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United States v. Cobb

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

August 19, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
CEDRIC L. COBB

          RECOMMENDATION OF THE MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          STEPHEN M. DOYLE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Defendant Cedric L. Cobb (“Cobb”) is charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Indictment & Superseding Indictment (Docs. 1 & 23). Detective James Stewart (Det. Stewart) of the Tallassee Police Department seized the 9mm pistol giving rise to this charge during a traffic stop of Cobb's Chevrolet Tahoe SUV. Det. Stewart initiated the traffic stop because he knew Cobb was the subject of an outstanding Elmore County arrest warrant. (Gov't Ex. 1). He spotted Cobb driving the Tahoe into a gas station and pulled it over. When Det. Stewart approached the Tahoe and spoke with Cobb through the open driver's window, he smelled the distinct odor of marijuana coming from inside the vehicle. He instructed Cobb to exit the vehicle, secured him, and then proceeded to search the Tahoe. Det. Stewart discovered a loaded Taurus 9mm pistol and sixteen small bags of marijuana hidden under the cupholder in the center console.

         Cobb filed a Motion to Suppress arguing that the car stop was unlawful because there was no outstanding warrant for Cobb's arrest. (Doc. 14). Cobb subsequently amended his motion conceding that there was an outstanding arrest warrant but arguing that Det. Stewart's search of the Tahoe was unlawful because Cobb was secured and moved away from the vehicle before the search began. (Doc. 19). The Government responded that Det. Stewart had authority to search under the automobile exception because the Tahoe was readily mobile, and he had probable cause to believe it contained contraband. Gov't Opp. (Doc. 18) at 3. The undersigned held a suppression hearing, and at the hearing the Government also argued that the evidence is admissible under the inevitable discovery doctrine. Tr. at 47. Upon consideration of Cobbs' Motion as amended (Docs. 14 & 19), the Government's Response (Doc. 18), and the evidence and arguments presented at the suppression hearing, the undersigned Magistrate Judge recommends that Cobb's Motion to Suppress be denied.

         II. FACTUAL FINDINGS

         Det. Stewart was the only witness called at the suppression hearing, and the essential facts are undisputed. A few nights before the stop at issue, Det. Stewart was on patrol and saw the white Tahoe parked abandoned at the Tallassee boat ramp. Tr. at 7. He ran the license plate, and the system showed the vehicle was registered to Cobb and that Cobb had an outstanding warrant for possession of marijuana 1st class. Tr. at 8; Gov't Ex. 1, warrant. The system also showed a picture of Cobb. Id.

         A few nights later, Det. Stewart saw the Tahoe pull into a gas station in Tallassee. Tr. at 7, 19. He observed Cobb exit the vehicle and recognized him from the picture. Id. at 9. He waited for Cobb to get back in the Tahoe and pull out of the gas station. Id. Det. Stewart then initiated a traffic stop by turning on his emergency lights. Id. Cobb pulled into the parking lot of the Travelodge Motel and stopped. Id. Det. Stewart waited for backup to arrive and then approached the vehicle. Tr. at 11. Upon exiting his patrol car, Det. Stewart activated his body camera. Gov't Ex. 4, body cam video.

         Det. Stewart approached the driver's window and spoke with Cobb through the open window. He smelled the odor of raw or green marijuana coming from inside the vehicle. Tr. at 11-12. Det. Stewart is an experienced narcotics officer and is very familiar with the distinct smell of marijuana in both its raw or green state and when burned or smoked. Tr. at 6. Det. Stewart did not mention the marijuana odor to Cobb or anyone else. Tr. at 22. Det. Stewart asked Cobb to exit the Tahoe, and he placed him in handcuffs, led him away from the vehicle and turned him over to another officer serving as backup. Tr. at 12.

         Det. Stewart then proceeded to search the Tahoe. Tr. at 12-13. His search revealed a loaded Taurus 9mm pistol and a green Crown Royal bag containing sixteen small bags of marijuana hidden under the cup holder in the center console. Id.; Gov't Ex. 3, photos. Det. Stewart testified that he conducted the search because the odor of marijuana established probable cause that the Tahoe contained contraband. Tr. at 12.

         III. Legal Standard

         The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable search and seizure. See U.S. Const. amend. IV. When a defendant moves “to suppress evidence garnered through a warrantless search and seizure, the burden of proof as to the reasonableness of the search rests with the prosecution.” U.S. v. Freire, 710 F.2d 1515, 1519 (11th Cir. 1983) (emphasis original). To sustain this burden, the “Government must demonstrate that the challenged action falls within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement, thereby rendering it reasonable within the meaning of the fourth amendment.” Id.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. The Traffic Stop

         The undersigned will briefly address the traffic stop although defendant now appears to concede that it was lawful. (Doc. 19) at ¶ 1. “A traffic stop is a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.” United States v. Purcell, 236 F.3d 1274, 1277 (11th Cir. 2001) (citing Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 661 (1979)). An arrest warrant provides express authority to make a traffic stop for the purpose of executing the warrant on someone in a vehicle. United States v. Foster, 2018 WL 4374239, at *4-5 (M.D. Ala. 2018) (citing United States v. Provens, 2009 WL 10695199, at *3 (N.D. Ala. 2009) ...


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