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United States v. Dennis

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

June 14, 2018




         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Demond Monterio Dennis's Motion to Suppress Evidence seized in an inventory search conducted after a traffic stop and arrest on January 20, 2016. Doc. 285. The motion is GRANTED in part.

         I. FACTS[1]

         The Court finds that the Government has established the following facts by a preponderance of the evidence. United States v. Beechum, 582 F.2d 898, 913 n.16 (5th Cir. 1978) (citing Lego v. Twomey, 404 U.S. 477, 489 (1972)).[2]

         On January 20, 2016, Georgia State Patrol Trooper Patrick Prosser, while patrolling a residential street in Milledgeville, Georgia, noticed a blue Hyundai Elantra stopped at a stop sign at the intersection of Caraker Avenue and Elbert Street. Doc. 384 at 9:15-17. The driver of that vehicle, later identified as Defendant Dennis, was not wearing a seatbelt. Id. at 9:17-18. Prosser turned his vehicle around and returned to the intersection where Dennis was still stopped. Id. at 10:1-5. Prosser pulled alongside Dennis, noticed he still did not have his seatbelt on, and told him to pull into the parking lot next to the intersection. Id. at 10:8-10. Dennis instead drove across the street into a private driveway, prompting Prosser to activate his blue lights. Id. at 10:10-13. The vehicles came to a stop at a private residence, 202 Caraker Avenue, and, once stopped, Dennis attempted to exit his vehicle. Id. at 10:11-13, 10:15, 11:11-15; Doc. 352-1 at 1:16. Concerned both for his own safety and that Dennis may attempt to flee, Prosser approached Dennis on foot and ordered him to get back in the vehicle. Docs. 384 at 12:7-11, 34:2-5; 352-1 at 1:35. Prosser then asked for Dennis's driver's license, but Dennis stated he did not have it. Doc. 384 at 11:24-25, 11:14-15. Prosser placed Dennis in handcuffs and explained that he was being “detained until [Prosser] could verify who [he] was, ” and then Prosser conducted a Terry frisk of Dennis but found nothing. Id. at 11:24-12:1-2, 13:17-18; Doc. 352-1 at 1:45, 2:09.

         When Prosser asked for Dennis's name, Dennis gave him the name “Nickolas Dennis, ” which Prosser later learned was Dennis's brother's name, and Dennis hesitated when asked his birthdate before telling Prosser he was born on December 25, 1990. Docs. 384 at 12:4-6, 13:2-3, 13:6-7, 22:24-25; 352-1 at 2:36-2:40, 4:20-4:40. Dennis told Prosser that he had a driver's license but, when Prosser ran that information on his computer, the search yielded a “driver not found” response. Docs. 384 at 14:9-10, 14:19-23; 352-1 at 5:50-6:35. Prosser warned Dennis that he could be arrested for obstruction for giving a false name and date of birth. Doc .384 at 15:2-4. Dennis then told Prosser his correct name and date of birth, and when Prosser ran that information he learned that Dennis's license was suspended and that he was wanted in Baldwin County for a probation violation. Id. at 15:4-6, 15:10-12. After this, Prosser called for backup and Baldwin County deputies arrived, one of whom identified Dennis. Id. at 15:13-21. Learning Dennis's true identity and that his license was suspended, Prosser placed Dennis under arrest, performed a more thorough search of his person, finding nothing of significance, and detained Dennis in the patrol car. Id. at 16:1-4, 16:7-15.[3]

         In the course of arresting Dennis, Prosser learned that the car was uninsured and its tag had expired.[4] Id. at 17:22-17:1. Prosser did not determine if Dennis had an interest in the nearby abandoned properties. Id. at 40:1-8, 40:16-20. However, Prosser did learn that the occupant of the only inhabited nearby residence did not know Dennis. Id. at 39:22-23, 40:1-8. Based on the circumstances, Prosser determined he would have the vehicle towed, which, he said, necessitated an inventory search of the vehicle's contents. Id. at 39:2-4, 39:7-8. Accordingly, Prosser proceeded to list the items in the vehicle using an inventory sheet he had with him.[5] Id. at 23:13-14, 42:1-4.

