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United States v. Swann

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Columbus Division

November 20, 2014



STEPHEN HYLES, Magistrate Judge.

Presently pending before the Court is Defendant's motion to suppress and exclude evidence in limine. (ECF No. 8.) The Court held a hearing on the motion on September 17, 2014 and reserved ruling on the motion until the parties could fully brief the issues. Defendant filed his brief on October 28, 2014 (ECF No. 19), the Government responded on November 3, 2014 (ECF No. 20), and Defendant filed a Reply on November 12, 2014 (ECF No. 21). The motion being ripe for review, the Court finds that there was probable cause to stop Defendant, that the stop was not unreasonably extended, and that Defendant gave consent to the searches which led to the discovery of the incriminating evidence at issue. Defendant's motion is therefore denied.


Defendant is charged with two counts of possession of a controlled substance in violation of 21 U.S.C. ยง 844. (Information, ECF No. 1.) Defendant urges the Court to exclude and suppress the evidence obtained during a traffic stop of Defendant's vehicle on October 4, 2013. (Mot. to Suppress 1.) There is no material dispute over the facts and circumstances surrounding the traffic stop and subsequent searches.

At roughly 6:30 a.m. on October 4, 2013, Officer Valdes, an officer with Fort Benning Department of Emergency Services, initiated a traffic stop of Defendant's vehicle on Fort Benning due to a cracked windshield.[1] (Tr. 4-6.) Officer Valdes approached the vehicle on the passenger side and noted that Defendant appeared "more nervous than a normal person would be on a traffic stop, " based upon Defendant's hands shaking and heavy breathing. (Tr. 7.) Officer Valdes inquired as to why Defendant was nervous, and Defendant stated that he was nervous because he was late for work. ( Id. ) Officer Valdes then followed up by asking Defendant whether he had ever been arrested, and Defendant stated that he had and was at that time on probation for possession of drug paraphernalia. ( Id. ) Officer Valdes then requested back-up and while awaiting back-up asked Defendant to step out of the vehicle and Defendant complied. (Tr. 8.)

Officer Valdes then initiated a computer background check on Defendant, which came back that Defendant "had a clean record." (Tr. 18.) Despite the background check results, Officer Valdes informed Defendant that due to his nervousness and admitted probation status he wished to search Defendant's vehicle, and Defendant told Officer Valdes that "he had no problem with it." (Tr. 8.) Officer Valdes testified that from the time he initiated the traffic stop to the point where he requested consent to search the vehicle was roughly eleven to twelve minutes. (Tr. 36.)

Prior to searching the vehicle, Officer Valdes told Defendant that he needed to pat him down, and Defendant submitted to a pat down search of his person. (Tr. 9.) When questioned about weapons, Defendant volunteered that he had a knife in his right front pocket and Officer Valdes asked if he could retrieve it. (Tr. 9-10.) After Defendant gave verbal consent, Officer Valdes put his hand on Defendant's right front pocket and Defendant pulled away. (Tr. 10.) For his own safety, Officer Valdes then put Defendant into handcuffs because he knew Defendant had a knife. ( Id. ) Officer Valdes then placed his hand over the pocket again and felt a hard object that was not a knife, and Defendant stated that it was cocaine. ( Id. ) Officer Valdes removed the knife and the hard container and observed that it contained a white substance. (Tr. 11.) Another officer then arrived at the scene and conducted a search of the vehicle. ( Id. ) During that search, three bags of marijuana were found. (Tr. 60.)


Defendant argues that the evidence obtained from his person as well as the search of his vehicle should be suppressed and excluded because they were the result of an illegal search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Government contends that the search was conducted lawfully with the voluntary consent of Defendant and therefore the evidence obtained is admissible.

I. Legal Standard

"[O]nce an officer has briefly stopped a motor vehicle operator for the purpose of issuing a traffic violation ( i.e., a ticket), " the Fourth Amendment permits the officer to detain the vehicle's occupants "only if the officer can point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the intrusion.'" United States v. Pruitt, 174 F.3d 1215, 1219 (11th Cir. 1999) (quoting United States v. Griffin, 109 F.3d 706, 708 (11th Cir. 1997) (per curiam)). The detention must "last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop, " and "the scope of the detention must be carefully tailored to its underlying justification.'" Id. at 1220 (quoting Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 500 (1983)).

Generally, this rule allows an officer conducting a routine traffic stop to obtain the "driver's license and vehicle registration, run a computer check [on the license and vehicle], and issue a citation." Id. at 1219. Prolonging the detention for additional questioning beyond that related to the initial stop is permissible if: (1) the officer "has an objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion illegal activity has occurred or is occurring, " or (2) "the initial detention has become a consensual encounter." Id. at 1220. Where consent to search is given, only the portion of the stop prior to the grant of consent is relevant to the inquiry of whether the duration was unconstitutional. United States v. Purcell, 236 F.3d 1274, 1279 (11th Cir. 2001).

Furthermore, a court evaluating a traffic stop for Fourth Amendment analysis must do so "in the context of the totality of the circumstances." Id. Thus, if an officer asks the driver of a vehicle questions that are completely unrelated to the initial stop, that does not necessarily convert the stop to an unconstitutional detention. Id. at 1280. The key is whether the unrelated questions prolong the stop. As long as the unrelated questions are asked during the process of obtaining legitimate information for citation purposes, such questions by suspicious officers are permissible. See id. (finding that police may question occupants about subjects unrelated to motor vehicle stop while computer license check is in progress or while citation is being prepared). More recently, the Supreme Court reiterated that "[a]n officer's inquiries into matters unrelated to the ...

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