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United States v. Gibbs

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Gainesville Division

March 14, 2018




         This case is before the Court on Defendant's Motion To Suppress Statements (Doc. 12), Motion To Suppress Evidence Resulting From Warrantless Seizure (Doc. 13), Motion To Suppress Evidence Resulting From Unlawful HIPAA[1] Disclosures (Doc. 14), and Motion To Suppress Evidence (Doc. 26). For the reasons discussed below, it is RECOMMENDED that Defendant's motions be DENIED.

         Procedural History

         An Indictment filed February 22, 2017 charges Defendant with possession of ricin without obtaining the registration required by section 351A(c) of the Public Service Act, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 175b(c). (Doc. 1). Defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence and statements obtained during a traffic stop on January 14, 2017 (Doc. 13); a motion to suppress statements he made while he was at a hospital and after he was arrested in February 2017 (Doc. 12); and a motion to suppress evidence disclosed in violation of HIPAA while he was seeking medical treatment in February 2017 (Doc. 14).

         The Court conducted a hearing on Defendant's motions on August 15, 2017 (see Doc. 20), and the Court continued the hearing on September 1, 2017 (see Doc. 24). The Court granted Defendant leave to file a motion to suppress evidence seized from his car located in the parking lot of Fannin Regional Hospital on February 2, 2017 (see Doc. 24), and Defendant filed that motion on September 7, 2017 (Doc. 26). The Court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion on September 25, 2017. (See Doc. 31). The transcript for the August 15th hearing was filed on August 25, 2017 (Doc. 23); the transcript for the September 1st hearing was filed on September 20, 2017 (Doc. 29); and the transcript for the September 25th hearing was filed on October 11, 2017 (Doc. 32).[2] Defendant filed a post-hearing brief on December 2, 2017 (Doc. 36), the Government submitted a response on January 23, 2018 (Doc. 40), and Defendant filed a reply on February 11, 2018 (Doc. 43). With briefing now complete, the Court considers the merits of Defendant's motions.


         I. Motion To Suppress Under HIPAA (Doc. 14)

         Defendant filed a “preliminary motion to suppress evidence unlawfully disclosed pursuant to HIP[A]A, ” and asserts that he “went to the emergency room on February [2], 2017 seeking medical attention” and as a result, “the authorities were notified of the possibility of criminal acts on the part of [Defendant].” (Doc. 14 at 1). As discussed below, the evidence at the hearing shows that emergency room personnel at Fannin Regional Hospital reported to law enforcement officers that Defendant had come to the emergency room and reported possible exposure to ricin, a potentially fatal toxin. Defendant indicated in his motion that he was “simply seeking discovery of what items were provided by medical professionals and further which exception to HIP[A]A[']s nondisclosure requirements were implicated” and asserted that “[a]fter receiving this information, we will wish to further perfect the motion to suppress.” (Id. at 2). Defendant has not perfected his motion, he did not present any argument or factual support for this motion in his post-hearing brief, nor was evidence relevant to the motion developed during the hearings that would support Defendant's motion. It therefore appears that he has abandoned his HIPAA motion.

         Furthermore, even if medical professionals provided information about Defendant in violation of HIPAA, he has not shown that HIPAA provides a suppression remedy. See, e.g., United States v. Andrews, No. 1:12CR100-1, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56159, at *12-13 (N.D. W.Va. Apr. 23, 2014) (explaining that “the weight of authority suggests that suppression is not the appropriate remedy for evidence obtained in violation of HIPAA” (collecting cases)). Moreover, the undersigned notes that HIPAA's implementing regulations provide that medical disclosures are permitted in a number of circumstances potentially applicable here, including but not limited to: disclosures by emergency health care providers in response to a medical emergency to alert law enforcement about the commission of a crime, 45 C.F.R. § 164.512(f)(6), and disclosures “necessary to prevent or less a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of a person or the public, ” 45 C.F.R. § 164.512(j)(1)(i)(A) & (B). Defendant has not shown that the challenged disclosures do not fall into one of the enumerated disclosures authorized under 45 C.F.R. § 164.512.

         Accordingly, it is RECOMMENDED that Defendant's motion to suppress evidence resulting from unlawful HIPAA disclosures (Doc. 14) be DENIED.

