United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Mustafaa Woods challenges the constitutionality of the search
of a rental vehicle that he was operating. The search
occurred incident to a traffic stop and produced a firearm,
for which Mr. Woods has been charged under 18 U.S.C. §
922(g)(1). (Doc. 1).
Woods asserts his constitutional challenge on the basis of
the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. (Doc.
16, p. 1). At the suppression hearing in this case, counsel
for Mr. Woods conceded that following the traffic stop, a
search of the vehicle was inevitable for many reasons, among
them the fact that a representative of the rental company was
coming to retrieve the vehicle and could have given consent
to search. Counsel for Mr. Woods explained that Mr. Woods
primarily challenges the validity of the stop that led to the
vehicle search. Mr. Woods contends that the arresting officer
did not have a legitimate basis for the stop and that the
officer used a ruse to justify the stop. (Doc. 25, pp. 3-4,
Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches and
seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. “As a general
matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable
where the police have probable cause to believe that a
traffic violation has occurred.” Whren v.
U.S., 517 U.S. 806, 810 (1996). In his suppression
motion, Mr. Woods asks whether a law enforcement officer who
wants to question an individual can look for a reason to stop
the vehicle in which the individual is travelling, and, if
so, how far an officer may go in looking for an opportunity
to initiate a stop.
day of the incident in question, a Jefferson County
sheriff's deputy was investigating a stolen vehicle case
when he observed Mr. Woods driving through the parking lot of
a motel in a vehicle bearing California plates. (Doc. 26, pp.
6-9, 17-18).0F Based on previous meetings, the deputy and
Mr. Woods knew one another. (Doc. 26, pp. 8, 12, 27). The
deputy knew that detectives in the Sheriff's Office had
wanted to talk to Mr. Woods about a recent shooting in
Jefferson County (unrelated to the stolen vehicle case), so
the deputy decided to “conduct an investigatory stop on
Mr. Woods.” (Doc. 26, p. 9; see also Doc. 26,
p.19). The deputy stated that he planned to stop Mr. Woods
and then contact the detectives to ask if they wanted to
speak to Mr. Woods. (Doc. 26, p. 19). When Mr. Woods drove
out of the motel parking lot, the deputy left as well and
followed Mr. Woods to the interstate. (Doc. 26, p. 9). The
deputy testified that up to the point at which he followed
Mr. Woods onto the interstate, some two or three blocks from
the motel, he did not have a reason to pull Mr. Woods over.
(Doc. 26, pp. 19, 22).
deputy testified that on the interstate, over the course of a
mile or two, Mr. Woods committed three infractions of the
driving code by changing lanes without signaling, driving
above the speed limit, and following other vehicles too
closely. (Doc. 26, pp. 10-11). When Mr. Woods exited the
interstate, the deputy followed him and initiated his lights.
Mr. Woods pulled over. (Doc. 26, pp. 11, 24-25).
his initial conversation with Mr. Woods, the deputy learned
that the vehicle was a rental. (Doc. 26, p. 31). The deputy
testified that while he was speaking with Mr. Woods, he
detected the odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle. (Doc.
26, pp. 12, 29-30). After obtaining identification from Mr.
Woods and his passenger, the deputy returned to his car to
check for outstanding warrants, call for backup, and write a
warning. (Doc. 26, pp. 13-15, 25, 33). While the deputy was
in his patrol car, he contacted the rental company to ask
questions about the rental vehicle. (Doc. 26, pp. 35, 38). A
manager at the rental company stated that Mr. Woods was not
an authorized operator of the vehicle and that she would send
a representative to get the vehicle. (Doc. 26, pp. 35-36,
38). From that point forward, the deputy knew that he was not
going to allow Mr. Woods to drive away from the stop. (Doc.
26, p. 38).
the deputy gave Mr. Woods the warning (for failing to signal
and for following too closely but not for speeding), the
deputy asked Mr. Woods if there was a firearm in the vehicle.
Mr. Woods stated that there was a firearm in the console, so
the deputy removed Mr. Woods and his passenger from the car
and searched the vehicle. (Doc. 26. pp. 15-16). The deputy
found two guns and drugs in the car. (Doc. 26, pp. 16-17).
Mr. Woods's passenger claimed one of the guns and the
drugs. (Doc. 26, p. 17). The gun in the console is attributed
to Mr. Woods, but he contends that the gun belonged to his
girlfriend. (Doc. 26, p. 15).
is no dashcam or bodycam footage of the stop. (Doc. 26, p.
23). The deputy did not tell Mr. Woods about the detectives
who supposedly wanted to speak with him (Mr. Woods), and the
deputy did not mention to Mr. Woods the odor of marijuana
that the deputy supposedly detected when he first walked up
to the car. (Doc. 26, pp. 29-30). The purported odor of
marijuana is significant because the deputy testified that
his detection of the scent of marijuana during his initial
conversation with Mr. Woods gave him a basis for searching
the vehicle. (Doc. 26, p. 31).1F
United States contends that the deputy stopped Mr. Woods
because Mr. Woods committed two traffic violations, and the
deputy searched the rental vehicle because Mr. Woods admitted
that there was a firearm in the vehicle. Mr. Woods argues
that the deputy's testimony about the purported traffic
violations is not credible and that the traffic stop was a
pretense for an otherwise unauthorized stop. Both parties
agree that “there is no valid reason for a police
officer to [conduct a traffic] stop just because a detective
wants to talk to somebody. There's absolutely no probable
cause. There's no reasonable articulable suspicion
whatsoever at that point.” (Doc. 26, p. 46); see
also (Doc. 26, pp. 47-48) (“There's no
legitimate reason to stop someone for an investigatory
[traffic] stop. There's no such thing.”).
Court precedent regarding the driving public establishes a
wide berth for police action. See United States v.
Knotts, 460 U.S. 276, 281 (1983) (“A person
travelling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no
reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one
place to another.”). In United States v.
Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012), the Supreme Court placed
limits on Knotts in the context of GPS tracking, but
the Supreme Court did not abrogate the general rule announced
in Knotts. The Supreme Court explained:
This Court has to date not deviated from the understanding
that mere visual observation does not constitute a search. .
. . We accordingly held in Knotts that “[a]
person traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has
no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from
one place to another.” . . . Thus, even assuming that
the concurrence is correct to say that “[t]raditional
surveillance” of Jones for a 4-week period “would
have required a large team of agents, multiple vehicles, and
perhaps aerial assistance, ” . . . our cases suggest
that such visual observation is constitutionally permissible.
Jones, 565 U.S. at 412 (internal citations omitted).
context of a Fourth Amendment challenge to a search and
seizure, an officer's subjective reasons for conducting
surveillance and a traffic stop are irrelevant.
Whren, 517 U.S. at 813. In Whren, the
Supreme Court held that reasonableness is an objective
standard under the Fourth Amendment. Whren, 517 U.S.
at 813-14. Consequently, the ...