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United States v. Stewart

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

July 20, 2018




         Before the Court is the Motion to Suppress (Doc. 13) filed by Defendant, Darren Stewart, seeking the suppression of evidence seized during a warrantless search of his garage on October 18, 2017. (Id. at ¶¶ 2-3). The United States filed an Opposition. (Doc. 16). On June 1, 2018, the Court held an evidentiary hearing. (Docs. 17, 19). For the following reasons the Motion to Suppress (Doc. 13) is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On October 18, 2017, Baton Rouge Police Department ("BRPD") Narcotics Detectives Nicholas Collins, Jeremiah Ardoin, and Roderick McCoy, surveilled a residence located on Madison Avenue in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after receiving an anonymous telephone complaint "a day or two before" from an "unreliable and unverified complainant" that an individual known as "D-Boy" was selling drugs out of the residence's garage. (Doc. 16 at p. 2; Doc. 19 at pp. 36-37). Each detective drove a separate unmarked vehicle and wore a vest that displayed a BRPD badge on the front and the word "POLICE" emblazoned in large letters on the back. (Doc. 16 at p. 2). Before he parked in his surveillance location, Detective Collins drove past the residence and noticed that the garage door was opened and its contents observable from the public street. (Id.). He claims to have observed two unknown black males inside of the garage sitting in chairs. (Id.).

         Detective Collins then parked his vehicle on Madison Avenue and began his surveillance. (Id.). From his location, he had a clear view of the residence, but he could no longer see inside of the garage. (Id.). About five or ten minutes after parking his vehicle, Detective Collins observed a vehicle park in the middle of the street in front of the garage. (Doc. 19 at p. 19). An unknown person exited the vehicle and walked into the garage for approximately one minute before returning to the parked vehicle and leaving the area. (Id.). About five minutes later, Detective Collins observed a second vehicle park in front of the garage. (Id. at p. 20). An unknown person exited the passenger side of the vehicle and walked into the garage for approximately one minute before returning to the vehicle and leaving the area. (Id.).

         Detective Collins testified that because two people within only a few minutes had quickly entered and left the garage, he believed that narcotics transactions had occurred inside of the garage. (Id. at pp. 21-22). He then directed another detective to pursue the second vehicle to investigate the activity inside the garage under the guise of a traffic violation for "obstruction of a roadway." (Id. at pp. 21-22, 62). Detective Collins then testified that the stop "was going to turn into an investigatory stop" in order to ascertain information regarding the activity in the garage. (Id. at p. 62). However, after the vehicle was stopped by the detective, the passenger exited the vehicle and fled the area while the vehicle's driver evaded the detective. (Id. at p. 21).

         Consequently, after about fifteen minutes of surveillance, Detective Collins abandoned his surveillance, exited his vehicle, and approached the garage, which was only a short distance from the street, to continue the investigation. (Doc. 19 at pp. 20, 23; see also Doc. 16-1). The passenger fleeing from the detective prompted Detective Collins to abandon his surveillance because he believed that there was a possibility that the person who fled the vehicle could warn Defendant that the police were watching his residence. (Doc. 19 at pp. 21-23). As a result, Detective Collins testified that he intended to "make contact" with the garage occupants "to try to validate the claim [narcotics complaint]" before they could be warned; he conceded that he did not have probable cause to arrest Defendant, to search the garage, or to get a warrant at that time. (Id. at pp. 22-23).

         As depicted in his body camera footage, the garage door was still completely open. (Video at 21:45:46).[1] Detective Collins testified that he smelled marijuana when he exited his vehicle, and he further testified that the odor grew stronger as he walked up the driveway to the garage. (Doc. 19 at p. 24). Detective Collins also testified that before entering the garage, he saw loose marijuana out in the open in the garage. (Id. at p. 27). However, it was not photographed or presented as evidence at the hearing. His body camera footage does not depict loose marijuana at the time he entered the garage. (Video at 21:45:46-21:45:52). The footage depicts a heavily congested garage area with items that would inhibit sight and movement. (Id.; see also Doc. 16-2). Specifically, the footage shows that the garage was packed to the brim with all sorts of items, such as an Igloo Cooler stacked on top of multiple children's bicycles and other toys, as well as a golf cart and a fan stacked on top of a box. (Doc. 16-2). The footage also shows that the garage was very dark and crowded, with little to no space to move around. (Id.).

