The opinion of the court was delivered by: GUSTAVE DIAMOND, Senior District Judge
On February 8, 2005, a federal grand jury returned a one-count
indictment against Sean Murphy ("defendant") charging him with
possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in violation of
18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Currently before the court are numerous
pretrial motions filed by the defendant.
A motions hearing was held before the court on June 8, 2005, at
which time the court ruled from the bench on several of
defendant's motions and took under advisement his motion to
suppress physical evidence. A supplemental hearing was held on
June 28, 2005, following which the parties were given the
opportunity to file supplemental briefs. These briefs have now
For the reasons which follow, the defendant's motion to
suppress will be granted.
I. Motions Resolved at Hearings
At the hearing on June 8, 2005, the court ruled on all of the
defendant's pretrial motions except his motion to suppress.
Specifically, the court indicated it would: (1) grant in part and deny in part defendant's motion for discovery (Document No. 17)
and his motion requesting notice pursuant to Fed.R.Evid. 404,
405, 406, 407 & 408 (Document No. 19); (2) deny as moot
defendant's motion for notice by the prosecution of its intention
to use evidence arguably subject to suppression (Document No.
20); and, (3) grant defendant's motion for disclosure of
impeachment evidence (Document No. 21).
At the supplemental hearing held on June 28, 2005, the court
denied defendant's motion for a view (Document No. 27). The
court's rulings on motions made at both hearings hereby are
adopted as the court's formal and final rulings on those motions
for the reasons stated on the record at those hearings.
(Transcript of Motions Hearings 2-5; 175-76.)
An appropriate order will follow.
II. Defendant's Motion to Suppress Physical Evidence
On the night of August 28, 2004, at approximately 10:20 p.m.,
officers from the Homestead Police Department, assisted by a
number of Federal Drug Enforcement Agency ("DEA") task force
officers, initiated on Browns Hill Road near the intersection of
Beechwood Boulevard in Pittsburgh a traffic stop of a 1988
Mercedes Benz operated by defendant. The officers conducted the
stop based upon information received in a radio bulletin issued
by Officer Richard Szurlej and Trooper Michael Schmitt, who
reported that they had witnessed defendant's vehicle proceed through a
steady red traffic signal on the Homestead High-Level Bridge and
continue across the bridge weaving through traffic at a high rate
When defendant pulled to the side of the road and stopped, his
passenger, Tarone Jones, exited the vehicle and fled on foot. The
responding officers ordered defendant from the vehicle and onto
the ground. A pat-down search of defendant resulted in the
seizure of a Taurus .45 caliber firearm, approximately $1,000 in
cash and a small bag of marijuana. Defendant then was placed
Defendant's motion to suppress physical evidence (Document No.
18) seeks suppression of all evidence, including the firearm,
seized either from his vehicle or from his person in the course
of the August 28, 2004, traffic stop. In addition, at the June 8,
2005, hearing, the court granted defendant's oral motion to amend
his suppression motion also to seek exclusion of any statements
defendant allegedly made after the stop. (Tr. 16.) Defendant
asserts that the officers lacked probable cause to stop his
vehicle because he had not committed any traffic violation
justifying the stop and that any evidence seized as a result must
be suppressed as the fruit of an illegal stop.
Upon consideration of the testimony received at the hearings
held on June 8, 2005, and June 28, 2005, as well as the parties' briefs, the court finds that the government has failed to meet
its burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the
traffic stop in question was initiated upon probable cause that
defendant committed a traffic violation. Accordingly, the court
concludes that any and all evidence, physical or testimonial,
obtained as the fruit of that illegal stop must be suppressed.
The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from "unreasonable
searches and seizures." United States Constitution, amend. IV. It
is well-settled that the temporary detention of individuals
during the stop of an automobile by the police, even if only for
a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a "seizure"
within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Whren v.
United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809 (1996). Accordingly, an automobile
stop is subject to the constitutional imperative that it not be
"unreasonable" under the circumstances. Id.
The decision to stop a vehicle is reasonable where the police
have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has
occurred. Id.; United States v. Moorefield, 111 F.3d 10, 12
(3rd Cir. 1997); see also Pennsylvania v. Mimms,
434 U.S. 106, 109 (1977) (a law enforcement officer who observes a
violation of state traffic laws is entitled to stop the vehicle
that committed the violation). In order to effectuate a lawful
stop of a vehicle, the government is not required to prove an
actual violation of Pennsylvania law, rather the government need
only prove probable cause that such a violation occurred. United States v.
Davenport, 134 Fed. Appx. 523, 525 (3d Cir. 2005); United
States v. Johnson, 63 F.3d 242, 245 (3d Cir. 1995) (although
actual violation of vehicle code need not be established, a
reasonable basis for trooper's belief that the vehicle or driver
is in violation is required to validate stop).
Where, as here, the vehicle stop is made in reliance on a
police radio request from other officers, a finding that the stop
was reasonable is dependent on whether the officers who issued
the request had probable cause to believe that a traffic
violation had occurred, and not on whether it was reasonable for
the stopping officers to have relied on the radio request.
United States v. Coward, 296 F.3d 176, 179-80 (3d Cir. 2002);
see also Whiteley v. Warden, 401 U.S. 560, 568 (1971)
(although police officer may rely on representations of other
officers when making arrest, officers requesting assistance must
have sufficient information to show probable cause); United
States v. Hensley, 469 U.S. 221, 232 (1985) (if flyer or
bulletin is issued without reasonable suspicion, stop made in
objective reliance upon it violates Fourth Amendment).
As a general rule, the burden is on a defendant who seeks to
have evidence suppressed to prove that it was seized illegally.
Johnson, 63 F.3d at 242. However, once the defendant has
established a basis for his motion, e.g., that the search or seizure was conducted without a warrant, the burden
shifts to the government to show that the search or seizure was
reasonable. Id.; see also Coward, 296 F.3d at 180
(government bears burden of proving existence of reasonable
suspicion justifying a Terry traffic stop). Accordingly, the
government bears the burden of proving in this case by a
preponderance of the ...