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United States v. Paul

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

May 19, 2017




         This matter comes before the Court on the Motion to Suppress Evidence (with Incorporated Memorandum) (Doc. 17) filed by Defendant Frederick G. Paul. The Government opposes the motion. (Doc. 21.) An evidentiary hearing was held on February 22, 2017. (Docs. 23, 27.) Post-hearing briefs were filed by the parties (Docs. 28-30.) Further oral argument is not necessary. The Court has carefully considered the law, the facts in the record, and the arguments and submissions of the parties and is prepared to rule as follows.

         The Defendant's motion is denied. The Court finds the officers' testimony credible and believes that there was reasonable suspicion for the traffic stop based on (1) the Defendant's initial refusal to pull over immediately; (2) the plastic baggie that fell from the Defendant's waist or lap upon his exiting the vehicle; (3) the high crime area the officers were in; (4) the smell of marijuana coming from the Defendant and/or his vehicle; and (5) the officers' experience and training in all of these areas. The Court further concludes that this traffic stop was not excessive in duration given the officers' smelling of marijuana from the Defendant and/or his car.

         Additionally, the officers had probable cause to search the vehicle. First, the burnt marijuana cigarette and stolen firearm were in plain view. Second, when the officers smelled marijuana coming from the Defendant and/or his car, they had probable cause to search the entire vehicle, including the closed compartment near the steering wheel where the bulk of the illegal drugs were found. For all these reasons, the Defendant's motion is denied.

         I. Relevant Factual Background

         A. Introduction

         This motion centers on the legality of a traffic stop and search occurring on March 21, 2016, at around 6:45 p.m. near the Gardere Lane area of Baton Rouge. The main players are Corporal Dustin Sellars, Deputy DePedro, Mrs. Danielle Paul, and the Defendant Frederick Paul.

         Corporal Sellars has been with the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office for nine years, and he has been assigned to the Special Community Anti-Crime Team (SCAT) for seven years. (Hr'g Tr., 4-5, Doc. 27.) SCAT “go[es] into high crime neighborhood areas in East Baton Rouge Parish looking for illegal activities such as guns, drugs, [and] things of that nature.” (Hr'g Tr., 4.) Sellars would patrol these areas in two-man units in marked EBRPSO vehicles and “do a lot of traffic stops. Pretty much any kind of violation we can get . . . anything we can do to contact people just to see what's going on.” (Hr'g Tr., 5.) Sellars said further: “We patrol high crime areas and we pretty much -- any kind of violation we get on vehicles we usually use that as a chance to see who's inside the vehicle, talk to them, make sure they're in the right place, make sure they're not doing anything illegal.” (Hr'g Tr., 23.) Sellars testified that he has performed “thousands” of traffic stops since 2010 and has made “probably around 800” narcotics arrests. (Hr'g Tr., 6.)

         Deputy DePedro has been employed by the EBRPSO for almost nine years. (Hr'g Tr., 33.) He has been with the SCAT Division for about a year. (Hr'g Tr., 33.) As of the date of the events in question, DePedro had conducted more than one hundred traffic stops. (Hr'g Tr., 37.)

         B. The Traffic Stop

         On March 21, 2016, Sellars was patrolling with DePedro in the Gardere Lane area, a “rundown area” with “a lot of vacant houses, apartment complexes, and stuff like that.” (Hr'g Tr., 6-7.) Around 6:45 p.m., Sellars was traveling on Gardere Lane behind a red Volkswagen Beetle when he observed the Volkswagen make a right turn from Gardere to Coy without using a turn signal. (Hr'g Tr., 8.) From Sellars' training, he knew this was a violation of Louisiana law. (Hr'g Tr., 8.) Based on that violation, Sellars and DePedro initiated a traffic stop by turning on their lights and sirens. (Hr'g Tr., 9-10.)

         The officers initiated the traffic stop at Coy and Seaboard. (Hr'g Tr., 10.) Defendant did not pull over immediately but went into an apartment complex down the road on Coy. (Hr'g Tr., 10.) The Volkswagen traveled “probably over 30 seconds” with “plenty of opportunity to pull over.” (Hr'g Tr., 22.) Sellars testified that this concerned him because: “[b]ased on [his] training and experience, when people refuse to stop they're usually trying to hide things or weapons, illegal narcotics, stuff like that.” (Hr'g Tr., 11.)

         After the Volkswagen came to a stop, the officers exited their unit, and, as they were doing so, the Defendant immediately jumped out of the driver's side. (Hr'g Tr., 12-13, 24.) Sellars testified:

Normally, from my experience and training, people who get out, they don't want me to get to the vehicle because they're most probably trying to hide something; they don't want me to smell anything. Also, it's kind of a concern for my safety, because why are they approaching me now. I haven't ordered you to come back to me. Normally they just stay in the vehicle.

(Hr'g Tr., 31.)

         Sellars also stated that, “When [Defendant] exited the vehicle, we observed a clear, plastic baggy fall from around his waist area onto the ground.” (Hr'g Tr., 14.) Sellars said that he was familiar with this type of baggy and that “normally people use that to package illegal narcotics such as marijuana and stuff like that.” (Hr'g Tr., 14.)

         Additionally, as the officers were walking up to address the Defendant and passenger, they “got a strong odor of marijuana, so [they] immediately detained the [Defendant]” but not the juvenile passenger. (Hr'g Tr., 14.) Sellars stated that he was familiar with marijuana and has encountered it “just about every day” in his nine years of law enforcement experience, both in its raw form and burnt. (Hr'g Tr., 14.) Here, the marijuana smell was burnt and coming from the vehicle. (Hr'g Tr., 14-15.) According to Sellars, the odor was ...

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