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United States v. Hutchinson

January 18, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Yvette Kane, Chief Judge United States District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania

(Chief Judge Kane)


Pending before the Court is Defendant Rodney Hutchinson's motion to suppress drug evidence that law enforcement officers seized from a rental car during the course of a traffic stop. For the reasons that follow, Defendant's motion will be denied.


On May 1, 2006, Rodney Hutchinson was taken into custody after law enforcement officers discovered more than 200 pounds of packaged marijuana in a rental vehicle he was driving after he was pulled over in Riverside, California, for committing a violation of the California Motor Vehicle Code. On May 3, 2006, a grand jury sitting in the Middle District of Pennsylvania returned a one-count indictment charging Defendant and others with conspiring to manufacture, distribute, and possess with the intent to distribute approximately 1,000 kilograms of marijuana, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846. (Doc. No. 8.) Following a Rule 40 hearing held in California, Defendant was returned to the Middle District of Pennsylvania. On May 16, 2006, Defendant entered a plea of not guilty to the charge. On May 17, 2006, Magistrate Judge J. Andrew Smyser entered an order granting the government's motion to detain Defendant pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3142(e) and (f). On May 26, 2006, Defendant filed the motion to suppress that is the subject of this memorandum.

On May 31, 2006, the grand jury returned a superseding indictment naming additional defendants and adding two counts with respect to Defendant Hutchinson, charging him with conspiring to conduct a transaction or transactions with property that was the proceeds of the distribution of controlled substances, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956(h) and 2 (Count II), and seeking criminal forfeiture pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 982 and 21 U.S.C. § 853 of any property constituting, or derived from, proceeds obtained as a result of the crimes charged in Counts I and II, and any property used in any manner to facilitate the commission of such crimes (Count X). (Doc. No. 59.) On June 20, 2006, Defendant pleaded not guilty to Counts I, II, and X of the superseding indictment.

Defendant moved to suppress the drug evidence seized from his rental vehicle during a traffic stop on May 1, 2006. The government filed a brief in opposition to Defendant's motion to suppress on June 8, 2006. The Court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion on August 15, 2006.


Gilbert Carrera is a field and canine officer with the California Highway Patrol who has been employed with the California Highway Patrol for approximately 18 years. In addition to his duties as a field officer, Officer Carrera is a member of the Patrol's Special Enforcement Unit, and in connection with these duties he has received significant training and education relating to narcotics trafficking and drug interdiction and has been certified as a drug recognition expert by the Patrol.

On the afternoon of May 1, 2006, Officer Carrera received a call from Officer Mendenhall, a fellow patrolman who was working as a task force officer with the Drug Enforcement Agency. (Tr. 13-14.) Officer Mendenhall advised Officer Carrera that the task force was investigating two vehicles that were entering California from Arizona suspected of transporting large quantities of marijuana, and he requested Officer Carrera's assistance. (Id. 14.) Officer Carrera drove his marked vehicle to the intersection of Heacock and the 60 Freeway in Riverside, California, with instructions to look for a particular van that was suspected to be involved in drug trafficking. (Id. 14-15.) Shortly thereafter, Officer Mendenhall advised Officer Carrera that his target vehicle had changed to a Pontiac Grand Am. (Id. 15.)

Officer Carrera waited at a restaurant at his appointed location for between 40 minutes and one hour until he received another call from Officer Mendenhall advising him that the target vehicle was en route in his direction and requesting that Officer Carrera "follow it and find a reason to stop it." (Id. 16-17.) After he began following the Grand Am, Officer Carrera observed that the driver of the vehicle failed to signal while making an abrupt right turn onto a residential street. (Id. 17.) Officer Carrera testified that turning without signal in this manner constitutes a violation of the California Vehicle Code as an "unsafe turning movement." (Id.) Officer Carrera testified that he turned on his vehicle's red light to signal Defendant to pull his car to the side of the road. (Id. 18.) Defendant did not stop but instead continued forward at a speed of between 10 and 15 miles per hour, eventually making a left-hand turn on another residential street. (Id. 19.) Officer Carrera activated his alternating high beams and siren in an effort to encourage the Grand Am to pull over immediately. (Id.) The Grand Am continued traveling past another street, eventually coming to a stop approximately three feet from the curb. (Id.)

