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United States v. Williams

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

August 27, 2019




         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant's Motion to Suppress (Doc. 19) filed by Leon Williams (“Defendant” or “Williams”). The Government opposes the motion. (Doc. 21.) Defendant filed a reply. (Doc. 22.) Following the May 21, 2019, evidentiary hearing (Doc. 30), both parties submitted post-hearing briefs (Docs. 35, 36), and the Government filed a post-hearing reply (Doc. 37). Further 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. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is denied.

         I. Relevant Background

         The basic facts are undisputed. On February 27, 2018, at around 4:15 p.m., Corporal Brian Jones and Sergeant Kyle Callihan of the Baton Rouge Police Department were stationed by a parking lot across from the federal courthouse, near the intersection of Florida Street and North Ninth Street. Defendant was a passenger in a silver 2003 Mercedes C230 sedan that was traveling down North Ninth Street toward Florida Street-though how they got to North Ninth Street is a contentious fact at issue.

         The parties agree that Corporal Jones effectuated the stop and had the Mercedes pull into the parking lot. After the stop, Jones smelled marijuana. After prompting, the driver, Jerry Thomas, produced a small bag of marijuana and said that he and the Defendant had rolled a blunt. When asked about the blunt, Defendant said he ate it. Eventually, Callihan searched under the passenger seat, where Defendant had previously been sitting. Callihan found a pistol and more marijuana.

         The parties also agree that, during the encounter, Callihan made some attempt at providing a Miranda warning, but they disagree as to whether it was done properly. Ultimately, however, Defendant made incriminating statements to the police.

         Defendant was arrested and later indicted by a federal grand jury with one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He now moves to suppress the evidence seized and all statements he made to the police.

         As will be discussed below, there are four main questions in this case. The first is whether Corporal Jones had reasonable suspicion to believe that the Mercedes made an illegal left turn from Laurel Street onto North Ninth Street (the alleged basis for the stop). The second is whether Defendant has standing to complain about the search of the vehicle when he was a mere passenger and the gun was found underneath his seat. The third is whether, if there is standing, there was still probable cause to search the vehicle despite the driver producing a small bag of marijuana and the Defendant saying he swallowed a blunt.[1] And the fourth is whether Defendant's statements to the police were the result of a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of his Miranda rights.

         II. Discussion on Motion to Suppress Evidence Seized

         A. General Principles

          The Fourth Amendment guarantees that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” United States v. Hunt, 253 F.3d 227, 230 (5th Cir. 2001) (quoting U.S. Const. amend. IV). “The essential purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to impose a standard of ‘reasonableness' upon law enforcement agents and other government officials in order to prevent arbitrary invasions of the privacy and security of citizens.” Id. (citing Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653-654, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 59 L.Ed.2d 660 (1979)). Accordingly, “the Supreme Court has determined that warrantless searches and seizures are per se unreasonable unless they fall within a few narrowly defined exceptions.” United States v. Cardenas, 9 F.3d 1139, 1147 (5th Cir. 1993) (citing Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 454-55, 91 S.Ct. 2022, 29 L.Ed.2d 564 (1971)).

         “While in general, on a motion to suppress, the defendant has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the material in question was seized in violation of his constitutional rights, there are several situations where the burden shifts to the government.” United States v. Roch, 5 F.3d 894, 897 (5th Cir. 1993). The Fifth Circuit has stated that one situation in which the burden shifts to the Government is when a defendant shows that he was subject to search without a warrant. Id. Consequently, because it is undisputed that Defendant was subject to a warrantless search, if he establishes standing, the Government bears the burden of proving the legality of the stop and the warrantless search by a preponderance of the evidence. United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 178 n. 14, 94 S.Ct. 988, 996, 39 L.Ed.2d 242 (1974).

         B. Reasonable Suspicion to Conduct the Traffic Stop

         1. Parties' Arguments

          Defendant first contends that the officers did not have reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop at the outset. Defendant maintains that their stated reason is “not supported by the officers' body camera footage nor do the police reports authored by the officers provide any detail or context as to the alleged illegal left turn.” (Doc. 19-1 at 4.)

