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United States v. West

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

November 28, 2018




         Defendant Joshua Scot West filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of a January 19, 2017 traffic stop that took place in Anniston, Alabama. (Doc. 14). The motion pertains to evidence found during a warrantless search of Mr. West's pickup truck and statements that Mr. West made after he was arrested but before he received a Miranda warning. Officer Grant Williams initiated the traffic stop. Officer Preston Sorrell joined Officer Williams at the scene of the stop and conducted the initial warrantless search of Mr. West's truck. And after Mr. West's temporary detention ripened into an arrest, Officer Justin Hise and Officer Sorrell questioned Mr. West about the drugs that Officer Williams and Officer Sorrell found in the pickup truck, even though none of the officers had advised Mr. West of his rights before the questioning began.

         Magistrate Judge Johnson reviewed the evidence relevant to Mr. West's motion to suppress and issued a report in which he recommended that the Court grant in part and deny in part the motion. (Doc. 28). Mr. West has objected to portions of Judge Johnson's report. (Doc. 29). This opinion resolves Mr. West's objections.


         A district court “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). “The district judge must consider de novo any objection to the magistrate judge's recommendation.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(b)(3).

         When a law enforcement officer conducts a warrantless search, to avoid suppression of evidence obtained during the search, the United States must prove that the search falls within the scope of one of the recognized exceptions to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement. United States v. Harris, 526 F.3d 1334, 1338 (11th Cir. 2008); United States v. Holloway, 290 F.3d 1331, 1337 (11th Cir. 2002). The United States also must establish that an exception to the advice of rights requirement of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1996), applies to make admissible information that Mr. West provided to police before he received a Miranda warning. Missouri v. Seibert, 542 U.S. 600, 608 n. 1 (2004).


         Mr. West argues that, contrary to the findings in the report and recommendation, the warrantless search that led to the discovery of suspected illegal drugs in his truck violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment, and his statements regarding the suspected heroin that police found in his truck are inadmissible because the “public safety” exception to Miranda does not apply on the record in this case. The Court considers these objections in turn.

         I. Warrantless Vehicle Search

         Mr. West objects to the finding that the initial warrantless search of his pickup truck during a traffic stop was a proper protective search based on a reasonable suspicion that he was armed and dangerous. Protective searches of vehicles generally are premised in part on the settled proposition that “investigative detentions involving suspects in vehicles are especially fraught with danger to police officers.” Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1047 (1983). When a law enforcement officer “has a reasonable belief ‘that the individual whose suspicious behavior he is investigating is armed and presently dangerous to the officer or to others, it would appear to be clearly unreasonable to deny the officer the power to take necessary measures to determine whether the person is in fact carrying a weapon and to neutralize the threat of physical harm.'” Long, 463 U.S. at 1047 (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19 (1968)). As is the case with every Fourth Amendment challenge to police conduct, “the central inquiry” is “the reasonableness in all the circumstances of the particular governmental invasion of a citizen's personal security.” Terry, 392 U.S. at 19.

         To determine whether Officer Sorrell's search of the passenger compartment of Mr. West's pickup truck under the reasonable suspicion standard violated Mr. West's rights under the Fourth Amendment, the Court must distance itself from what actually motivated Officer Sorrell to search and instead consider the extent to which Officer Sorrell reasonably would suspect that Mr. West was “armed and presently dangerous” under the circumstances that existed at the time of the search. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 813 (1996) (If “the circumstances, viewed objectively, ” justify a search, then the officer's actual motivation will not invalidate the search).

         The circumstances surrounding the protective search are these: Mr. West committed a traffic violation; he ran a red light.[1] Officer Williams saw Mr. West run the red light. Officer Williams activated his blue lights to initiate a traffic stop.[2] As Officer Williams followed Mr. West's pickup truck, Officer Williams noticed that the truck did not have a valid Alabama tag. (Doc. 22, p. 16). Mr. West stopped approximately two blocks from the intersection where he ran the traffic light.[3]

         When Mr. West pulled over, he opened the driver's side door and began to step out of his pickup truck. Officer Williams instructed Mr. West to stay in the truck and approached the driver's side of the truck. Mr. West cooperated with Officer Williams; Mr. West stayed in the truck, and he responded when Officer Williams asked him to provide his driver's license and insurance card. Mr. West had difficulty finding the registration for his truck, and he spent a few minutes flipping through a large envelope filled with papers, looking for the document. (Doc. 22, pp. 22, 60-61, 87, 116).[4] Officer Williams told Mr. West not to worry about the registration, and he walked to his squad car to consult with dispatch. These events are captured on the recording from Officer Williams's body camera.[5]

         Officer Sorrell arrived at the stop just after Officer Williams. Officer Sorrell observed most of Officer Williams's interaction with Mr. West from the passenger side of Mr. West's truck.[6] Officer Sorrell testified that after Officer Williams walked to his patrol car to confer with dispatch, Mr. West “would commonly look back in the rear-view mirror to look back to Officer Williams' location.” (Doc. 22, pp. 88-89). Officer Sorrell also stated that Mr. West “was still nervously flipping through the papers [i]n the envelope.” (Doc. 22, p. 89). “At one point, ” Officer Sorrell saw Mr. West place his right hand above the envelope. Officer Sorrell stated that Mr. West's “hand was closed, like he was clutching something, and he continued fumbling through the envelope.” (Doc. 22, p. 89). Officer Sorrell stated that it appeared that Mr. West opened his hand and dropped “some kind of contraband” into the envelope. (Doc. 22, p. 90). Officer Sorrell then signaled Officer Williams to return to the truck.[7]

         Officer Williams again approached the driver's side door of the pickup and instructed Mr. West to get out of the truck. As Mr. West stepped out of the truck, he continued to grasp the envelope. (GX1; Doc. 22, p. 96). Officer Williams instructed Mr. West to drop the envelope on the seat and “assisted him in dropping the envelope in the driver's seat.” (Doc. 22, p. 96; GX1). Officer Williams and Officer Sorrell then placed Mr. West in cuffs. While Officer Williams conducted a pat down search of Mr. West, Officer Sorrell searched the truck. Because Officer Sorrell did not have a bodycam, the details of his search are not available, but he testified that he “look[ed] where [he] believed the item . . . could have been dropped . . . the driver's seat, the envelope was laying on the driver's seat and that is the first place.” (Doc. 22, p. 98). Within 40 seconds, Officer Sorrell approached Officer Williams holding a small packet containing a white powdered substance. Officer Sorrell did not find a weapon during the initial search. (GX2, 4:34:18-57).

         Judge Johnson found that when Officer Sorrell conducted the initial warrantless search of the pickup truck, neither he nor Officer Williams had probable cause to believe that Mr. West was engaged in criminal conduct. (Doc. 28, p. 24). Therefore, Judge Johnson reasoned, the initial search could withstand Fourth Amendment scrutiny only if Officers Williams and Sorrell reasonably suspected that Mr. West was armed and dangerous. Judge Johnson framed the constitutional issue this way:

The inquiry at bar devolves to a determination whether officers Sorrell and Williams had a reasonable belief, based on specific and articulable facts and the rational inferences therefrom, that West was dangerous and may have gained immediate control of a weapon. That is, the caselaw queries ...

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