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United States v. Oden

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

March 20, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
DAMON EUGENE ODEN, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the court on Defendant Damon Oden's “Motion to Suppress.” (Doc. 7). Mr. Oden is charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) (felon in possession of a firearm) and 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(b) (unlawful possession with intent to distribute 5 grams or more of methamphetamine). Mr. Oden argues these charges are based on evidence obtained in an unconstitutional search and seizure.

         After carefully considering the briefs and the testimony presented at the suppression hearing on this matter, the court will DENY Mr. Oden's motion to suppress.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         In May 2017, Mr. Oden was riding a bicycle down Oak Avenue in Sylacauga, Alabama. He was wearing a backpack on his shoulders and a pouch on his belt. At the end of Oak Avenue, he rode onto a trail through the woods to Brock Avenue. Meanwhile, Sylacauga Police Department and Talladega Drug Task Force Officers were patrolling the area based on recent unlawful breaking and entering of motor vehicles in the vicinity. The officers observed Mr. Oden enter the woods on his bicycle, so they drove approximately one-half mile to where the trail ended on Brock Avenue.

         As Mr. Oden exited the trail on Brock Avenue, the officers arrived in their patrol vehicle. Chief Johnson and Lieutenant Whatley testified at the suppression hearing that after Mr. Oden dismounted his bicycle, the two officers recognized Mr. Oden from past encounters with him. Chief Johnson testified that he had heard rumors that Mr. Oden had been “hanging” with individuals suspected of shootings in a nearby housing community, and Lieutenant Whatley testified that, while arresting Mr. Oden for driving under the influence, he had previously discovered a gun in Mr. Oden's vehicle.

         The officers observed that Mr. Oden was acting “very nervous, ” he had a bulge in his front pocket, and had something in his hand. When Chief Johnson asked Mr. Oden about being in the woods, Mr. Oden responded that he had not been in the woods, and only admitted it once Chief Johnson informed him that he had observed Mr. Oden as he exited. Chief Johnson testified that he then mentioned to Mr. Oden the rumors about Mr. Oden associating with individuals suspected of shootings in a nearby housing community, and then asked Mr. Oden if he was carrying a firearm.

         When asked about the firearm, Mr. Oden suddenly moved his hands toward his waistband. Chief Johnson then reached and grabbed Mr. Oden's wrist to prevent Mr. Oden from withdrawing the object that was bulging in his pocket. While Chief Johnson was still holding Mr. Oden's wrist, Lieutenant Whatley observed a firearm in Mr. Oden's pocket and removed it.

         After confiscating the firearm, the officers recovered from Mr. Oden's hand a coffee filter containing what the officers suspected to be methamphetamine in a plastic bag. The officers also found methamphetamine, empty plastic bags, and a set of digital scales in Mr. Oden's pouch and backpack. Lab tests ultimately confirmed the substance in Oden's possession was approximately 12 grams of methamphetamine.

         II. DISCUSSION

         The Fourth Amendment provides “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” And the Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized “that searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment-subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.” Katz v. U.S., 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967) (citations omitted) (quoting U.S. v. Jeffers, 342 U.S. 48, 51, 72 (1951)) (internal quotation marks omitted). In U.S. v. Perez, the Eleventh Circuit identified three broad categories of police-citizen encounters helpful for conducting Fourth Amendment analysis: “(1) police-citizen exchanges involving no coercion or detention; (2) brief seizures or investigatory detentions; and (3) full-scale arrests.” 443 F.3d 772, 777 (11th Cir. 2006).

         The first category of police-citizen encounters encompasses voluntary conversation between an officer and a citizen. Id. The Supreme Court has held that “mere police questioning does not constitute a seizure” and “even when officers have no basis for suspecting a particular individual, they may generally ask questions of that individual.” Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 434-435 (1991). Therefore, such voluntary encounters do not constitute a “seizure” for Fourth Amendment purposes.

         The second category of police-citizen encounters encompasses brief seizures or investigatory detentions, which do constitute a “seizure” for Fourth Amendment purposes. Perez, 443 F.3d at 777. An encounter rises to this level “‘only when, by means of physical force or a show of authority, [a person's] freedom of movement is restrained.'” Craig v. Singletary, 127 F.3d 1030, 1041 (11th Cir. 1997) (quoting U.S. v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 555 (1980)).

         These encounters within the second category of police-citizen encounters are often referred to as a “Terry stop.” See, e.g., U.S. v. Sharpe, 470 U.S. 675, 691 (1985) (“a Terry stop does not constitute the sort of arrest that the Constitution requires be made only upon probable cause.”). In Craig v. Singletary, the Eleventh Circuit explained, “[t]he applicable test manifestly is not a subjective one. Instead, a person has been seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment only if, in view of all the circumstances ...


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