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United States v. Robinson

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

September 25, 2019




         Pending before the Court is Defendant Gerald Robinson Jr.’s “Motion to Suppress All Evidence Obtained During Vehicle Stop and Search.” Mot. to Suppress, ECF No. 21. Defendant filed his Motion to Suppress on May 28, 2019, and the Government filed its Response on June 4, 2019. Mot. to Suppress; Resp. to Mot. to Suppress, ECF No. 26. On June 10, 2019, the Court held a hearing on Defendant’s Motion. See Hr’g Tr., ECF No. 30. Corporal Kevin Williams and Sergeant L.J. Deskins, two of the West Virginia State Police officers responsible for the contested stop and search, testified at the hearing. Consistent with the reasoning herein, the Court DENIES Defendant’s motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On April 13, 2017, several officers with the West Virginia State Police were conducting routine surveillance at the Huntington, West Virginia Greyhound Bus Station. Id. at 3. The police were aware that individuals carrying illegal drugs frequently come into Huntington on the bus from larger cities, such as Detroit, known to be the source of drugs into the area. Id. at 56. Observing from unmarked vehicles, Sergeant L.J. Deskins and other officers observed a bus from Detroit arrive at 6:00 a.m. and saw two male passengers walk to a silver Mazda bearing Kentucky plates that was waiting in the parking lot. Id. at 58–59. The officers were aware that the bus had completed a stop in Ashland, Kentucky before arriving in Huntington, and were curious why a car registered in Kentucky would travel to West Virginia to pick up its passengers. Id. at 20, 22.

         The officers, including Sergeant Deskins, decided to follow the vehicle and radioed Corporal Kevin Williams and his K-9, Feera, for assistance. Id. at 4, 59. At the time, Corporal Williams and Feera were stationed in an unmarked police cruiser in a business park near an entrance to Interstate 64. Id. at 4. Corporal Williams used his cruiser’s computer to check the registration on the Mazda before he even began to follow it and discovered that the vehicle was licensed in Kentucky to an owner in Ashland. Id. at 30, 32. The suspect vehicle proceeded from downtown at the bus station through a residential area toward the interstate access ramp on Hal Greer Boulevard. Id. at 4. Corporal Williams’ cruiser began following the Mazda just before it turned to the right on the west-bound entrance ramp. Id. As he was immediately behind the Mazda, Corporal Williams observed that its rear-window brake light failed to illuminate when the other brake lights came on as the vehicle made its turn. Id. at 5. Though he saw the broken light, he did not immediately stop the Mazda, waiting to do so until it had merged into interstate traffic and traveled some distance. Id. He testified that he waited until there was more space on the berm and he had reached a stretch of highway where his cruiser and the stopped Mazda were more readily seen by other traffic. Id. As Corporal Williams recalled it, there were two or three other unmarked police vehicles following him that also pulled over behind the stopped car. Id. at 6. According to dispatch records, the stop occurred at 6:07 a.m. Id. at 8.

         Corporal Williams exited his vehicle and approached the passenger side of the Mazda as Sergeant Deskins, from one of the other police vehicles, approached the driver’s side. Id. at 51, 61. The officers observed a driver, a front seat passenger, and a male who was lying in the back seat. Id. at 61. Sergeant Deskins asked for the driver’s identification, registration, and insurance certificate. Id. He also told the driver that the Mazda was pulled over due to a defective brake light. Id. Sergeant Deskins testified that the driver, identified as Charles Cordle, produced his license and Defendant’s license, saying Defendant had left it with him on a prior occasion. Id. at 63. The passengers were also asked to identify themselves and where they were going. Id. at 62–64. The rear passenger, later identified as Tevin Robinson, produced his Michigan driver’s license and told Corporal Williams they were going to visit a cousin. Id. at 9, 41. Defendant Gerald Robinson- Tevin’s brother-was seated in the front passenger seat. Id. at 71. Sergeant Deskins asked the occupants why they were in a Kentucky vehicle, and in particular why they had been picked up in Huntington only to drive back to Kentucky, but received “no good explanation for it.” Id. at 64. Increasingly suspicious, Sergeant Deskins directed the occupants to exit the vehicle because he considered this lack of explanation to be a potential sign of drug-related travel. Id. at 65. The officers spread the occupants out along the guardrail on the edge of the interstate, out of earshot of each other. Id. at 65–66.

