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United States v. Williams

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

February 23, 2018




         Presently before the Court is the Defendants Shauntane and Trevor Williams' Joint Motion to Suppress. (Doc. 45.) For the following reasons, the Defendants' Motion to Suppress is GRANTED.


         On January 10, 2017, Defendants Shauntane and Trevor Williams were indicted on twenty-four counts as follows: one count of conspiracy to defraud the Government with respect to claims, one count of fraud in connection with access devices, ten counts of wire fraud, ten counts of theft of Government money, property, or records, one count of aggravated identity theft - predicate wire fraud, and one count of identity theft - theft of Government property. (Doc. 1.) On May 17, 2017, the Defendants filed the instant joint motion to suppress, arguing that the stop and search of their vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment and that any evidence obtained as a result of that unconstitutional search should be suppressed. (Doc. 45.) The Government timely filed a Response, and the Defendants timely filed a Reply to this Motion. (Docs. 46 & 47.) The Court held a hearing to address the arguments and factual matters underlying this Motion on August 9, 2017 and September 27, 2017. (See Docs. 49 & 61.) The Parties timely submitted supplemental briefs following the hearing. (Docs. 64, 65, & 67.)


         During the Court's hearing on Defendant's Motion to Suppress, the Government presented one exhibit, which was admitted, and one witness. Defendant presented six exhibits, which were not admitted, and examined the same witness. After reviewing the exhibit, the witness's testimony, the Parties' arguments, and the record, the Court makes the following findings of fact.

         On February 3, 2014, Defendant Trevor Williams (“Trevor”) was driving a black Chrysler, accompanied by his wife Defendant Shauntane Williams (“Shauntane”) who was in the passenger's seat and the couples' nine-year-old daughter who was in the back seat of the car. Shortly before 7:00 p.m., Deputy Eric Strom of the Lee County Sheriffs Office observed the vehicle pass his location on GA Highway 520 in Lee County, Leesburg, Georgia. Strom observed that the vehicle was travelling approximately two car lengths behind the vehicle in front of it and moving at a rate of 68 miles per hour, so Strom activated his blue lights at 6:52 p.m. because he believed the vehicle was following too closely for the conditions given that there had been multiple collisions with deer in the area.[1]Upon activating his blue lights, Strom called in a check on the license plate which was from Florida. The car immediately pulled over and stopped.

         Strom approached the driver's side and asked Trevor for his driver's license. Trevor's license identified that he was from Tallahassee, Florida. In response to Strom's questions about their trip, Trevor stated that they were going to do some “visiting” in Texas. Trevor also provided a rental agreement for the vehicle, which showed that Shauntane was the renter and that the rental was a one-way rental from Tallahassee, Florida to Grand Prairie, Texas. Back in his patrol car, Strom confirmed that the license was valid through Florida and that the car was a valid rental. But Strom was suspicious of why the car was travelling on Highway 520 because he believed that Interstate 10 was a more direct route from Florida to Texas. After waiting for his back-up officer to arrive, Strom said to the back-up officer, “We got a one-way rental . . . from Tallahassee, Florida to Texas. You see the number one problem here, right? Why aren't we on I-10?” (Doc. 50 at 6:55 p.m.) The back-up officer responded, “Right.” Strom decided to issue Trevor a written warning for following too closely, which he stated to Trevor, and then asked Trevor to step out and walk to the rear of his vehicle. As Strom wrote the warning, he asked Trevor additional questions about their trip. In response, Trevor stated that they would be in Texas until Monday because they were going to look at a car for potential purchase. When Strom asked Trevor if this was the quickest way to Texas, Trevor responded that he and his wife were originally from Albany, Georgia[2] and that they had stopped in Albany at Shauntane's mother's house. Trevor explained that his phone kept losing service with AT&T and that he had to buy a GPS, which brought him that way. When Strom asked what type of car they were going to look at, Trevor stated that it was a 2009 Cadillac SRX. When asked how many miles, Trevor stated “like 96, 000 miles.” Then, realizing that he had not checked Shauntane's license for warrants, Strom went to ask Shauntane for her license.

