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United States v. Arnstrong

September 18, 2006

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
GREGORY ARMSTRONG



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terrence F. McVerry United States District Court Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

On August 11, 2006, the Court reopened the record in this matter for the limited purpose of conducting an evidentiary hearing on the issue of whether there was probable cause for the arrest of Defendant, Gregory Armstrong, on December 6, 2004. All parties were represented by counsel who presented and argued the issues skillfully and effectively.

Based on the testimony and evidence presented at the evidentiary hearing, and the applicable law, the Court finds that there was probable cause to arrest Defendant Gregory Armstrong.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The facts of the case, which are largely undisputed, have been amply set forth in the previous opinions rendered by the Court in this case.*fn1 Therefore, the Court merely provides an abridged summary of facts for the purpose of this Opinion.

On October 13 and 14, 2005, the Court held a non-jury trial on the pending charges against Defendant, Gregory Armstrong ("Armstrong"). On February 8, 2006, the Court issued an extensive Memorandum Opinion and Order of Court in which, after reflecting upon all the evidence and testimony presented at the non-jury trial, the Court found and ruled that Armstrong was guilty as charged in the indictment of one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute five (5) kilograms or more of cocaine, in violation of Title 21, United States Code, section 846; and one count of attempt to possess with intent to distribute five (5) kilograms or more of cocaine, in violation of Title 21, United States Code, section 846.*fn2

On February 14, 2006, in open Court, with Armstrong and his counsel present, the Court read the guilty verdict into the record.

On March 15, 2006, Armstrong filed a Motion For A New Trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33, in which he requested, inter alia, that the Court vacate the judgment of February 14, 2006, and "take additional testimony on the issue of the defendant's assertion that he was arrested without probable cause and his cell phone, money and documents were seized in violation of his rights as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution." Mot. at 1. Distilled to its essence, Armstrong, through counsel, argued that his attorney "failed to raise an obvious Fourth Amendment issue which is a violation of the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel." Id. at ¶ 3. Additionally, Armstrong contended that because this case was tried without a jury, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33 allowed the Court to "take additional testimony and decide the Fourth Amendment issue and if decided in the defendant's favor re-evaluate the trial evidence and enter a new judgment." Id. at ¶ 4. The government strongly opposed the Motion.

By Memorandum Opinion and Order of Court dated June 29, 2006, the Court granted Armstrong's motion in part and ordered the record to be reopened for the limited purpose of conducting an evidentiary hearing on the issue of whether there was probable cause to arrest Armstrong.

On August 11, 2006, the Court conducted an evidentiary hearing on the Motion to Suppress. The following witnesses testified on behalf of the government: Agent Francis Speranza of the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, Narcotics Division; Officer Mark Steele of the City of McKeesport Police Department; Trooper David Lieberum of the Pennsylvania State Police; Special Agent Thomas Jackson of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency;*fn3 and Agent Brenda Sawyer of the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General.

DISCUSSION

Probable cause to arrest exists when the facts and circumstances within the arresting officers' knowledge "are sufficient in themselves to warrant a reasonable person to believe that an offense has been or is being committed by the person to be arrested." United States v. Cruz, 910 F.3d 1072, 1076 (3d Cir. 1990), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 1039 (1991). See also Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89 (1964); United States v. Belle, 593 F.2d 487, 497 n. 15 (3d Cir. 1979), cert. denied, 442 U.S. 911 (1979). "While a 'bare suspicion' of criminal activity is not sufficient to establish probable cause, neither are police required to have enough evidence to justify a conviction before they make a warrantless arrest." See United States v. Morales, 923 F.2d 621, 624 (8th Cir. 1991).

Even if actions and occurrences, taken in isolation, are "susceptible of an innocent explanation," "[t]he succession of superficially innocent events [may] proceed to the point where a prudent man could say to himself that an innocent course of conduct was substantially less likely than a criminal one." Belle, 593 F.3d at 489-99 (quoting United States v. Patterson, 492 F.2d 995, 997 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 419 U.S. 846 (1974)).

An officer's knowledge of a prior arrest and conviction for drug trafficking, and/or association to a location, may factor into his finding of probable cause. See United States v. Cruz, 910 F.2d 1072, 1077 (3d Cir. 1990).

While, mere presence at a given location cannot in and of itself constitute probable cause to arrest, Ybarra v. Illinois, 444 U.S. 85, 90 (1979), a purposeful coordination of activity may factor into an officer's finding of probable cause. United States v. Butts, 704 F.2d 701 (3rd Cir. 1983).

Armstrong argues that he was arrested without probable cause and that his cell phone(s), money and documents were therefore seized in violation of his rights as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Through counsel, Defendant concedes that he was present at or near the scene of a crime, however, he argues that this is not sufficient for his arrest because all he did was "drive a truck, park a truck, go into his house, come out of his house, and was arrested."

After an in-depth review of the respective positions of the parties, the evidentiary suppression hearing record, and applicable case law, the Court finds that there were sufficient facts known by the police at the time that Armstrong was arrested that support a reasonable ...


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