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United States v. Smith

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

September 25, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
MARK MATTHEW SMITH

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JOSEPH R. GOODWIN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the court is the defendant’s Motion to Suppress [ECF No. 26].

         The court held a hearing on this Motion on August 15, 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 Lieutenant Matthew Board. The parties agree that on December 6, 2017, Lt. Board observed a 2005 white Dodge Caravan at the traffic light at the intersection of East Street and Seventh Street at approximately 3:00 am. Lt. Board followed the car for several blocks. He observed the car travelling 5–8 mph under the posted speed limit and make an abrupt turn without utilizing its turn signal. Tr. Mot. Suppress 10:7– 25; Police Report Ex. A [ECF No. 27-1]. Lt. Board subsequently initiated a traffic stop. The car had three occupants: Erica Blake[1] (the driver), Defendant Mark Smith (occupying the front passenger seat), and Aaron Dobson (sitting in the rear passenger seat).

         Lt. Board testified that the location of the traffic stop was in an “extremely high crime area.” Tr. Mot. Suppress 11:22. He testified that before approaching the car he called for backup but that they had not arrived at the time he initiated contact with the car. Id. at 12:17–22. Lt. Board testified that as he approached the car, Smith appeared nervous, was breathing rapidly, failed to maintain eye contact, and displayed “overall jitteriness.” Id. at 12:13–17. Lt. Board immediately asked the car’s occupants “if there were any weapons in the vehicle.” Id. at 12:19. Lt. Board testified that Smith responded stating that there was a firearm in the car. Id. at 13:10. None of the occupants provided a definitive answer as to where the gun was located within the car. Police Report Ex. A [ECF No. 27-1]. Backup officers arrived shortly thereafter. The occupants were ordered out of the car. Tr. Mot. Suppress 17:3–6. At that point, Lt. Board detected the smell of marijuana emanating from the interior of the car. Id.

         Lt. Board testified that Sergeant Koher then searched the car for contraband and the weapons. Id. at 17:12-16. The search produced a .45 caliber handgun in the passenger side floorboard. Lt. Board conducted a pat-down frisk for weapons of Smith’s person, finding a “concealment holster… that had Velcroed around his body, around the upper torso.” Id. at 17:10–12. A criminal background check demonstrated that Mr. Smith had a felony conviction. The officers thus placed him under arrest for the illegal possession of the firearm. Smith was subsequently searched incident to arrest. That search located 4.5 grams of crack cocaine, 5.3 grams of methamphetamine, and 9 tablets of buprenorphine in Smith’s right front pants pocket. Police Report Ex. A [ECF No. 27–1]. Smith’s wallet was searched at the police station and was found to contain five counterfeit $100 bills. Id. The police report does not specify exactly where, but six Social Security cards belonging to various people were also found in Smith’s possession.

         Defendant Smith moved to suppress the contraband. He argues that the question, “are there any weapons 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, Lt. Board needed reasonable suspicion, which he did not have in this case. Defendant Smith does not challenge the lawfulness of the traffic stop for the purposes of this motion. The court is presented with three questions: (1) whether the single question was related to the mission of the stop, (2) if not, whether the single question unlawfully prolonged the stop, and (3) if so, whether Lt. Board had reasonable suspicion that the occupants in the car were involved in criminal activity or possessed dangerous weapons.

         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. Discussion

         “[I]n determining whether a traffic stop is reasonable, [courts] apply the standard articulated in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), wherein the court asks (1) if the stop was ‘legitimate at its inception, ’ United States v. Hi l, 852 F.3d 377, 381 (4th Cir. 2017), and (2) if ‘the officer’s actions during the seizure were reasonably related in scope to the basis for the traffic stop, ’ Williams, 808 F.3d at 245.” United States v. Bowman, 884 F.3d 200, 209 (4th Cir. 2018).

         Taking these principles into account, in this case, the officer asked a single question, whether there were any firearms in the car. Id. at 12:19. The first question before the court is whether this question was related to the mission of the stop. The second question before the court is if the question was not related to the mission of the stop, whether the single question unlawfully prolonged the stop. The third question before the court is if the question unlawfully prolonged the stop, did the officer have reasonable suspicion.

         a. Whether the Question was Related to the Mission ...


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