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United States v. Chappell

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama

August 4, 2017




         In this criminal case, defendant Larry Keyun Chappell moved to suppress two guns that were found after a traffic stop. He is charged with possession of a firearm as a felon, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), and possession of a stolen firearm, 18 U.S.C. § 922(j). He contended that the guns were obtained as a result of an unlawful traffic stop and should be suppressed as fruit of that stop. The government responded that the stop was lawful, and that, even if unlawful, the evidence should be not be suppressed due to Chappell's flight from the police officers and abandonment of the guns. At the suppression-motion hearing, the United States Magistrate Judge heard testimony from one of the police officers who conducted the stop. The magistrate judge recommended that the motion be denied. After an independent and de novo review of the record, the court entered an order adopting the magistrate judge's recommendation and denying Chappell's suppression motion, albeit on a ground different from that relied upon by the magistrate judge. The court promised that an opinion would follow later. This is the promised opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On June 13, 2016, two Montgomery, Alabama Police Department officers initiated a traffic stop of Chappell because his vehicle, a Nissan Murano, had no permanent license plate and instead had only a paper tag that said “America's Car-Mart, ” with smaller text reading “Drive Easy.” One of the officers testified that, when they initiated the stop, Chappell accelerated around a corner, slammed on his brakes, and then fled on foot, leaving the car behind. The officers pursued Chappell on foot and apprehended him, but only after he threw away a Springfield .45 caliber pistol while fleeing; he later helped the police recover that gun. The police also searched Chappell's car and found a Glock .45 caliber gun in the glove compartment. Chappell was found to be a convicted felon and was charged with the firearm offenses.


         The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right of individuals “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizure.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. A seizure requires physical force or submission to the assertion of authority. California v. Hodari, 499 U.S. 621, 626 (1991). An investigative traffic stop that meets this definition but does not amount to an arrest therefore may still be considered a seizure. See Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 17 (1968).

         Traffic stops are considered reasonable, and therefore lawful under the Fourth Amendment, if conducted based on reasonable suspicion that the motorist is engaging in criminal activity, or based on probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred. United States v. Harris, 526 F.3d 1334, 1337 (11th Cir. 2008) (internal citations omitted). A “reasonable suspicion” is one for which there is a “particularized and objective basis.” Navarette v. California, 134 S.Ct. 1683, 1687 (2014) (internal citations omitted).

         The magistrate judge held that the guns were the product of a seizure that was lawfully based on “sufficient reasonable, articulable suspicion to justify briefly stopping [Chappell]'s vehicle and investigating whether he was in compliance with Alabama laws requiring him to register a newly acquired vehicle and display of a proper license tag or plate.” Recommendation (doc. no. 33) at 8.[1] However, the question precedent to whether the seizure was lawful is whether there was, in fact, a seizure at all.

         In Hodari, the Supreme Court held that a Fourth Amendment seizure requires either physical force or “submission to the assertion of authority.” 499 U.S. at 626. The Court explained that the Fourth Amendment “does not remotely apply ... to the prospect of a policeman yelling ‘Stop, in the name of the law!' at a fleeing form that continues to flee. That is no seizure.” Id. In other words, a person is not considered seized while he is engaged in the act of fleeing from the police.

         Based on this understanding of seizure, the Hodari Court found that drugs thrown away by an individual who was running away from the police are not considered fruit of an unlawful seizure, for, according to the Court, there had been no seizure at the time the drugs were discarded. Whether the officer had reasonable suspicion at the time of initiating the stop was irrelevant.

         Similarly here, Chappell was not seized during the time he was engaged in the act of fleeing from the police.[2] Similarly, the gun that he threw away while fleeing is analogous to the drugs that the defendant in Hodari threw away while fleeing from the police; it was not the product of an illegal seizure, for there had been no seizure when he abandoned it. Likewise, no seizure had occurred when Chappell, while fleeing, abandoned the car and the gun in the glove compartment.[3] Of course, an individual “who abandons or denies ownership of personal property may not contest the constitutionality of its subsequent acquisition by the police.” United States v. Cofield, 272 F.3d 1303, 1306 (11th Cir. 2001). Though admittedly, if abandonment of evidence was induced by an illegal seizure, the abandoned evidence could be considered fruit of the unlawful seizure and would be excluded, as explained in United States v. Beck, 602 F.2d 726 (5th Cir. 1979).[4]However, in this case, Chappell fled and no seizure occurred; therefore, the principle in Beck does not apply.

         * * *

         In sum, the court holds that the guns abandoned by Chappell were not fruit of an unlawful seizure, for there had been no seizure at the time the guns were abandoned. For this ...

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