United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Eastern Division
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
Warrantless Vehicle Search
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.
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
circumstances surrounding the protective search are these:
Mr. West committed a traffic violation; he ran a red
light. Officer Williams saw Mr. West run the red
light. Officer Williams activated his blue lights to initiate
a traffic stop. 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.
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). 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
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. 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.
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.
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
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