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United States v. Buzzard

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

September 3, 2019




         Pending before the court is the defendant's Motion to Suppress [ECF No. 20]. The court held a hearing on this Motion on April 24, 2019, and ordered additional briefing. The defendant and the government have submitted additional briefs, and the matter is now ripe for review. For the following reasons, the Motion is DENIED.

         I. Background

         The defendant seeks to suppress several items of evidence that he claims were unlawfully seized. At the suppression hearing, the court heard testimony of Paul Martin, Defendant Jason Buzzard, and Officer Tyler Dawson. The parties agree that on October 12, 2018, the defendant was leaving a gas station at approximately 1:36 a.m. when Officer Dawson stopped the defendant because of a defective brake light.

         Officer Dawson testified that he made contact with Defendant Buzzard, the driver, and testified that during these kinds of traffic stops, he “[a]lways advise[s] [the driver] why [he] stopped them and then [he] always ask[s] for license and registration, proof of insurance.” Tr. Mot. Suppress 8:3-4. Officer Dawson testified that while Defendant Buzzard was searching for the vehicle's registration and insurance, Defendant Buzzard stated that the vehicle was not his. Id. at 8:9-10. Officer Dawson testified that he observed the passenger, Mr. Martin, appearing as if he were about to run. Id. at 15:1-3. Officer Dawson explained that Mr. Martin was moving and looking around and not making eye contact, but interrupting him while he was speaking with Defendant Buzzard by saying things like “Hey, you know me, we're not up to anything. It's just me.” Id. at 10-11. He stated that Mr. Martin would lean forward, back, look right and look left. He explained that it was uncommon for passengers to act the way that Mr. Martin was acting; most people, he said, would sit still in their seat and listen to and watch the officer. Id. at 11:7-24. He testified that he knew Mr. Martin from three other encounters. One included Mr. Martin riding his bike around some vehicles late at night, where Officer Dawson suspected that Mr. Martin might be breaking into cars. Id. at 8. The second was a run in at Thomas Memorial Hospital where Mr. Martin was being treated for drug addiction. Id. at 9. And the third was when Officer Dawson responded to a domestic dispute involving Mr. Martin. Id. at 35:13-24. He explained that at the time of the stop, he knew that Mr. Martin had a history of drug addition, that he just got out of prison, and that he had prior felonies. Id. at 9-10.

         Officer Dawson went on to testify that the area where he pulled over the defendant was what he believes to be a high crime area, commonly involving narcotics, noting dozens of arrests made by him alone. Id. at 12. He explained a drug trade practice of using the gas station wi-fi to set up deals and noted a known drug house within a block of the stop. Id.

         Officer Dawson testified that in a normal situation, he would run the driver's information-i.e., Defendant Buzzard's driver's license information and a warrant check. He did not, however, run these routine checks. Id. at 14. Officer Dawson testified that because there were two persons in the car, he decided to wait for an additional officer. Id. at 14-15. Notably, he did not call for backup specifically as much as he hoped for a second officer to arrive. He explained that when someone begins a stop, his shift's practice is to say, “Hey, I've got two occupants in the vehicle, ” and normally, another officer listening in will come to the scene. Id. at 15. Assuming that a second officer would arrive, Officer Dawson decided to wait, and while waiting, he asked Defendant Buzzard a single question: Is there anything illegal in the vehicle? Indeed, Officer Dawson's field case report states as follows:

I made contact with the driver/suspect Jason Buzzard . . . . I observed the other suspect, Paul Martin . . ., sitting in the front passenger seat of the suspect vehicle. While speaking with Buzzard, I asked if he had anything illegal in the vehicle.

         Police Report [ECF No. 32-1] 2. When defense counsel asked Officer Dawson why he asked that single question, Officer Dawson said that he asked it based on the time of night, the location, Mr. Martin's history, and Mr. Martin's behavior. Tr. Mot. Suppress 15.

         On the other hand, Defendant Buzzard and Mr. Martin, after being sequestered, separately testified that the first question that Officer Dawson asked immediately after approaching the car for the first time was whether there was anything illegal in the car. Regardless of the timing, once asked, Defendant Buzzard produced a bowl of marijuana that was hidden under his shirt. Mr. Martin told Officer Dawson that he had one too and would eventually surrender a syringe. After a search of the car, Officer Dawson found two firearms, one hidden under the driver's seat and the other hidden under the passenger's seat. The police arrested Defendant Buzzard and Mr. Martin and also confiscated Defendant Buzzard's cell phone.

         Defendant Buzzard moved to suppress the contraband. He argues that the question “Is there anything illegal in the vehicle?” was beyond the scope of the purpose of the stop and that by asking it, the question unlawfully prolonged the stop. Consequently, he argues that in order to ask the “unrelated” question, Officer Dawson needed reasonable suspicion or the defendant's consent. The defendant does not challenge the lawfulness of the traffic stop. Both parties agree that Officer Dawson lacked consent. The court is presented with two questions: whether the single question was related to the mission of the stop, and if not, whether the single question unlawfully prolonged the stop.

         II. Legal Standard

         When deciding a motion to suppress, the district court may make findings of fact and conclusions of law. United States v. Stevenson, 396 F.3d 538, 541 (4th Cir. 2005). During the hearing, “the credibility of the witness[es] and the weight to be given the evidence, together with the inferences, deductions and conclusions to be drawn from the evidence, are all matters to be determined by the trial judge.” United States v. McKneely, 6 F.3d 1447, 1452-53 (10th Cir. 1993) (quoting United States v. Walker, 933 F.2d 812, 815 (10th Cir. 1991)). See also Columbus-Am. Discovery Grp. v. Atl. Mut. Ins. Co., 56 F.3d 556, 567 (4th Cir. 1995) (“[I]n the usual case, the factfinder is in a better position to make judgments about the reliability of some forms of evidence than a reviewing body acting solely on the basis of a written record of that evidence. Evaluation of the credibility of a live witness is the most obvious example.”) (quoting Concrete Pipe & Prods. of Cal., Inc. v. Constr. Laborers Pension Tr. for S. Cal., 508 U.S. 602, 623 (1993)). The burden of proof is on the party who seeks to suppress the evidence. United States v. Dickerson, 655 F.2d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 1981). Once the defendant establishes a basis for his motion to suppress, the burden shifts to the government to prove the admissibility of the challenged evidence by a preponderance of the evidence. United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 177 n.14 (1974).

         III. ...

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