Officer Carrera approached the driver's side of the Grand Am, advised Defendant as to why he had been pulled over, and requested Defendant's driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance.*fn2 (Id. 20.) Instead of complying with Officer Carrera's instructions, Defendant stuck both of his hands out of the vehicle's window, a move that Officer Carrera found confusing. (Id.) Following Officer Carrera's repeated request for his registration, Defendant advised him that the vehicle was a rental car and produced the rental contract. (Id. 21.) Throughout this exchange, Officer Carrera observed that Defendant's hands were shaking. (Id.)

As a result of Defendant's failure to yield and because the Grand Am was situated several feet away from the curb, which Officer Carrera interpreted to be an indication that Defendant might have been preparing to flee, Officer Carrera instructed Defendant to exit the vehicle. (Id. 21-22.) Officer Carrera testified that he observed marijuana debris or residue on the front seat of the Grand Am as Plaintiff got out of the car. (Tr. 23.) Officer Carrera and Defendant moved to the right front of the patrol car; however, Defendant stopped twice on the way to the vehicle, which gave Officer Carrera some concern about a "fight or flight" scenario developing. (Id. 22, 23.) At this point, Officer Pendleton had arrived on the scene to provide backup. (Id. 22.) When they had arrived at his patrol cruiser, Officer Carrera engaged Defendant in conversation regarding such matters as where he had come from, where he was going, and who had rented the Grand Am. (Id. 24.) According to Officer Carrera, Defendant responded with a story that was "very, very questionable." (Id.) For example, Defendant informed Officer Carrera that he lived in Pennsylvania, had taken a bus to Arizona, and while there had received a phone call from a female friend named Katie Gartland, who happened to be in Arizona at the same time. (Id. 24-25.) According to Officer Carrera, Defendant told him that he had needed to visit a friend in Riverside, California, but for unknown reasons could not rent a car, so Ms. Gartland rented a vehicle for him. (Id. 25.) Defendant claimed that he went to a hotel where Ms. Gartland was staying and picked up a rental vehicle for his drive to California. (Id.) Once he had arrived in California, Defendant claims he went to an establishment off of the 60 Freeway and was there for approximately one hour before the friend he was allegedly going to visit called him on his cell phone and told him where he lived. (Id.) Despite claiming to have received this call, Defendant was unable to provide Officer Carrera with the address his friend had allegedly given him, and was further unable to provide Officer Carrera with the name of this friend. (Id.)

Having been advised by a task force officer that Defendant's vehicle contained a substantial quantity of marijuana, having observed a small amount of substance he believed to be marijuana debris on the front seat after effecting a traffic stop, and having been told what he considered a very dubious story regarding the circumstances by which Defendant claimed to have arrived in Riverside, California, Officer Carrera retrieved his drug-detecting canine, Zeus, to conduct a sniff of the Grand Am. (Id. 26.) According to Officer Carrera, Zeus proceeded around the vehicle, eventually "follow[ing] the odor of the narcotics into -- in through the open window, went straight into the back seat and alerted on a duffle bag that was in the back seat."*fn3 (Tr. 26.) Officer Carrera returned Zeus to the cruiser and asked Defendant whether he owned the duffel bag in the back seat, to which he replied that it was not his and he did not know who owned the bag.*fn4 (Id. 26-27.)

Officer Carrera proceeded to open the duffel bag, discovering four bricks of packaged marijuana. (Id. 27.) Thereafter, Officer Carrera placed Defendant under arrest and searched the remainder of the vehicle. (Id.) This search yielded two additional duffel bags located in the trunk of the car, collectively containing sixteen packages of marijuana with an aggregate weight of more than 200 pounds. (Id.) Upon discovering the marijuana, Officer Carrera called the local task force to take over the investigation. (Id.)


Defendant argues that the drug evidence seized from the rental car must be suppressed because Officer Carrera lacked probable cause to pull him over, because the traffic stop was allegedly a pretextual attempt to search the car, and because Officer Carrera searched the car without probable cause or consent in violation of the Fourth Amendment. As discussed below, the Court finds that when Officer Carrera stopped the Grand Am he had probable cause to believe that a violation of the California Motor Vehicle Code had been committed, and that Officer Carrera's subjective motivation for attempting to find a basis to stop the car is irrelevant. Furthermore, the Court finds that Officer Carrera had probable cause to search Defendant's vehicle after his drug-detecting canine alerted ...

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