         II. Motion To Suppress Evidence Obtained During Traffic Stop (Doc. 13)

         Defendant moves to suppress evidence and statements obtained as a result of a January 14, 2017 traffic stop. (Doc. 13 at 1).

         A. Facts[3]

         At approximately 2 p.m. on January 14, 2017, Fannin County Sheriff's Deputy John Christopher David Kinser conducted a traffic stop of a white Lincoln Town Car driven by Defendant for running a stop sign. (Tr. 41-44, 52; Gov't Ex. 3). After Deputy Kinser instructed Defendant to move the car up so that Kinser's vehicle was not in the road, Defendant moved a short distance and stopped as directed. (Tr. 44). Defendant's passenger exited the vehicle and started moving or throwing items out of the car and Defendant exited the vehicle, which raised Kinser's suspicions that there might be some kind of contraband in the car. (Tr. 44, 56; Gov't Ex. 3). Kinser told the passenger to go back to the car and then approached Defendant, weapon holstered, and asked him to come back to the rear of the vehicle. (Tr. 44-45, 57). Kinser was alone at that point, but a McCaysville Police Officer and two deputy sheriffs arrived on the scene later. (Tr. 45). Kinser was familiar with Defendant because he “was a frequent inmate” when Kinser was a Sergeant at the Fannin County Jail and viewed him as “a troublemaker” because he “was always insubordinate when he was an inmate.” (Tr. 51-52).

         Kinser asked Defendant if he could search his car, and Defendant responded, “You're going to do what you're going to do, ” so Kinser asked him again, and Defendant gave him consent to search the car. (Tr. 45). When Kinser asked Defendant for consent to search the car, his voice was not raised, his weapon was not drawn, he did not touch or restrain Defendant, and he did not threaten Defendant or make any promises to him to obtain his consent. (Tr. 45-46). The other officers had not yet arrived at that point. (Tr. 46).

         Deputy Kinser searched Defendant's car and found some seeds in a bag in the glove compartment, asked Defendant what they were, and he identified them as “white angel trumpet seeds” and were “very dangerous poison seeds.” (Tr. 46-47, 51, 53-54). Kinser set them to the side and continued searching the car. (Tr. 47). Defendant stood outside the car watching as Kinser searched it. (Tr. 54). Kinser asked a senior officer, Jacob Pless, if he could identify the seeds, but Pless said he had never seen them before. (Tr. 47). Kinser returned the seeds to Defendant. (Tr. 51). After Kinser concluded the stop he gave Defendant a verbal warning and let him go. (Tr. 48).

         B. Analysis

         Defendant contends that “[t]he Government has not carried its burden of demonstrating that the consent to search the white Lincoln Town car on January 14, 2017 was knowing and voluntary and not simply acquiescence to authority.” (Doc. 36 at 9). The undersigned disagrees.

         The Fourth Amendment provides 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, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause . . . .” U.S. Const. amend. IV. “The ‘ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness.' ” United States v. Walker, 799 F.3d 1361, 1363 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006)). Where a seizure is made without a warrant, as in this case, the burden is on the government to “demonstrate that the challenged action falls within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement, thereby rendering it reasonable within the meaning of the fourth amendment.” United States v. Freire, 710 F.2d 1515, 1519 (11th Cir. 1983).

         To determine whether the search of Defendant's vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment, the Court must ascertain the legality of: (1) the initial stop; (2) Defendant's detention; and (3) the warrantless search of his vehicle pursuant to his consent. The Court must also determine the admissibility of Defendant's statements made during the traffic stop.

         1. The Traffic Stop

         “The temporary detention of individuals during the stop of an automobile by the police, even if only for a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a ‘seizure' of ‘persons' within the meaning of [the Fourth Amendment].” United States v. Allen, 274 Fed.Appx. 811, 817 (11th Cir. 2008) (unpublished decision) (citing Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10 (1996)). “Such an automobile stop is reasonable and constitutional, however, if it is based on either probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred or reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or will be committed.” Allen, 274 Fed.Appx. at 817-18 (citing United States v. Chanthasouxat, 342 F.3d 1271, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003)); See also United States v. Purcell, 236 F.3d 1274, 1276, n.5 (11th Cir. 2001) (stating that “[a] law enforcement officer may legally stop an automobile traveling on the highways if he has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred” and citing Whren, 517 U.S. at 810).

