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States v. Mitchell

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

April 5, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
EARL MITCHELL

          RULING AND ORDER

          BRIAN A. JACKSOH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT CHIEF JUDGE

         Before the Court is the Motion to Suppress (Doc. 16) filed by Defendant. Defendant seeks to suppress evidence seized as a result of a stop and frisk that was conducted on June 21, 2016, as well as statements that Defendant allegedly made after the evidence was seized. The United States of America ("Government") filed a memorandum in opposition to the Motion. (See Doc. 18). On February 6, 2017, the Court held an evidentiary hearing on the Motion. The Government and Defendant subsequently filed post-hearing briefs. (See Docs. 30, 31). For the reasons explained herein, Defendant's Motion to Suppress (Doc. 16) is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On June 21, 2016, at approximately 10:30 p.m., Officer Nicholas Collins ("Officer Collins") of the Baton Rouge City Police Department ("BRCPD") was on a routine patrol of a neighborhood of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that is known as "CC Lockdown."[1] (Doc. 29, Hr'g Tr. at p. 11, 11. 1-4; id. at p. 35, 1. 7). Since he commenced his employment with BRCPD, Officer Collins regularly has patrolled the CC Lockdown neighborhood - an area in which "numerous homicides and violent crimes" have been committed and in which officers commonly effect arrests for drug crimes. (Id. at p. 11, 11. 18-19; id. at p. 12, 11. 5-7). Officer Collins was patrolling the area in a white, unmarked Dodge Charger. (Id. at p. 13, 1. 5). Although Officer Collins's vehicle did not feature any external markings identifying it as a police car, it is "obvious" that the vehicle indeed is a police car because of the spotlight on the vehicle's driver's side, the distinctive wheels, and the widely shared knowledge among residents of the neighborhood that police officers drive white Dodge Chargers.[2] (Id. at p. 13, 11. 6-7, 10-12, 15-17).

         Officer Collins was travelling westbound on Seneca Street. (Id. at p. 15, 11. 8-10). As he crossed Cedar Avenue, Officer Collins looked to his left and saw "headlights coming in [his] direction and ... an individual . . . walking in the middle of the street . . . directly in front of the headlights."[3] (Id. at p. 16, 11. 6-9). Officer Collins then observed the individual, Defendant, "grabQ his waistband and . . . scurr[y] off, " apparently upon seeing Officer Collins's vehicle. (Id. at p. 16, 11. 17-18). Defendant's act of grabbing his waistband piqued Officer Collins's interest, causing him to believe that Defendant may have been in possession of contraband because, according to Officer Collins, "when people have something and they see law enforcement, they[ will] grab that object, whether it be something in their pocket, back waistband, back pocket[, ] or front waistband." (Id. at p. 17, 11. 17-20). Defendant then "walked away from [Officer Collins] in a very, very fast way, " (id. at p. 18, 11. 10-11), which Officer Collins described as an "unprovoked flight, " (id. at p. 17, 1. 10). Based on Officer Collins's experience, he testified that "every other time" that a person has grabbed his waistband and fled at the sight of police, that person "has had something that they did not want the police to have." (Id. at p. 18, 11. 16-17). Officer Collins observed Defendant's conduct from a distance of approximately fifty yards, (id. at p. 17, 1. 25), and the area in which the events took place was described by Officer Collins as "sparsely lit [by] some lights on [the telephone] poles, " (id. at p. 15, 11. 21-22), though the headlights of the car in front of which Defendant was walking provided additional light, [4] (id. at p. 50, 11. 21-22).

         Officer Collins testified that Defendant then "went into the yard of a house that[ is] directly on the corner" of Seneca Street and Cedar Avenue, after which Officer Collins observed Defendant "get[] into the rear passenger seat of a vehicle [that was] parked in that yard." (Id. at p. 19, 11. 6-9). Officer Collins was aware that the person who resided at the house had been convicted of a drug crime, and according to Officer Collins, neighbors had reported that narcotics transactions had been taking place at the house. (Id. at p. 19, 11. 13-17). Officer Collins then parked his vehicle behind the vehicle that he observed Defendant enter, prohibiting that vehicle from exiting the yard. (Id. at p. 21, 1. 24; id. at p. 22, 1. 3).