         The Government responds that the officers had reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop at the onset. Again, according to the Government, the officers were stationed under the overpass near the 900 block of Laurel Street. Corporal Jones observed the 2003 Mercedes exit the interstate at the Laurel Street exit and make an illegal left turn onto North Ninth Street. The Government urges that this location is well marked with signs prohibiting left turns.

         Defendant replies: “Nothing in the officers' reports or body camera videos support their conclusion that they observed the Mercedes make an illegal left turn. Whether the officers [have] reasonable suspicion to stop the Mercedes is a question of fact to be determined at the evidentiary hearing.” (Doc. 22 at 5.)

         In post-hearing briefing, Defendant reiterates that Corporal Jones's alleged observations are “not corroborated by his partner and [are] not shown on his body camera recording.” (Doc. 36 at 3 (footnote omitted).) According to Defendant, Jones could not have seen the Mercedes make an illegal left turn off I-110 from his position and the obstructions in his view. Defendant emphasizes that the illegal left turn was “nearly a block away” with “numerous trees, several large signs, and parked vehicles in between Jones and the location where the left turn would have occurred.” (Doc. 36 at 3.) Defendant also asserts that “Jones's own body camera footage provides the best evidence of his obstructed view, ” as these videos show “trees and a large white sign directly between Jones and the intersection” at issue. (Doc. 36 at 3.) There was also a white sedan on Laurel Street at the intersection with North Ninth Street which, Defendant says, would have obstructed the view of the Mercedes. The footage also shows the Mercedes in the center lane of North Ninth Street, not the far-left lane. Neither Thomas nor Defendant agree or admit to making the turn, and Sergeant Callihan did not see the turn either. In sum: “Given Jones's obstructed view, the lack of corroboration by his camera or partner, and the evidence contradicting a left turn, Jones was simply mistaken [in] his belief that the Mercedes had turned left.” (Doc. 36 at 4.) This may not have been intentional, but, if wrong, Jones, by his own admission, had no reasonable suspicion to effectuate the stop.

         After the Government concedes that Defendant has standing as a passenger to dispute the validity of the stop (Doc. 37 at 1), the Government argues that the video is not the best evidence of the alleged violation. The Government asserts: (1) the “camera was only activated after Corporal Jones witnessed the infraction and was moving toward[] flagging down the vehicle[, ]” so “it did not capture the vehicle turning onto [North] Ninth Street nor did it capture the exact view Corporal Jones had at the time he observed the violation” (Doc. 37 at 2.); and (2) “the camera is not positioned in the area of Corporal Jones'[s] eyes/face.” (Doc. 37 at 2.) Thus, according to the Government, Corporal Jones's testimony is the best evidence of what he saw. The Government then looks at the video and highlights how it does not support Defendant; for example, Defendant is wrong to say that he would have been in the far left lane, because (1) he falsely assumes that Defendant would have made a proper turn into the appropriate lane of traffic, and (2) the median at the corner of Laurel Street and North Ninth Street would have required a wide left turn, which would have put the Mercedes in the center lane. Moreover, Defendant made a certain statement to the police admitting that Thomas had made an illegal turn and that he was at fault.

         Additionally, in its own original post-hearing briefing, the Government details the parts of Jones's testimony that supports reasonable suspicion, including a statement that he had a “clear line of sight from where he was standing to observe the traffic violation, ” that he was “positive he saw the vehicle illegally turn from the Laurel Street exit ramp, and there is no way to make a legal turn from that intersection.” (Doc. 35 at 2 (citations omitted).) Further, while Sergeant Callihan did not observe the illegal turn, he confirmed that there was no legal way to make a left turn from that intersection and that the intersection is clearly marked with signs. The Government also points to the Defendant's own statements, where he said he could not believe all that happened from a wrong turn.