         The Court finds that Deputy Kinser had probable cause to stop Defendant's vehicle based on his observation of Defendant running a stop sign, which is a violation of O.C.G.A. § 40-6-72(b).[4] See, e.g., United States v. Miller, 326 Fed.Appx. 513, 516 (11th Cir. 2009) (unpublished decision) (“Here, the police testified that they observed Miller drive recklessly and ignore a stop sign. Thus, they had probable cause to stop the car.”); United States v. Garcia, 284 Fed.Appx. 791, 793 (11th Cir. 2008) (unpublished decision) (the officer's observation of the defendant's failure to maintain his lane provided probable cause for the stop). Accordingly, the Court finds that the traffic stop did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

         2. Defendant's Detention

         Once Deputy Kinser had stopped Defendant's vehicle, he was authorized to detain Defendant to investigate the circumstances justifying his decision to stop and to continue the detention to investigate circumstances that give rise to articulable suspicion of other illegal activity. See Garcia, 284 Fed.Appx. at 794 (“ ‘An officer's actions during a traffic stop must be reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place, ' and the stop ‘may not last any longer than necessary to process the traffic violation unless there is articulable suspicion of other illegal activity.' ” (quoting United States v. Purcell, 236 F.3d 1274, 1277 (11th Cir. 2001)). Here, Deputy Kinser had a reasonable and articulable suspicion that there was contraband in the vehicle based on his observation of the traffic violation, i.e., Defendant's failure to stop at the stop sign, the occupants exiting the vehicle upon stopping, and the passenger tossing items out of the car, actions which raised Kinser's suspicion that there was contraband in the car. (Tr. 44, 56). Kinser also knew that Defendant had a criminal history and had been a “frequent inmate” in the Fannin County Jail. (Tr. 51-52). Therefore, the undersigned finds that Kinser's request for consent to search the car and subsequent search did not impermissibly extend the traffic stop. See United States v. DeJesus, 435 Fed.Appx. 895, 900 (11th Cir. 2011) (unpublished decision) (“[A] traffic stop may last longer than the purpose of the stop would ordinarily permit if an officer, based on specific facts and rational inferences drawn from those facts in light of his training and experience, has an objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion that illegal activity has occurred or is occurring.”).

         3. Consent To Search

         “[L]aw enforcement officers may search an individual's property without a warrant, as long as the individual voluntarily consents to the search.” United States v. Brumfield, 352 Fed.Appx. 366, 367 (11th Cir. 2009) (unpublished decision) (citing Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 219-22 (1973)). “Whether consent is voluntary is a fact question determined according to the totality of the circumstances, ” Brumfield, 352 Fed.Appx. at 367 (quotation omitted), and the government bears the burden of proving the existence and voluntariness of the consent. United States v. Acosta, 363 F.3d 1141, 1151 (11th Cir. 2004). The non-exclusive list of factors the court must consider in determining whether a consent was voluntary includes “[the] voluntariness of the defendant's custodial status, the presence of coercive police procedure, the extent and level of the defendant's cooperation with police, the defendant's awareness of his right to refuse to consent to the search, the defendant's education and intelligence, and, significantly, the defendant's belief that no incriminating evidence will be found.” United States v. Chemaly, 741 F.2d 1346, 1352 (11th Cir. 1984) (quoting United States v. Phillips, 664 F.2d 971, 1023-24 (5th Cir. Unit B 1981)); see also United States v. Gonzalez, 71 F.3d 819, 828 (11th Cir. 1996). In Gonzalez, the Eleventh Circuit explained that “the absence of official coercion is a sine qua non of effective consent, as it is axiomatic that ‘where there is coercion, there cannot be consent.' " 71 F.3d at 828 (quoting Bumper v. North Carolina, 391 U.S. 543, 550 (1968)).

         The Government has met its burden of demonstrating that Defendant voluntarily consented to the search of his vehicle. The evidence shows that when Deputy Kinser asked Defendant for his consent, Defendant was not restrained, and Kinser, who was the sole law enforcement officer on the scene at the time, did not raise his voice, threaten Defendant, or point his weapon at him, nor did he make any promises to Defendant to obtain his consent. (Tr. 45-46). Moreover, although Defendant initially responded to Kinser's request for consent by stating, “You're going to do what you're going to do” (Tr. 45), Kinser did not then begin searching his car. Instead, Kinser again asked for Defendant's consent (id.), thus indicating that the deputy did not intend to search the car without ...

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