he knew those three individuals were “consumers, drug addicts.” (Transcript of Motion to Suppress Hearing (“Hr'g Tr.”) (Doc. 25) at 13.)[2] His previous interactions with them “had consisted of drug activity, misdemeanor breaking and entering.” (Id.) Kellar clarified that he recognized those three people as individuals who participate in drug activity. (Id. at 21.) Though Kellar's initial testimony seemed to support an objectively reasonable belief that he was familiar with the individuals near Defendant's car, on cross-examination, Kellar further explained his knowledge, or lack thereof, of those individuals:

Q: And do you have any idea -- forgive me if you've answered this question. Do you have any idea when you interacted with these three people in terms of what year that was?
A: Oh, what year? 2018.
Q: Okay.
A: Yes.
Q: And can you give -- you mentioned a misdemeanor breaking and entering. Where did that misdemeanor breaking and entering occur?
A: I'm not sure, sir. I just -- it's -- again, the best way I can describe it is these are folks that I interacted with through my job responding to 911 calls, trying to be proactive, and they were associated with drug activity, breaking and entering. It's not something that I can -- I can't list their names for you. I can't give you a specific date. Those are just folks that I've interacted with through my job.
Q: Can you give any description of these three individuals?
A: Black males. Are you looking for clothing? I'm - I don't mean to be --
Q: I'm asking for as specific a description as you can provide.
A: Tall -- one of them is tall, skinny. He's about 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3, 40 to 50 years old. Again, always in that same area. You just ...

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