         2. Applicable Law

         The Fifth Circuit analyzes the constitutionality of traffic stops under the standard articulated in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). United States v. Berry, 664 Fed.Appx. 413, 418 (5th Cir. 2016) (per curiam). Terry articulated a two-part test, which asks: (1) whether the officer's action was “justified at its inception, ” and (2) whether the officer's subsequent actions were “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the stop in the first place.” United States v. Lopez-Moreno, 420 F.3d 420, 430 (5th Cir. 2005) (quoting Terry, 392 U.S. at 19-20, 88 S.Ct. 1868).

         As to the first prong, “[f]or a traffic stop to be justified at its inception, an officer must have an objectively reasonable suspicion that some sort of illegal activity, such as a traffic violation, occurred, or is about to occur, before stopping the vehicle.” United States v. Henry, 853 F.3d 754, 756-57 (5th Cir. 2017) (quoting United States v. Andres, 703 F.3d 828, 832 (5th Cir. 2013)). “To pass muster, [the officer's] suspicion must have been based on specific and articulable facts and not mere hunches.” United States v. Martinez, 808 F.2d 1050, 1054 (5th Cir. 1987) (citing United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417-18, 101 S.Ct. 690, 694-95, 66 L.Ed.2d 621 (1981); Terry, 392 U.S. at 21, 88 S.Ct. at 1879). Additionally, the Court “must gauge those facts not individually, but in their totality and as seen and interpreted by officers of [the effectuating officer's] experience.” Id. (citations omitted). Lastly, “[r]easonable suspicion can rest on a mistake of law or fact if the mistake is objectively reasonable.” Henry, 853 F.3d at 757 (citing United States v. Alvarado-Zarza, 782 F.3d 246, 249 (5th Cir. 2015)).

         3. Analysis

         Having carefully considered the law and facts in the record, the Court finds that the Government has sustained its burden of proving that Corporal Jones had reasonable suspicion to believe that the Mercedes made an illegal left turn from Laurel Street onto North Ninth Street. The Court bases this conclusion largely on Jones's testimony, which the Court found highly credible.

         Specifically, Jones testified that, on the day in question, he was “working a seat belt enforcement grant overtime” and was positioned so that he was “standing on 9th Street pretty much directly across from the courthouse here facing northbound watching southbound traffic approach and also the exit ramp.” (Tr. 9, Doc. 34.) Thus, Jones's specific purpose on the day in question was to watch the area where the alleged violation occurred to spot seat belt and “other traffic violations.” (Tr. 27-28, Doc. 34.)

         Jones further testified that, in the first stop he made that day, he “[o]bserved a vehicle exit the interstate onto Laurel Street and then make a left turn from the Laurel Street exit ramp onto 9thStreet.” (Tr. 9, Doc. 34.) The car did this despite the prohibition on left-hand turns at that intersection and the four signs indicating as such. (Tr. 9-10, 23, Doc. 34.) After observing the violation, Jones stepped in front of the vehicle and motioned for it to pull into the parking area under the interstate. (Id.)

         Also important, Jones specifically responded to the concerns Defendant is now raising. Jones testified:

Q. Okay. Now, in between where you're standing and where the Mercedes, you say, took the left-hand turn there's a lot of things that obstruct your view; isn't that right?
A. There are things there, but we do have a clear line of sight from this location.

(Tr. 29, Doc. 34.) Similarly, Jones said:

Q. Are you positive that you saw it turn from the Laurel Street exit ramp?
A. Yes. If it had not turned from the ramp it would not have been stopped. If it had not made a left turn at that intersection the way it did it would have never been stopped.
Q. And you're sure you had a clear sign of view at that vehicle, correct?
A. Yes. I can see over the cars.

(Tr. 55-56, Doc. 34; see also Tr. 54-55 & Def. Ex. 9-a (Jones stating that there was no way for the Mercedes to turn legally and to be where it was on North Ninth Street.) The Court listened closely to Jones's testimony and observed his demeanor, and the Court found him highly believable on these critical facts.

