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U.S. v. BROWN

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania


August 19, 2005.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
FRANKLIN TIMOTHY BROWN.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: CHRISTOPHER CONNER, District Judge

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the court is a motion by defendant, Franklin Timothy Brown ("Brown"), to suppress evidence seized by police as a result of a traffic stop on grounds that the officers' actions were not supported by individualized suspicion of criminal activity. The motion will be denied.

I. Findings of Fact*fn1

  The stop occurred at about 3:00 a.m. on March 14, 2005. Two officers of the Lancaster City Police Department were on routine patrol in a marked police vehicle when they observed a gold-color Cadillac traveling at a high rate of speed through an intersection a short distance in front of them. They began to pursue the car. The officers estimated the car's speed to be approximately fifty miles per hour — more than double the posted limit of twenty-five miles per hour — and observed the car change lanes without using a turn signal. They activated the warning lights of the police vehicle. The Cadillac, after making a sudden turn, pulled into an off-street parking area.

  As they approached the car, the officers became suspicious, observing that it matched the description of a vehicle involved in a recent bank robbery, the subject of a police advisory on which the officers had been briefed earlier in their shift. The robbery had occurred less than a week earlier, and involved two black males who, using firearms and pepper spray, had stolen a sum of money from the Northwest Savings Bank in Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. Included in the appropriated funds were three dye packs, intended to explode after removal from bank premises to coat the bills in traceable red dye. Soon thereafter, local businesses and individuals reported seeing two or three black males exchanging dyed bills in coin machines around the area. They were reportedly driving a gold Cadillac with duct tape on the rear tail lights and bearing Pennsylvania registration number FWS0102. One of the officers contacted the police station and confirmed the contents of the advisory.

  The Cadillac driven by Brown matched this description precisely. The officers asked Brown to exit the car and searched his person and the front passenger area of the car for weapons. They also retrieved a baggie, which appeared to be drug paraphernalia, that was in the front passenger area in plain view from the outside of the car. The baggie turned out to be only trash, and the officers did not discover weapons or other contraband. They allowed Brown to re-enter the car and began to prepare citations for driving at an unsafe speed and changing lanes without using a turn signal, in violation of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code.*fn2 They also determined that Brown's license had been suspended, and prepared a citation for this offense.*fn3

  The officers returned to the car and presented the citations to Brown. In light of Brown's suspended license, the officers asked Brown to exit the car. As he did so, several torn pieces of United States currency, stained with red dye, fell from his clothing. Officers immediately placed Brown under arrest and, after a thorough search of his person, discovered more dyed bills with serial numbers matching the money taken from the bank. He was later charged, by federal indictment, with armed bank robbery and unlawful possession of a firearm.*fn4

  The motion to suppress was filed in June 2005, and a hearing was held on August 16, 2005. The officers who effected the stop were called to testify, and offered a substantially consistent, candid, and credible version of the events preceding and during the stop. They estimated, based on their training and experience and opportunity to observe Brown's car during the pursuit, that he had been traveling at approximately fifty miles per hour. Brown also took the witness stand, but presented a significantly less clear — and less believable — account. He recounted that he had been driving at approximately fifteen miles per hour when the officers first saw him and that he had not exceeded twenty-five miles per hour or changed lanes. Several inconsistencies in his testimony, regarding the events before and after the stop, were obvious. No other witnesses were presented. The court took the matter under advisement.

  II. Discussion

  The constitutionality of a warrantless search or seizure hinges on whether, from an objective standpoint, the action can be described as "reasonable" in light of the information then known to the officials involved. See, e.g., United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273 (2002); see also U.S. CONST. amend. IV. "Reasonableness," although "strictly a legal issue," is nevertheless fact-specific and must be assessed by application of the particular circumstances of the case to principles and rules derived from overall constitutional standard. United States v. Wogan, 356 F. Supp. 2d 462, 466 (M.D. Pa. 2005); see Christopher v. Nestlerode, 373 F. Supp. 2d 503, 514-15 (M.D. Pa. 2005).

