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United States v. Henry

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

April 10, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
MILTON HENRY, Also Known as Milton James Henry, Also Known as Milton J. Henry, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana

          Before SMITH, ELROD, and HAYNES, Circuit Judges.

          JERRY E. SMITH, Circuit Judge.

         Milton Henry appeals his convictions of possession of a firearm by a felon and possession of marihuana, contending that all of the evidence should have been suppressed. He asserts that the officers who stopped his vehicle had no reasonable suspicion that he had engaged in any illegal activity. The officers aver that they believed Henry was in violation of Louisiana law because his license-plate frame obstructed the expiration date on his registration sticker. Because the officers' interpretation of the law was objectively reasonable, we affirm.

         I.

         While patrolling in Baton Rouge, police officers Carl Trosclair and Marty Freeman noticed that Henry's license-plate frame obstructed the view of the expiration date on the plate's registration sticker. Believing that the obstruction violated Louisiana law, they pulled Henry over. Trosclair approached the vehicle and asked for Henry's license. While talking to Henry, Trosclair noticed a strong odor of marihuana and instructed Henry and his passenger to exit the vehicle. Trosclair advised Henry of his Miranda rights and asked whether he had any marihuana. Henry admitted that he had a marihuana blunt in the ashtray; he also informed Trosclair that his wife's gun was in the center console.

         Henry consented to a search of his vehicle, which produced two bags of marihuana, a digital scale, and a loaded handgun. Henry acknowledged that the marihuana and scale belonged to him. After the officers had detained Henry in the back of their police car, Henry's wife arrived. She denied ownership of anything in the car, including the gun, and consented to a search of her and Henry's house, where officers discovered additional bags of marihuana, a bag of cocaine, and drug paraphernalia.

         Henry was indicted for possession of a firearm by a felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) and for possession of marihuana in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 844(a). He moved to suppress evidence seized as a result of the traffic stop, but the court denied the motion, concluding that the stop was not unreasonable, even if based on a mistake of law. After a bench trial, the court convicted Henry on both counts.

         II.

         Henry contends that the court erred in denying his motion to suppress. He maintains that the traffic stop was unlawful because Freeman and Tros-clair did not have reasonable suspicion that he had engaged in any illegal activity. The officers averred that they believed Henry's obstructed registration sticker violated Louisiana Statutes Annotated § 32:53(A)(3), which provides that "[e]very permanent registration license plate . . . shall be maintained free from foreign materials and in a condition to be clearly legible."[1]Henry counters that Section 32:53 does not apply to obstructed registration stickers and that the officers' interpretation of the statute was unreasonable.

         A.

         "In reviewing a district court's denial of a motion to suppress, we review the district court's findings of fact for clear error and its conclusions of law de novo. In reviewing findings of fact, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party prevailing below, which in this case is the Government." United States v. Andres, 703 F.3d 828, 832 (5th Cir. 2013) (citations omitted). When determining whether the facts provided reasonable suspicion, "we must 'give due weight to inferences drawn from those facts by resident judges and local law enforcement officers.'"[2]

         B.

         "Traffic stops are deemed seizures for the purposes of the Fourth ...


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