         Additionally, the Court disagrees with Defendant and finds that the camera is not the best evidence of the traffic violation. As the Government explained, the vehicle did not capture the turn itself, and, indeed, the camera is not even pointed at the intersection at the start of the video because Jones is walking toward and facing North Ninth Street. (See Gov't Ex. 1 0:00-0:45.) Further, it's also clear from the beginning of the footage that the camera is not positioned on Jones's head, and this reinforces the fact that the footage is not dispositive of what Jones saw when the illegal turn was made. (See id.) Lastly, the Court agrees with the Government that there is a plausible explanation for the Mercedes being in the center lane at the beginning of the video, given the median in between the two lanes on Laurel Street and the high likelihood that, if Defendant made an illegal left turn, it would be wide. (See Id. 0:00-0:10; Def. Ex. 9.)

         It's also important to note that parts of the video actually confirm that Thomas made an illegal left turn. Jones specifically tells Thomas on the video that he is going to “get a citation for the turn because there are four signs starting at the top of the exit ramp coming all the way down that say do not make a left turn.” (Gov't Ex. 1-a, 5:48-6:05.) This is noteworthy for two reasons. First, Thomas does not deny making the illegal left turn, and, second, Jones sounds confident and believable when he tells Thomas this information. Thus, the video actually supports the conclusion that the Mercedes made an illegal left turn.

         Defendant's other evidence also fails to rebut Jones's testimony. The satellite (Def. Ex. 9) and Google Maps street photo (Def. Ex. 10) show that there were indeed obstructions like cars, signs, and trees in the area. However, none of those photographs prove that Jones could not see the Mercedes make the illegal turn from his vantage point (Def. Ex. 9-a; Tr. 26-27, Doc. 34.) Even if the inference could be made that these obstructions could block Jones's view, the Court again found him highly believable when he said he had a clear line of sight, particularly given the fact that, again, he was out that day specifically trying to enforce traffic laws like the one at issue.

         In sum, the Court finds that the Government has proven by a preponderance of the evidence that Corporal Jones had reasonable suspicion to believe that the Mercedes in which Defendant was traveling made an illegal left turn across Laurel Street onto North Ninth Street. As a result, this part of Defendant's motion to suppress is denied.

         C. Standing to Dispute the Search

         1. Parties' Arguments

         The Government argues that, though Defendant has standing to contest the legality of the stop, he does not have standing to contest the validity of the search because he was a passenger in the vehicle. The key is whether Defendant had an actual, subjective expectation of privacy in the area searched or evidence seized and whether that expectation was objectively reasonable. Looking at the relevant factors, Defendant lacks standing to attack the search.

         In reply, Defendant looks at the same test articulated by the Government ((1) actual, subjective belief in privacy (2) that is objectively reasonable). As to the first prong, Defendant was riding in the vehicle with the consent of the owner and with his expectation, and the gun was found under the very seat in which he was sitting. Further, Defendant argues that his expectation of privacy was reasonable because it is protected by the Louisiana Constitution, and it would create a perverse situation for such searches to be protected in state court but not federal court. Lastly, Defendant notes the absurdity of the Government charging the defendant for a gun he possessed under the front seat but at the same time claiming he has no expectation of privacy there.

         In post-hearing briefing, the Government first emphasizes that Defendant has the burden of establishing standing and that “[t]ypically, a passenger with no possessory interest in a vehicle lacks standing to challenge a search of that vehicle.” (Doc. 35 at 3 (citation omitted).) The Government then asserts that there is no evidence of any possessory interest in the firearm or vehicle. Defendant can only point to the fact that the officers said that Defendant appeared to be a welcome passenger in the vehicle and that the car was registered to Thomas's mother. But, “no testimony was elicited and no evidence was presented to indicate who positively owned the car, whether Thomas had permission to drive what was presumably his mother's car, or whether that permission was extended to the defendant.” (Doc. 35 at 3.) The Government relies on Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128 (1978) and argues that Rakas is “remarkably similar to the instant case.” (Id. at 4.) The Government also distinguishes the two cases relied upon by the Defendant in his reply brief-Untied States v. ...

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