         Detective Collins also testified that as he came within fifteen feet of the garage, he observed Defendant remove an unidentified object from his person and discard it to the left of his seat. (Doc. 19 at pp. 25, 51). When the object hit the ground, Detective Collins claims he heard a loud clink, which he claimed to have recognized as the sound a handgun makes when it hits the ground.[2] (Id. at pp. 25-26). The video footage does not contain audio during this part of the encounter. Detective Collins then entered the garage and approached Defendant and the other garage occupant ("Defendant's cousin"); however, the video does not depict Defendant removing an object from his person, an object hitting the ground, or any noise/clink (audio begins at 21:45:59). The video also depicts a box with a fan sitting on top, which obstructed the area where the firearm allegedly dropped to the ground. (Video at 21:45:51-21:45:53).

         Detective Collins testified that after hearing the distinct sound,

I drew my weapon and advised everybody in there to put your hands up. Put your hands in the air. And I kind of bladed [sic] myself to a brick wall they had on the left-hand side to make sure that I was out of the way in case something did happen and everyone complied at that point. And 1 re-holstered [sic] my weapon and when Detective Ardoin came behind me I went and contacted [Defendant and his cousin].

(Doc. 19 at pp. 26-27).

         However, the footage shows that Detective Collins casually entered straight into the garage-without taking cover behind the wall-to secure Defendant and his cousin, and the video does not depict that his gun was ever drawn or holstered. (Video at 21:45:51-21:45:53). Further, the footage shows both individuals with their hands in the air; Defendant has a video game controller in his left hand. (Video at 21:45:53-21:45:58). The footage then depicts Detective Collins (in the presence of a second detective) approach both individuals, who are sitting in chairs; he then proceeded directly to the cousin and cleared a laptop from his immediate vicinity. (Video at 21:46:10-21:47:18). Detective Collins then handcuffed both individuals. The first to be handcuffed was the cousin, during which Defendant remained seated without handcuffs. (Id.). Detective Collins then advised them both of their Miranda rights. (Id.). Although Detective Collins claims he heard the sound of a firearm dropping before entering the garage, neither the footage nor his testimony suggests that the second detective was informed about, or alerted to, the possibility of a firearm near the Defendant who, at the time, was still sitting where the gun was claimed to have been dropped without handcuffs and within arm's reach. (Id.).

         After explaining to both individuals that they were under arrest because of complaints of drug trafficking, the footage depicts Detective Collins questioning Defendant regarding, inter alia, the contents of the garage and/or drug evidence "in plain view" in the garage, such as "mojo," synthetic marijuana, and "bath salts." (Video at 21:47:18-21:47:52). Only after approximately 35 seconds of questioning, Detective Collins inquired about the object Defendant dropped when Detective Collins walked up the driveway. (Id.). Particularly, while shining his flashlight in the area next to Defendant's seat, Detective Collins asks "what you put down [sic] right here when I walked up? Oh a pistol okay ... I see what you got going on here." (Video at 21:47:48-21:47:59). Neither Detective Collins nor the other detective moved to secure the firearm at that time. (Id. at 21:47-21:48). The firearm first appears in the footage at 21:48:26, between the chair and clutter.

         As depicted in the video, the garage has a concrete floor (Video at 21:45:52). Under the Defendant's chair was a small dark-gray piece of carpet or a mat around Defendant's left foot (Id. at 21:46:05, 21:46:40, 21:47:15). A second piece of carpet appears under the right front leg of Defendant's chair; it is lighter in color and angled toward the right (both pieces of carpeting are clearly visible near the video game controller) (Id. at 21:46:40, 21:47:15). The floor is otherwise obstructed by clutter, shadows, and lack of lighting in the garage.[3]

         Detective Collins moved both individuals and their chairs to the driveway, during which time he laughed and treated the situation casually.[4] (Video at 21:48:17-21:49:05). Shortly thereafter, Defendant completed a consent to search form authorizing a search of the garage. (Doc. 16 at p. 4). "During the search, the detectives recovered approximately 24.93 grams of synthetic marijuana blends and approximately] 4.73 grams of methamphetamine." (Id.). However, during cross examination, Detective Collins testified that "roaches," which are the remains of a joint or blunt, were discovered during the encounter and/or search, but that he decided not to seize them, which he admitted was in direct contravention of BRPD policy on the seizure of drug evidence. (Doc. 19 at pp. 46, ...

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