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United States v. Miller

United States District Court, N.D. West Virginia

September 9, 2019




         This felon in possession case stems from a traffic stop conducted on Route 7 in Sabraton, a community in Morgantown, West Virginia. While working the midnight shift, Officer David W. Helms (“Officer Helms”) of the Morgantown Police Department observed a vehicle drive by with a defective tail light. After initiating a traffic stop, Officer Helms extended the length of the stop to deploy his K-9 partner, Hunter, who alerted to the presence of drugs. The subsequent search uncovered two firearms and digital scales, which ultimately were connected to the defendant, Teresa Miller (“Miller”), a convicted felon.

         Pending is Miller's motion to suppress this evidence, which she claims was obtained in violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. For the following reasons, the Court SUSTAINS IN PART Miller's objections (Dkt. No. 37), ADOPTS IN PART AND REJECTS IN PART the magistrate judge's report and recommendation (Dkt. No. 36), and DENIES Miller's motion (Dkt. No. 22).

         I. Background

         A. Procedural History

         On July 9, 2019, a grand jury sitting in the Northern District of West Virginia returned a one-count indictment against Miller, charging her with Unlawful Possession of a Firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2) (Dkt. No. 1). After Miller moved to suppress the firearms and other evidence on August 15, 2019 (Dkt. No. 22), the Court then directed a response and referred the motion to the Honorable Michael J. Aloi, United States Magistrate Judge, for initial review and report and recommendation (“R&R”) (Dkt. Nos. 23, 28).

         Magistrate Judge Aloi conducted an evidentiary hearing on the motion (Dkt. No. 34), at which the Government presented the testimony of Officer Helms (Dkt. No. 35). The facts adduced at this hearing are summarized fully in the R&R, and the Court has reviewed the evidence introduced during the hearing and the audio recording of the hearing itself.

         B. Report and Recommendation

         On September 4, 2019, Magistrate Judge Aloi recommended that the Court deny Miller's motion to suppress (Dkt. No. 36). He reasoned that, in light of the totality of the circumstances and Officer Helms' extensive experience in drug investigations and interdiction, Officer Helms had reasonable suspicion to extend the length of the traffic stop beyond the time necessary to issue the driver, Jennifer Phillips (“Phillips”), a warning for a defective tail light. Id. at 11-14. This was based on Phillips' decision to come to a slow stop in a dark area in a known drug corridor, her continuous and noticeable shaking, her excessive chattiness, her nervous tapping on the driver's side door, and the lack of eye contact by the passengers, Joshua Tusing (“Tusing”) and Miller. Id.

         C. Miller's Objections

         In her objections, Miller challenges the R&R's reliance on Officer Helms' experience and training, contending that Magistrate Judge Aloi applied the wrong standard (Obj. No. 1) and erred in finding certain facts supporting reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop (Objs. Nos. 2-4) (Dkt. No. 37).[1] First, she contends Phillips was not uncommonly nervous and did not chat excessively (Obj. No. 2). Id. at 3-4. Second, she contends the behavior of the occupants of the vehicle was not reasonably indicative of suspicious activity (Obj. No. 3). Id. at 4-5. Finally, she contends Phillips pulled her vehicle over in a timely and safe manner (Obj. No. 4). Id. at 5-6.


         When considering a magistrate judge's R&R pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), the Court must review de novo those portions to which objection is timely made. Otherwise, “the Court may adopt, without explanation, any of the magistrate judge's recommendations to which the [defendant] does not object.” Dellacirprete v. Gutierrez, 479 F.Supp.2d 600, 603-04 (N.D. W.Va. 2007) (citing Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 199 (4th Cir. 1983)). Courts will uphold portions of a recommendation to which no objection has been made unless they are “clearly erroneous.” See Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005).


         The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons . . . and effects . . . against unreasonable . . . searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. “Temporary detention of individuals during the stop of an automobile by the police, even if only for a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a ‘seizure' of ‘persons' within the meaning of this provision.” Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10 (1996) (citations omitted). Therefore, “[a]n automobile stop is . . . subject to the constitutional imperative that it not be ‘unreasonable' under the circumstances.” Id. at 810.

         “Because a traffic stop is more akin to an investigative detention than a custodial arrest, [courts must] analyze the constitutionality of such a stop under the two-prong standard enunciated in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968).” United States v. Williams, 808 F.3d 238, 245 (4th Cir. 2015); see also Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609, 1614 (2015) (“[A] routine traffic stop is ‘more analogous to a so-called “Terry stop” . . . than to a formal arrest.'” (citations omitted)). The Terry standard requires the Court to determine whether (1) the traffic stop was justified at its inception and (2) Officer Helm's “actions during the seizure were ‘reasonably related in scope' to the basis for the traffic stop.” Williams, 808 F.3d at 245 (citing United States v. Rusher, 966 F.2d 868, 875 (4th Cir. 1992)); see also United States v. Vaughn, 700 F.3d 705, 709 (4th Cir. 2012) (citing same).

         “The first prong is satisfied whenever ‘it is lawful for police to detain an automobile and its occupants pending inquiry into a vehicular violation.'” United States v. Bernard, 927 F.3d 799, 805 (4th Cir. 2019) (quoting Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323, 327 (2009)). “The second prong is satisfied when the seizure is limited to the length of time reasonably necessary to issue the driver a citation and determine that the driver is entitled to operate his vehicle.” Id. (citing United States v. Branch, 537 F.3d 328, 337 (4th Cir. 2008)).

         “Authority for the seizure [] ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are--or reasonably should have been--completed.” Rodriguez, 135 S.Ct. at 1612 (citing United States v. Hill, 849 F.3d 195, 199 (4th Cir. 2017) [hereinafter Hill I] (“A routine traffic stop becomes an unreasonable seizure when law enforcement impermissibly exceeds the stop's scope or duration.” (citations omitted)). “Ordinary tasks incident to a traffic stop include ‘inspecting a driver's identification and license to operate a vehicle, verifying the registration of a vehicle and existing insurance coverage, and determining whether the driver is subject to ...

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