         Prosser testified that the Georgia State Patrol had a “standard procedure” for inventorying impounded vehicles. Id. at 17:3-5. Although the Government did not introduce that procedure, Prosser testified that

[I]f we arrest the driver, owner of the vehicle, or if we work a crash, what we do is we do an inventory of the vehicle. List all the items inside so whenever we did release that vehicle to the wrecker driver, all items are listed, and - for safekeeping.

Id. at 16:23-17:2.

         When asked, “[w]hat if anything was located” during the inventory search, Prosser responded: “I located a crushed cigarette box underneath the driver's seat. Inside the box, after further investigation, there was found three suspected crack rocks that was inside the cigarette box itself.” Id. at 17:12-16. Later, Prosser testified that “the contraband was found inside of the vehicle. There was a crushed cigarette box underneath the driver's seat. I placed it in the center console. And if you look on my incident report, it was found in the center console.”[6] Id. at 44:22-25.

         Although Prosser clearly testified that he found the crushed cigarette box, he did not say directly who discovered the drugs but, rather, again, said only that the drugs were discovered upon “further investigation.” Id. at 17:12-16. The dash-cam video establishes that the drugs were found by an unidentified local law enforcement officer, presumably one of the deputies who arrived shortly after Prosser stopped Dennis. Doc. 352-1 at 17:33-18:00. The video shows Prosser searching the front seat and then the back seat from the driver side of the vehicle. Id. While Prosser searched the back seat, the unidentified officer, apparently without being asked, began searching the front seat from the passenger side of the vehicle. Id. Although it cannot be seen what the officers are doing inside the vehicle, Prosser's microphone picked up the unidentified officer exclaiming, “Look here! Three bags. White powder. Three bags. . . . Found in the cigarette pack. Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full. . . . In the console, inside a cigarette pack.” Id. at 17:20-17:55. Prosser then put the cigarette box on the hood of his patrol car to document for the dash-cam what had been found. Id. at 17:49-18:11. Based on this, the Court concludes that Prosser, as he testified, found the crumpled cigarette box under the driver's seat as he was searching the front seat area. He placed the cigarette box on the console and then began searching the rear seat. The unidentified officer then, for some reason, assisted in the search, and it was upon his “further investigation” that the cigarette box was opened and the drugs were discovered. There is no evidence that the unidentified officer knew anything about the Georgia State Patrol's inventory search procedure or policy.

         Prosser himself did not charge Dennis with a crime related to the drugs but issued a citation for the following traffic violations: (1) seatbelt violation; (2) driving with a suspended license; (3) no proof of insurance; (4) and expired tag. Doc. 384 at 17:22-18:1. Prosser contacted Agent Genie Stricklin of the Ocmulgee Drug Task Force and turned the drugs over to her. Id. at 18:4-7. Once the search of his vehicle was concluded, Dennis was transported to the Baldwin County Sheriff's Office and interrogated by Agent Stricklin.[7] In the interrogation, Dennis was largely uncooperative but did make several incriminating statements regarding the evidence seized from his car.

         On May 11, 2017, Dennis and 15 other Defendants were named in a 51-count indictment (Doc. 1), and a superseding 60-count indictment was filed on September 21, 2017 (Doc. 249). In the superseding indictment, Dennis was charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and two counts of distribution of cocaine base, one of which, Count 58, relates to the January 20, 2016 traffic stop. Doc. 249 at 2, 35. Dennis now moves to suppress the evidence found in his vehicle during the January 20, 2016 traffic stop and any statements made in the interview that followed, claiming that the search was unconstitutional.


         The movant bears the initial burden of persuading the court, through specific factual allegations and supporting evidence, that the evidence should be suppressed. United States v. de la Fuente, 548 F.2d 528, 533 (5th Cir. 1977). Once the movant establishes a basis for the motion, the burden then shifts to the Government to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the search or seizure of evidence was legally and factually justified. United States v. Freire, 710 F.2d 1515, 1519 (11th Cir. 1983) (citation omitted) (“Upon a motion to suppress evidence garnered through a warrantless search and seizure, the burden of proof as to the reasonableness of the search rests with the prosecution. The Government must 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 [F]ourth ...

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