         While there, Strom asked Shauntane about their trip, to which Shauntane responded that they were going to visit. When asked who they were going to visit, she stated her cousin. In response to further questions from Strom, Shauntane responded that they would be in Texas until Monday and that they were from Albany and had stopped in Albany. Strom asked Shauntane if they were going to rent a vehicle, to which Shauntane said yes. Strom was then more suspicious that the couple's story was rehearsed. Strom then asked whether they were actually going to look at a vehicle, and Shauntane responded, “That too, yes.” When asked about the type of car they would purchase, Shauntane responded that it was a 2009 Cadillac SRX. When asked if it had a lot of miles, she stated, “Um, I don't know. It's -, ” and then Strom immediately asked another question. Strom found it “extremely odd” that Trevor knew the mileage but Shauntane did not. (Doc. 45-3 at 2.) When Strom asked for her license, Shauntane said that it was in the trunk. With Shauntane's permission, Strom then pressed the button to open the trunk and asked Trevor to retrieve Shauntane's license. Strom observed one piece of luggage, jackets, a pair of shoes, and a cooler in the trunk. Strom was very suspicious that a family of three was travelling with only one piece of luggage for a four-day trip. Shauntane then produced her license from her location in the passenger's seat. When asked about having only one piece of luggage, Shauntane responded that she did not need much. Strom then confirmed that Shauntane's license was valid and that she had no warrants, but he was very suspicious about the couple's story and the purpose of their trip. In his car, Strom called someone from the Albany-Dougherty Drug Unit to ask if “Trevor Williams “ring[s] a bell, ” saying that “something ain't right about this.” Strom also seemed to ask the Drug Unit to look into its local records for Trevor Williams.

         Strom then spoke to Trevor about them not having much luggage. Trevor responded that they were only going up for the weekend, that it was a thirteen-hour drive, and that they were coming back if they liked the car. Strom thought this conflicted with Shauntane's story that they were going to visit her cousin. Strom then asked Trevor if they were travelling with anything illegal, which Trevor denied. Strom then asked about his criminal background, and Trevor responded that he had been arrested for fighting in the past. As Strom filled out the written warning, he asked Trevor if they had any of several types of drugs, which Trevor denied. Strom told Trevor that they see so many people smuggling drugs to Texas on I-10. Strom then asked whether Trevor had any large sums of money. Trevor then began discussing how his wife runs a tax preparation business and has clients in Albany who she came to see. When re-asked about large sums of money, Trevor responded that there was probably about $2, 000 in the car from his wife's business but that he did not know how much money she had. As Trevor continued to talk, Strom told Trevor that he was receiving a lot of nervous and deceptive behavior. Strom then asked Trevor for permission to search the car. After some discussion, Trevor eventually said, “You can search it.” Strom then asked Trevor what stuff was his and what was his wife's, because he could not search his wife's stuff without her permission. Trevor responded, “That's her stuff.” When asked about his clothes, Trevor stated that his stuff was “in her bag.” Strom then asked Shauntane to step to the rear of the car and asked her for consent to search her property. Shauntane responded, “Naw, I mean I got some personal stuff in there.” Trevor then told his wife that she could get her papers out, but Strom told them they could not do that because he was about to deploy his dog. Strom then asked if they wanted to get their daughter out of the car, but as Shauntane asked more questions, Strom interrupted and went to get his dog, K-9 Billy.

         Strom contends that the dog alerted to drugs in the car, but he testified that the dog did not go into its final response. Strom then explained to the Defendants that the dog indicated to drugs in the car, and that he was going to search the car. At the side of Highway 520, Strom searched the passenger compartments and trunk of the vehicle and seized various types of evidence that the Defendants seek to suppress. As Strom searched the vehicle, Shauntane told Strom that she had documents that contained her clients' personal information and that she had cashed her clients' checks and was in town to give her clients their cash. The stop and search lasted more than one hour and eleven minutes. Afterwards, the Defendants agreed to Strom's request that they follow him to the police station, but in route, the Defendants decided not to go to the police station and informed the back-up officer that they would catch up with the officers another time.


         The Defendants seek to suppress and exclude: the incident report in this case and any statements, forms, or information made or signed by the Defendants on or after February 3, 2014 pertaining to this case, U.S. currency in the amount of $26, 413.07 which was seized from the Defendants on or about February 3, 2014, “[a]ny and all other property, papers, information, witnesses, or testimony pertaining to the Defendants obtained as the fruit of the illegal search [and] seizure” on or after February 3, 2014, and “[a]ny and all evidence obtained in any investigation which occurred subsequent to this traffic stop as it is fruit of the poisonous tree.” (Doc. 45 at 1-2.) As the movants, each Defendant “bears the burdens of proof and persuasion” that their Fourth Amendment Rights have been violated. United States v. Cooper, 133 F.3d 1394, 1398 (11th Cir. 1998). “Rights secured by the Fourth Amendment are personal and cannot be vicariously asserted.” United States v. McKennon, 814 F.2d 1539, 1545 (11th Cir. 1987). The “touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness.” Florida v. Jimeno, 500 U.S. 248, 250 (1991). “Reasonableness is measured by examining the totality of the circumstances. Rigid time limitations and bright-line rules are generally inappropriate.” United States v. Purcell, 236 F.3d 1274, 1279 (11th Cir. 2001).

