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United States v. Johnson

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

February 2, 2015

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
SHAWNTON DEON JOHNSON, Defendant-Appellant

Page 1271

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. D.C. Docket No. 1:13-cr-20128-CMA-1.

For United States of America, Plaintiff - Appellee: Jonathan Colan, Matthew John Langley, Assistant U.S. Attorney, Kathleen Mary Salyer, Wifredo A. Ferrer, Michael J. Garofola, Alison Whitney Lehr, Elina A. Rubin-Smith, Assistant U.S. Attorney, John C. Shipley, Assistant U.S. Attorney, U.S. Attorney's Office, Miami, FL.

For Shawnton Deon Johnson, Defendant - Appellant: Michael Caruso, Federal Public Defender, Tracy Michele Dreispul, Federal Public Defender's Office, Miami, FL.

Before WILLIAM PRYOR and JORDAN, Circuit Judges, and JONES,[*] District Judge.

OPINION

Page 1272

WILLIAM PRYOR, Circuit Judge:

This appeal requires us to decide whether to apply the inevitable discovery exception to the exclusionary rule when a police officer illegally discovers evidence that he would have discovered in a later inventory search. When a police officer stopped a truck driven by Shawnton Johnson, the officer checked the license plate for the truck and determined that it was registered to a deceased person. And Johnson admitted that he was driving the truck with a suspended driver's license. The officer then conducted an illegal search of the truck and discovered a sawed-off shotgun. The officer arrested Johnson, performed an inventory search of the truck, and had the truck impounded. Johnson later moved to suppress the shotgun, but the government responded that the shotgun was admissible under the exception to the exclusionary rule for inevitable discovery. The government argued that, because there was no registered owner to whom the officer could have returned the truck, the officer would have discovered the shotgun when he impounded the truck and conducted an inventory search. The district court denied the motion to suppress. Johnson pleaded guilty to one count of felon-in-possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), but reserved the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. Because the district court neither clearly erred in its findings of fact nor misapprehended the governing law, we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

Officer Brian Gregory of the Miami Gardens Police Department was on patrol in the early morning of October 19, 2012, when he encountered a white Ford truck driven by Johnson. Officer Gregory searched the license plate number on his computer and discovered that the registered owner of the truck was deceased. When the truck failed to signal a turn, Officer Gregory stopped the vehicle.

Officer Gregory asked Johnson for his driver's license; Johnson responded that his license was suspended and instead provided a Florida identification card. Officer

Page 1273

Gregory searched Johnson's license history and learned that Johnson's license had been suspended six times and was currently suspended. Officer Gregory issued a traffic citation to Johnson for driving with a suspended license and decided that he would arrest Johnson for the infraction, but Officer Gregory did not perform the arrest then.

Officer Gregory approached Johnson's truck to determine if anyone else was inside. While peering inside the truck, Officer Gregory noticed an item wrapped in a clean white cloth. He removed the cloth and discovered a sawed-off shotgun. Officer Gregory then arrested Johnson.

After the arrest, Officer Gregory conducted a detailed inventory search of the truck, including its bed and containers. Officer Gregory also further researched the truck, but he was unable to find another registered owner. About 20 minutes after he inventoried the truck, Officer Gregory completed a vehicle storage receipt and requested that the truck be towed, and marked as the reason " license suspended."

A grand jury indicted Johnson on charges of possessing a firearm as a felon, 18 U.S.C. § § 922(g)(1), 924(e), and knowingly possessing an unregistered firearm, 26 U.S.C. § § 5841, 5861(d), 5871. Before trial, Johnson moved to suppress the shotgun as the fruit of an illegal search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. U.S. Const. Amend. IV. The government argued that the shotgun was admissible under the exception to the exclusionary rule for inevitable discovery because Officer Gregory would have discovered it during his inventory search of the truck. At the suppression hearing, the district court heard testimony from Officer Gregory and examined a recording of the incident.

The district court ruled that the initial search of the truck was illegal and that the exception for inevitable discovery did not apply. The district court found that the facts were in " large part" as the government had alleged them, but that Officer Gregory did not know he was going to tow the truck when he first searched it and found the shotgun. The district court found that, at the time of the search, Officer Gregory was still looking for ways to avoid towing the truck. Because the government had not established that Officer Gregory was " actively pursuing" an inventory search, United States v. Virden, 488 ...


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