         Officer Collins first made contact with the person in the driver's seat, [5] who was the resident of the home who had a previous narcotics conviction and was on parole at the time. (Id. at p. 23, 11. 7-16). Officer Collins then made contact with Defendant, who was seated in the rear seat of the vehicle, asking Defendant to step out of the vehicle to inquire into Defendant's blocking the roadway. (Id. at p. 23, 11. 12-14; id. at p. 24, 11. 8-9; id. at p. 54, 11. 4-8). After Defendant exited the vehicle, Officer Collins ordered him to stand against the vehicle so that Officer Collins could perform a frisk for weapons.[6] (Id. at p. 24, 11. 14-18). Officer Collins - who "figured [that Defendant] had something in his waistband, " (id. at p. 29, 1. 24) - decided to frisk Defendant to "make sure [that] Defendant did[ not] have a gun on him to .. . shoot [Officer Collins] or somebody else, " (id. at p. 27, 11. 4-5, 9). Officer Collins testified that Defendant was "nervous" and "shaking a little bit, " (id. at p. 24, 11. 20-21), standing with his "legs . . . clenched . . . together, " (id. at p. 26, 1. 2). As Officer Collins's hand approached Defendant's waistband during the frisk, Defendant "pinned his body up against the car, squishing [Officer Collins's] hand between [Defendant's] body and the car." (Id. at p. 27, 11. 17-19). At that point, Officer Collins believed that Defendant was going to "fight" him. (Id. at p. 28, 11. 5-6). Officer Collins ordered Defendant to back away from the car and then "attempted to back [Defendant] away from the car, " after which Defendant "went limp ... and fell to the ground." (Id. at p. 28, 11. 13-16). Officer Collins then "grabbed [Defendant's] shoulders and . . . lifted [Defendant] back onto his feet." (Id. at p. 28, 11. 21-22). When Defendant regained his footing, Officer Collins "heard a clank, some noise on the ground, [and] looked down [to see that] a firearm had just come out of [Defendant's] pant[] leg." (Id. at p. 28, 1. 25; id. at p. 29, 11. 1-2).

         Officer Collins then resumed frisking Defendant, secured Defendant in his police vehicle, and retrieved the firearm. (Id. at p. 30, 11. 10-12). After performing a record check for the firearm's serial number, Officer Collins determined that the weapon had been reported stolen, (id. at p. 30, 11. 24-25; see Id. at p. 31, 11. 12-14), and after performing a record check for Defendant's name, Officer Collins determined that Defendant was a convicted felon, (id. at p. 31, 11. 20-22). Officer Collins then informed Defendant of his rights under Miranda u. Arizona, which Defendant stated that he understood. (Id. at p. 31, 1. 25; see Id. at p. 32, 11. 17-20). Defendant then stated that he "found [the gun] under the interstate" and, in response to Officer Collins's questions regarding his being prohibited from possessing a firearm due to his status as a convicted felon, that he was "just taking [liis] lick." (Id. at p. 33, 11. 16, 19).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Generally, "[t]he proponent of a motion to suppress has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of evidence, that the evidence in question was obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights." United States v. Kelley, 981 F.2d 1464, 1467 (5th Cir. 1993) (quoting United States v. Smith, 978 F.2d 171, 176 (5th Cir. 1992)). When a search or seizure is conducted without a warrant, however, the government bears the burden of proving that the search was valid. United States v. Waldrop, 404 F.3d 365, 368 (5th Cir. 2005) (citing United States v. Castro, 166 F.3d 728, 733 n.7 (5th Cir. 1999)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         "[A] police officer may in appropriate circumstances and in an appropriate manner approach a person for purposes of investigating possibly criminal behavior even though there is no probable cause to make an arrest." Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 22 (1968). In determining whether the seizure of a person is reasonable, and therefore constitutionally permissible under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Court must analyze (1) "whether the officer's action was justified at its inception, and [(2)] whether it was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place." Id. at 20.

         The Government asserts that Officer Collins's actions were permissible pursuant to the standards espoused by the United States Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio. Specifically, the Government argues that (1) Officer Collins's actions were justified as an investigatory stop due to Defendant's committing a traffic violation by impeding a roadway and due to his suspicious conduct after spotting Officer Collins's vehicle and (2) Officer Collins's actions were reasonably related in scope to his purposes for initiating the stop. After considering the arguments advanced by the Government and Defendant, the facts of this case, and the applicable law, the Court concludes that Officer Collins's actions were permissible pursuant to Terry, and therefore the evidence seized in plain view and the statements made by Defendant shall not be suppressed.

         A. Officer Collins's Actions Were Justified ...


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