  The nature of this analysis requires the court to consider separately the actions of officers in this case. The initial seizure occurred when the officers stopped the car driven by Brown.*fn5 The first search occurred when they conducted a pat-down of Brown and inspected the interior of his car for weapons. A second search occurred after Brown was formally arrested, when the officers performed a thorough search of his person and his car. A. Stop of the Vehicle

  A public seizure of an individual is constitutionally "reasonable" if the facts known to the officer establish "probable cause" to believe that the individual had committed, or was committing, a criminal offense under state law. See Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318, 354 (2001); see also Johnson v. Campbell, 332 F.3d 199, 205-14 (3d Cir. 2003); Christopher, 373 F. Supp. 2d at 515-16. The existence of probable cause must be judged from the perspective of an objective observer in the officer's position at the time of the seizure. See Devenpeck v. Alford, 125 S. Ct. 588, 593-94 (2004); see also Wright v. City of Philadelphia, 409 F.3d 595, 602-03 (3d Cir. 2005). "The dispositive question is whether the investigating officer, with his or her experience and based on the facts then known, could have reasonably concluded that the [person to be seized] more likely than not [had committed] a crime." Wogan, 356 F. Supp. 2d at 467 (citing Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154, 171 (1978)).

  Probable cause supported the seizure in this case. The officers observed the car operated by Brown driving at approximately fifty miles per hour on a city street with a posted limit of twenty-five miles per hour. They followed the car, and saw it change lanes without using a signal in a downtown area with other traffic present. Their recollections of these events were consistent — despite sequestration — and credible based on the court's assessment of the officers' demeanors on the witness stand. Moreover, the officers' estimations of Brown's speed were, in the view of the court, reliable in light of their ability to observe Brown's car and experience in law enforcement. They could reasonably infer from their observations that Brown had violated several provisions of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code, including driving at an unsafe speed, 75 PA. CONS. STAT. § 3361, driving in excess of posted speeds, 75 PA. CONS. STAT. § 3362,*fn6 and changing lanes without signaling, 75 PA. CONS. STAT. § 3334. The stop of the vehicle was justified based on these suspected violations.

  B. Search for Weapons

  Officers are constitutionally entitled to conduct a brief "pat-down" of a seized suspect, and a brief search of surrounding accessible areas, if they have a "reasonable suspicion" that the individual may be armed or otherwise pose a threat to their safety. See Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366, 372-74 (1993); see also Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1049-51 (1983). "[T]he issue is whether a reasonably prudent [person] in the circumstances would be warranted in the belief that his [or her] safety or that of others was in danger." Id. at 1050 (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21 (1968)). Reasonable suspicion supported the brief search of Brown and the interior of his car. Upon approaching the car driven by Brown, officers noticed that it seemingly matched the description of a vehicle linked to a recent armed bank robbery. An advisory detailing the bank heist had been provided to the officers at the start of their shift and was verified during the course of the stop. The link between the car driven by Brown and the armed robbery gave police reasonable grounds to believe that Brown may have been involved in the incident and may be in possession of a weapon, either on his person or in the car.*fn7 They acted reasonably in conducting a pat-down of Brown and a brief search of the interior of the car before proceeding further.

  C. Search Following Arrest

  Following a valid arrest, officers are permitted to conduct a full search of the arrestee's person and surrounding areas. United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 235 (1973). This search is not limited to weapons, and may include the passenger compartment of a vehicle that the arrestee was operating at the time he or she was seized. See Thornton v. United States, 124 S. Ct. 2127, 2130-31 (2004); see also Wogan, 356 F. Supp. 2d at 466-67. The arrest of Brown and the searches incident thereto were valid. The officers reasonably suspected that the Cadillac operated by Brown matched the description of a vehicle linked to a recent armed bank robbery. This suspicion was confirmed when bits of United States currency, stained with the same red dye used to trace stolen funds, fell from Brown's clothing during the course of the stop.*fn8 These facts established probable cause to suspect that Brown may have been involved in the bank robbery and justified his arrest.*fn9 As such, the subsequent searches of his person and the interior of the car were reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

  III. Conclusion

  The warrantless seizure and searches conducted by officers in this case comported with the constitutional standard of reasonableness. The motion to suppress does not challenge the validity of subsequent searches of Brown's home or his effects, and the court need not reach these matters. The motion will be denied. An appropriate order will issue.

  ORDER

  AND NOW, this 19th day of August, 2005, upon consideration of defendant's motion to suppress (Doc. 22), and for the reasons set forth in the accompanying memorandum, it is hereby ORDERED that the motion (Doc. 22) is DENIED.


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