         I. The Defendants' Standing to Contest the Search and Seizure

          A person may only challenge a search or seizure under the Fourth Amendment if he has “standing” to contest the search or seizure, meaning that he has a legitimate expectation of privacy in the area searched that society would recognize as reasonable. Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128, 143 n.12 (1978) (quoting Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 361 (1967)); Cooper, 133 F.3d at 1398. The Government argues that Defendants have not established that their rights were violated by the search, that Shauntane has standing to challenge the search and seizure of the business records, or that the Defendants have a legitimate expectation of privacy in tax documents that do not belong to the Williamses and that are subject to Government inspection by the IRS. (Doc. 46 at 6-8.)

         A court must consider the totality of the circumstances in determining whether a person has standing to challenge a search or seizure. McKennon, 814 F.2d at 1543 (“Whether an individual possesses a constitutionally protected privacy interest depends upon the totality of circumstances.”) (citations omitted). The Eleventh Circuit recognizes that people who have received permission from the owner to borrow a car generally have standing to challenge a search of that car. United States v. Miller, 821 F.2d 546, 548-549 (11th Cir. 1987) (citing cases). Likewise, a person who rents a car has received permission from the owner to use the car and usually is found to have a legitimate expectation of privacy in that car. Cooper, 133 F.3d at 1402 (finding that defendant had standing to contest the search of a car he rented, even though the rental contract had expired); cf. United States v. McCray, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 116033, at *33 (N.D.Ga. June 15, 2017) (finding that defendant did not have an objective expectation of privacy because he “was not a driver authorized by Hertz to operate its vehicle” and had no dealings with the rental company). In these cases, the courts have found it key that the movant had possession and control over the vehicle such that he could exclude others. See United States v. Gibson, 708 F.3d 1256, 1277-78 (11th Cir. 2013) (finding standing when the vehicle was in the defendant's possession but not when it was driven by another person because “he was not the legal owner of the [car], he has not established that he had exclusive custody and control of the [car], and he was neither a driver of, nor a passenger in, the [car] when it was searched.”) Thus, in considering the factors here, the Court finds that Shauntane has standing to challenge the search of the car because she was authorized by its owner Enterprise to drive the car per their rental contract. Although the Government argues that Trevor lacks standing because he was an unauthorized driver, the rental contract clearly lists Trevor Williams as an additional authorized driver. (Doc. 45-3 at 20.)[3] Therefore, this Court finds that Trevor's expectation of privacy in the rental car was also subjectively and objectively reasonable, and he too has standing to challenge a search of the rental car.[4]

         The next issue is whether the Defendants had “a legitimate expectation of privacy in the object of the search.” U.S. v. McBean, 861 F.2d 1570, 1573 (11th Cir. 1988) (citing United States v. Hawkins, 681 F.2d 1343, 1344 (11th Cir.) (cert. denied) (“[T]he proper analysis proceeds directly to the substance of a defendant's Fourth Amendment claim to determine whether the defendant had a reasonable and legitimate expectation of privacy in the article at the time of the search.”). This expectation must be manifested subjectively, and disavowance of the object may indicate a lack of a subjective expectation of privacy in it. McBean, 861 F.2d at 1574 (holding that where defendant “stated without reservation and unequivocally that the luggage was not his, and that he did not know what the luggage contained[, ] [n]ot only did he fail to manifest a subjective expectation of privacy in the luggage and its contents, he affirmatively disavowed any such expectation.”). But, not “every type of statement disclaiming ownership of an article forecloses the establishment of a reasonable expectation of privacy therein.” Hawkins, 681 F.2d at 1346 (comparing “an affirmative disavowal of ownership” with “a passive failure to claim incriminating evidence.”). The Government argues that Defendants abandoned their privacy interests, but the Government has the burden of proving abandonment by clear evidence. (Doc. 46 at 8); United States v. Ramos, 12 F.3d 1019, 1023 (11th Cir. 1994). Here, when Trevor was asked whether he had any large sums of money, he stated that there was about $2, 000 in the car and indicated that the money was from his wife's business. Unlike in cases where the defendant was found to lack a legitimate expectation of privacy, Trevor did not affirmatively disavow any knowledge of money but spoke about the source, location, and to some extent the quantity of the money. Cf. Hawkins, 681 F.2d at 1344-46 (finding no privacy interest where defendant “had become disruptive to the point of disorderly conduct and yelled that it was not his suitcase” and “continued to disclaim any knowledge of the woman or the suitcase”); United States v. Edenilson-Reyes, No. 1:09-CR-00361-RWS-AJB, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140187, at *54 (N.D.Ga. Oct. 25, 2010) (no privacy interest where defendant denied ownership of a suitcase and its contents and signed a form disclaiming the same). Moreover, it remained under his and his wife's physical control. Cf. United States v. McKennon, 814 F.2d 1539, 1545 (11th Cir. 1987) (finding no legitimate expectation of privacy where defendant “relinquished] possession and control of the carry-on bag” and thereby “effectively surrendered the capacity to exclude others from the bag.”) Likewise, when asked about the other items in the car, Trevor stated that his items were in his wife's luggage. By stating such, Trevor contended that he did have personal belongings in the car, which remained under his possession, and that they were commingled with his wife's property. Thus, Trevor's expectation of privacy in the money and the luggage was reasonable.[5]