         At the guardrail, Sergeant Deskins questioned each occupant individually. Id. at 67–68. Tevin, the rear-seat passenger, claimed they were going to visit a cousin, James, in Marcum Terrace. Id. at 68. Defendant likewise indicated that they were on their way to visit a cousin named James, but that he lived in Guyandotte. Id. In light of this discrepancy and the fact that the Mazda had been heading toward Kentucky-away from both locations the Robinsons had provided- Sergeant Deskins asked Corporal Williams to deploy Feera to check for narcotics. Id. at 68. Near the middle of the driver’s side where the doors meet, the dog alerted and indicated that she had detected narcotics. Id. at 47. In total, the dog search took no more than two to three minutes. Id. at 18.

         After placing the dog back in the cruiser at 6:18 a.m., the officers searched inside the Mazda and found a black backpack on the rear floor and a red one on the front passenger floor. Id. at 13, 18. An inspection of the bags revealed cocoa butter bottles containing oxycodone and Xanax. Id. at 13–15. The Robinsons were subsequently arrested. Id. at 15. Cordle, the driver, was permitted to leave the scene without receiving a citation. Id. at 36. Once the occupants provided what the officers characterized to be conflicting explanations of their intended destination, the defective brake light was largely forgotten.


         The Fourth Amendment guarantees “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, 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” the Fourth Amendment. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809 (1996). It is thus firmly established that “[a]n automobile stop is . . . subject to the constitutional imperative that it not be ‘unreasonable’ under the circumstances.” United States v. Branch, 537 F.3d 328, 335 (4th Cir. 2008).

         As “a traffic stop is more akin to an investigative detention than a custodial arrest, [the Court must] analyze the constitutionality of such a stop under the two-prong standard enunciated in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).” United States v. Wiliams, 808 F.3d 238, 245 (4th Cir. 2015). Importantly, “the lawfulness of a Terry stop turns not on the officer’s actual state of mind at the time the challenged action was taken, but rather on an objective assessment of the officer’s actions.” Branch, 537 F.3d at 337 (internal quotations and citations omitted). Indeed, well-settled precedent “forecloses[s] any argument that the constitutional reasonableness of traffic stops depends on the actual motivations of the individual officers involved.” Whren, 517 U.S. at 813.

         Pursuant to this objective standard, the Court must first determine “whether the officer’s reason for the traffic stop was legitimate.” Id. (citing United States v. Rusher, 966 F.2d 868, 875 (4th Cir. 1992)). This first inquiry 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). Notably, “[i]f a police officer observes a traffic violation”-no matter how minor or apparently pretextual-“he is justified in stopping [a] vehicle.” Branch, 537 F.3d at 337.

         If an initial stop is legitimate, the Court turns to the second prong of the Terry test and will “examine whether the officer’s actions during the seizure were reasonably related in scope to the basis for the traffic stop.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). This 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.” Bernard, 927 F.3d at 805. “Authority for the seizure ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are-or reasonably should have been- completed.” Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609, 1612 (2015). Tasks incident to a traffic infraction 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 outstanding warrants.” United States v. Hill, 852 F.3d 377, 382 (4th Cir. 2017). Moreover, officers may request the identifications of any passengers in a stopped vehicle in order to “gain [their] bearings and . . . acquire a fair understanding of the surrounding scene.” United States v. Soriano-Jarquin, 492 F.3d 495, 500 (4th Cir. 2007). Officers may also order a vehicle’s driver and passengers to step out of the car pending completion of the stop. Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 110 (1997); Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408, 414–15 (1997).

         During an otherwise lawful traffic stop, “[a]n officer . . . may conduct certain unrelated checks” that do not stem directly from the traffic infraction in question. Rodriguez, 135 S.Ct. at 1615. Such unrelated checks may include dog sniffs. See Id . at 1615 (distinguishing dog sniffs from routine traffic safety measures). While an officer may perform certain unrelated checks during the course of a routine traffic stop, “he may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop.” Id. Even a de minimis extension of a stop violates the Fourth Amendment. Hill, 852 F.3d at 381. Put more succinctly: once a ‚Äúdriver has demonstrated that he is ...

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