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United States v. Wright

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

November 9, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
BRANDON WRIGHT

          RULING AND ORDER

          BRIAN A. JACKSON JUDGE

         Before the Court is the Motion to Suppress (Doc. 24) filed by Defendant, seeking the suppression of evidence seized on January 8, 2018 during a traffic stop. (Id. at 2). The United States filed a Response. (Doc. 27). The Court held an evidentiary hearing. For the following reasons the Motion to Suppress (Doc. 24) is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Defendant's arrest on January 8, 2018 fell at the intersection of two distinct crimes - a burglary and traffic violations. Three deputies from the East Baton Rouge Sheriffs Office, Deputy Edward Wheeler, Deputy William Taylor, and Deputy Kevin Johnson, testified at the evidentiary hearing regarding the events of that day.[1]

         Deputy Wheeler testified that on January 8 at approximately noon, East Baton Rouge Sheriffs Office deputies were dispatched to 21375 Carson Road in response to a burglary in progress. (Doc. 26). The dispatcher warned that the burglary suspect had escaped in a gray Ford Mustang and may have stolen a firearm from the victim's residence. As Deputy Wheeler drove in the direction of the burglary site, he allegedly observed an oncoming vehicle that appeared to exceed the speed limit. Approaching the vehicle, he noticed that it was a gray Mustang with an expired inspection sticker. Deputy Wheeler activated his patrol vehicle's emergency lights and eventually the Mustang pulled into the parking lot of an apartment complex. Defendant, the sole occupant of the vehicle, exited and immediately strode into the apartment complex. Deputy Wheeler testified that he did not follow Defendant into the building alone because of the possibility that Defendant may have possessed the stolen firearm and that, because he was unaccompanied by other officers, an encounter with Defendant under the circumstances posed an unreasonable risk to his safety. Shortly thereafter however, Defendant re-emerged from the apartment building with a Louisiana identification in hand, which he presented to Deputy Wheeler. The deputy cited Defendant for speeding and driving with an expired inspection sticker. Deputy Wheeler testified that he could not remember running the vehicle's license plates through the DMV system to ascertain the registered owner of the vehicle. At some point during the stop, other deputies, including Deputy Taylor and Deputy Johnson, arrived at the scene and assisted in the investigation.

         All three deputies testified that during the traffic stop they observed, standing in the parking lot, a woman claiming to be Defendant's sister and the owner of the Mustang. Both the United States and Defendant admit that this woman's true identity remains unverified. Deputy Wheeler testified that the woman possessed the keys to the Mustang and that Defendant identified her as his sister. Deputy Taylor testified that the woman claimed to have moving boxes stored inside the Mustang because she had recently moved into the apartment building. The deputies asked the woman for her consent to search the vehicle. Deputy Taylor and Deputy Wheeler reportedly observed Defendant calling to the woman, urging her not to give consent. Deputy Taylor testified that at first, the woman refused. However, she eventually stated that she did not want the vehicle to be towed and thereafter consented to a search. All three deputies testified that they witnessed the woman sign a consent form.

         The consent form and the identity of the woman who signed it remain a subject of contention. The signature on the form appears to be that of either a "Toya Wright" or "Joyce Wright." U.S. Exhibit 1. The lack of clarity in the handwriting renders it difficult to ascertain the woman's first name. Id. The Mustang's registration form identifies as the owner of the vehicle a "Tina Wright." Defense Exhibit 1. It is unclear if the woman who signed the consent form was indeed the registered owner of the vehicle. Regardless, it is undisputed that after she signed the form, deputies at the scene searched the vehicle. The search revealed evidence that Defendant now moves to suppress.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Standing

         Neither party has raised Defendant's standing to challenge the legality of the search of the vehicle. The Court's own review of the facts indicates that Defendant has standing to seek the exclusion of the evidence. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has held that where a defendant is the sole and lawful occupant of a vehicle when it is stopped and searched, he has standing to challenge the validity of the search. U.S. v. Edwards, 577 F.2d 883, 892 (5th Cir. 1978). See also Byrd v. United States 138 S.Ct. 1518, 1531 (2018) (finding that a driver in lawful possession of a rental car, even if he is not the authorized driver, has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle). Here, Defendant was the sole occupant of the vehicle at the time of the search, and as such has standing to challenge the search.

         B. The Stop

         The Fifth Circuit has held that the legality of a traffic stop is determined through a two-tiered reasonable suspicion inquiry. First, a determination must be made as to whether the officer's action was "justified at its inception." United States v. Lopez-Moreno, 420 F.3d 420, 430 (5th Cir. 2005). Second, a determination must be made as to whether the actions of the officer were "reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place." Id.

         For a traffic stop to be justified at its inception, an officer must have "objectively reasonable suspicion" that some sort of illegal activity, such as a traffic violation, occurred or is about to occur before stopping the vehicle. Id. The Court finds that Deputy Wheeler had reasonable suspicion of illegal activity given that Defendant both was speeding and driving a vehicle with an expired inspection sticker.

         An officer's actions must also be reasonably related to the circumstances that justified the stop. Here, Deputy Wheeler's decision to pull over Defendant with the intention of giving him a warning or ...


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