         Shauntane specifically declined Strom's request to search and said that she had personal items in the car.[6] Although the Government argues that the business documents did not personally belong to her and that she failed to establish the business's corporate structure, case law indicates that under the circumstances, Shauntane had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the business's documents. Shauntane insisted that as part of her tax preparation business, she traveled to her clients' homes to prepare their tax forms. The documents were not in a public space shared with other employees, but were being kept in her rental car under her (and possibly her husband's) exclusive control along with their other personal documents and belongings. That is sufficient to find a reasonable expectation of privacy in those documents. See United States v. Chaves, 169 F.3d 687, 690-91 (11th Cir. 1999) (finding standing where defendant possessed the only key to the searched warehouse, “giving him a measure of control and ability to exclude others [, ]” and kept personal and business records in the warehouse); Henzel v. United States, 296 F.2d 650, 653 (5th Cir. 1961) (finding that the sole stockholder and president of a corporation had standing to challenge the seizure of corporate books and records when he had prepared much of the confiscated material, which was kept in his office along with his personal belongings). Thus, the facts show that Shauntane had a subjective and objective expectation of privacy in her business's seized records.[7]

         As to the tax returns[8] specifically, case law indicates that “[a]n expectation of privacy in documents is not reasonable where a government agency has the right to inspect the records.” United States v. Evaschuck, 65 F.Supp.2d 1360, 1365 (M.D. Fla. 1999) (citing United States v. Welliver, 976 F.2d 1148 (8th Cir. 1992)). In Evaschuck, the court considered whether the defendant had a legitimate expectation of privacy in airplane maintenance records and found that because the statute required retention for potential inspection only for one year, and the records were more than one year old, the defendant's expectation of privacy was reasonable and he had standing. 65 F.Supp.2d at 1365. In Welliver, however, the Eighth Circuit found that the defendant's expectation of privacy was not reasonable because he was required to make available “access to any record or operation of the Company” for three years and “keep records that fully disclose all matters pertaining to th[e] Agreement, ” and that the records seized fell into such categories. 976 F.2d at 1153. Here, the Government argues that pursuant to 26 U.S.C. § 6107, a tax preparer must for three years after the close of the return period: “(1) retain a completed copy of such return or claim, or retain, on a list, the name and taxpayer identification number of the taxpayer for whom such return or claim was prepared, and (2) make such copy or list available for inspection upon request by the Secretary [of the Treasury Department or his delegate].”[9] On its face, this statute describes the specific records that must be kept and made available, and it does not require that the tax returns themselves be made available for inspection. Moreover, there is no indication that this statute provides any authority for a deputy acting under authority of a local sheriffs office to inspect or seize a person's federal tax returns without some prior authorization or observation of explicit illegality. The Court recognizes that by Shauntane's own statements that she is a tax preparer and has cashed her clients' tax refund checks, the tax returns either will be, or most likely have already been, disclosed to the federal government. Nonetheless, the Court is not convinced that simply because documents have been disclosed to the federal government in the past, a person can no longer have a legitimate expectation of privacy in them for any other purpose, especially as to a local sheriffs office at a routine traffic stop. Rather, most members of society would expect tax returns under their possession to remain private, and, under the law, a tax preparer need only provide a list of the relevant tax information for the IRS's inspection. Thus, Shauntane's expectation that the tax returns be kept private is reasonable under the circumstances. Without any other arguments advanced on this issue by the Parties, the Court concludes that Shauntane has standing to contest the search and seizure of all of her business records, including the tax forms.

         Accordingly, Shauntane and Trevor have standing to challenge the search of the car and all evidence uncovered therefrom.

         II. Whether the Initial Stop of Defendants' Car was Pretextual

         When police stop a motor vehicle, a Fourth Amendment “seizure” occurs, but “the decision to stop an automobile is [generally] reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.” United States v. Whitlock, 493 F. App'x 27, 30 (11th Cir. 2012) (quoting Whren v. United States,517 U.S. 806, 810 (1996)); United States v. Spoerke,568 F.3d 1236, 1248 (11th Cir. 2009) (“A traffic stop… ‘is constitutional if it is either based upon probable cause to believe a traffic violation has occurred or justified by reasonable suspicion in accordance with Terry [v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968)].' ” (citation omitted). The key inquiry is “whether a reasonable officer would have made the seizure in the absence of illegitimate motivation.” United States v. Smith,799 F.2d 704, 708-09 (11th Cir. 1986) (clarifying that the question is “not whether the officer could validly have made the stop but whether under the same circumstances a reasonable officer would have made the stop in the absence of the invalid ...

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