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United States v. Newton

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

April 4, 2017




         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion to Suppress and Dismiss and the United States' response and memorandum. (Docs. 27, 30, and 38). On March 13, 2017, the Court held a hearing on the motion to suppress. Defendant Ashley Newton (“Newton”) and her counsel Patrick Finnegan were present. Assistant United States Attorney Sinan Kalayoglu was present on behalf of the United States. The additional briefing permitted at the hearing has concluded. (Docs 44-45). Upon consideration of the relevant law, evidence, and arguments the motion to suppress and dismiss is DENIED.

         I. Facts

         On January 6, 2016, between 12:00 a.m. and 1:00 a.m., Louisiana State Trooper Ryan Zimmerman (“Zimmerman”) initiated a traffic stop of a vehicle being driven by Newton. The stop occurred near mile marker 38.5 on Interstate 12 east in Louisiana and was recorded by the dashboard camera in Zimmerman's patrol car. The basis for the stop was Newton's alleged violations of Louisiana Revised Statutes 32:79 (improper lane usage) and 32:53 (improper display of license plate).

         As Zimmerman approached the vehicle from the passenger side, Newton rolled down the window. Zimmerman “smelled a strong odor of air fresheners coming out of the vehicle” and saw three air fresheners hanging from the gear shifter. (Doc. 43 at 88).[1] He requested Newton's license and asked her if she had been drinking. Newton answered that she had not. Zimmerman observed that Newton was “very nervous” and was “shaking” when looking for her license. (Doc. 43 at 88-89). Newton informed Zimmerman that she was a student. Zimmerman testified that he found the placement of textbooks in Newton's backseat unusual as they were strewn about rather than contained in her backpack. (Doc. 43 at 87-88).

         When Zimmerman asked Newton where she was coming from, she stated that she was coming from her grandmother's house on Jefferson Street[2] in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Doc. 43 at 11). Zimmerman was familiar with the Baton Rouge area but did not recognize this location. As a result, he looked up the location on the computer in his patrol car and could not find it, causing him to be suspicious of Newton's statement to him about her trip. (Id.).

         As Zimmerman prepared to return Newton's license and documents to her, he instructed her to exit the vehicle so he could explain the license plate violation. Both Zimmerman and Newton stood at the rear of her vehicle as he explained the problem with her plate. Within seconds, Zimmerman asked her whether there were any drugs in the vehicle. She answered in the negative. When specifically asked whether there was marijuana in the vehicle, Newton said no but volunteered that she had previously been stopped and that law enforcement had found a part of blunt containing marijuana in her vehicle. After this exchange, Zimmerman presented a consent to search form to Newton. The video shows Zimmerman holding a flashlight above the form in order for Newton to read it. (Doc. 43 at 16). Newton takes a few seconds to read the form, and signs it. (Id. at 20). The subsequent search of Newton's vehicle lead to the discovery of three kilo sized bricks of cocaine, found in a backpack in the backseat. (Doc. 43 at 21).

         II. Analysis

         There are three issues before the Court: 1) whether the initial traffic stop violated the Newton's rights under the Fourth Amendment; 2) whether the duration of the stop was unreasonable in light of Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609 (2015); and 3) whether Newton consented to the search of her vehicle. As detailed herein, the answer to the first two questions is no, and the Court finds that Newton knowingly and voluntarily consented to the search of her vehicle. Accordingly, Defendant's motion to suppress is DENIED.

         A. Legality of the Traffic Stop

         As the Eleventh Circuit has explained:

“The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable search and seizure.” Chanthasouxat, 342 F.3d at 1275. A traffic stop, however, 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, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889. Chanthasouxat, 342 F.3d at 1275. When determining whether an officer had probable cause to believe that a traffic violation occurred, the “officer's motive in making the traffic stop does not invalidate what is otherwise objectively justifiable behavior under the Fourth Amendment.” United States v. Simmons, 172 F.3d 775, 778 (11th Cir.1999) (quotation omitted). The Constitution also permits police officers to conduct a brief investigatory stop, Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968), “if they have a reasonable, articulable suspicion based on objective facts that” an individual is engaged in criminal activity. United States v. Powell, 222 F.3d 913, 917 (11th Cir.2000). A determination of reasonable suspicion is based on the totality of the circumstances, and “[i]t does not require officers to catch the suspect in a crime. Instead, [a] reasonable suspicion of criminal activity may be formed by observing exclusively legal activity.” United States v. Acosta, 363 F.3d 1141, 1145 (11th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). Additionally, the issue is not whether the particular officer involved “actually and subjectively had the pertinent reasonable suspicion, but whether, given the circumstances, reasonable suspicion objectively existed to justify [the investigatory stop].” United States v. Nunez, 455 F.3d 1223, 1226 (11th Cir.2006).

United States v. Harris, 526 F.3d 1334, 1337-38 (11th Cir. 2008). At the conclusion of the suppression hearing, the Court determined that Officer Zimmerman was credible. Zimmerman testified that he initiated the traffic stop based on Newton's improper lane usage and obstructed license plate. For the reasons stated on the record at the suppression hearing, the Court has already determined that the traffic stop was based on probable cause and therefore did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Court permitted additional briefing on the issues of consent and whether the extension of the stop was supported by reasonable suspicion.

         B. Duration of ...

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