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United States v. Johnson

September 17, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane


On January 7, 2007, Harrisburg police officers performed a traffic stop of a taxicab in which Anthony Johnson was a passenger. Based on evidence uncovered during the stop, Johnson was indicted by a federal grand jury in the Middle District of Pennsylvania with illegal possession of a firearm and illegal possession of controlled substances. On, April 23, 2008, Johnson filed a motion to suppress, seeking exclusion of "the stop, continued detention, the arrest, and any evidence seized as the result of the stop, continued search and seizure due to violations of the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution." (Doc. No. 23.) Johnson additionally seeks to suppress his "subsequent statements provided to law enforcement officers as the fruits of the poisonous tree of the illegal seizure and search." (Id.) For the following reasons, the Court will deny Johnson's motion.


At about 9:30 p.m. on the night of January 7, 2007, the Harrisburg Police Department received an emergency 911 call from Tammy Anderson. Ms. Anderson explained that she was calling to report a gunshot and fighting incident in a nearby parking lot. She said she was calling from her the front porch of her house on the 2500 block of Seventh Street at its intersection with Radnor Street. Anderson explained that she saw a taxicab pull into the parking lot diagonally across the intersection and park next to a van. She then heard a gunshot and saw two people wrestling on the ground near the vehicles. While she was on the phone with the 911 operator, the cab pulled out of the lot and left. The van remained parked in the lot. (911 Call Tr. 2--3.)*fn1

Although she acknowledged that her visibility was limited by poor eyesight, darkness, and rain, Anderson was nevertheless able to give a description of the cab. It was white with a green light on its roof, and she thought that she saw some kind of tan side-paneling on it. Ms. Anderson indicated that the cab was distinct because of its unusual green light: "[a]ctually the cab did not even look like it's from here. A white cab . . . [i]t had a green light on the top of it. I never seen that cab around here before." (Id. 4--5.) Anderson reported that the cab turned south on Seventh Street, traveling towards Maclay Street. (Id. 4.)

While Anderson was on the phone with the 911 operator, her report was simultaneously relayed to a Harrisburg police dispatcher who, in turn, communicated the information to police officers stationed in the area near Seventh and Radnor. The dispatcher relayed to the officers the description of the taxicab, that it had two occupants, and that it was traveling south on Seventh Street towards Maclay Street. (Dispatch Tr. 1.) The dispatcher also informed the responding officers that the call was a "signal 50," meaning "shots fired." (Hr'g Tr. 17.) The first officer to arrive at the scene at Seventh and Radnor, Officer John Doll, found a van parked in the lot, as Anderson had seen. He found no one in or near the van. (Id. 23.)

At approximately the same time, another officer, Officer Grinkowitz, radioed that a white taxicab with a green rooftop light passed him going south at the 1700 block of Seventh Street, at Harris Street approximately ten blocks south from where the gunshot was reported. (Hr'g Tr. 23--24.) Officer Doll responded, "there is nobody here at Seventh and Radnor. So they're probably in the cab." (Dispatch Tr. 2.) He told Officer Grinkowitz to stay with the cab, but instructed him not to initiate a traffic stop. (Hr'g Tr. 24.)

Unbeknownst to the dispatchers or the police, in the cab were the Defendant, Anthony Johnson, and his eight-year old son. The driver, an acquaintance of Johnson, picked up the two as a personal favor. He intended to drive south on Seventh Street to its termination at Walnut Street and then take Aberdeen Street to the Mulberry Street Bridge. (Hr'g Tr. 53, 60.)

Officer Grinkowitz did not turn on his car's sirens or emergency lights, and the cab driver later testified that he was unaware that he was being followed. (Hr'g Tr. 49.) The cab continued traveling south on Seventh Street and turned into Aberdeen Street, which is a narrow alleyway. There, the police positioned their vehicles to block the cab from escaping. Numerous police officers*fn2 surrounded the cab, many with their sidearms drawn. (Id. 24--25.) They were following "general practice" to protect themselves and others, because there reportedly was a weapon involved. (Id. 39.) The officers began shouting and yelling for the occupants to get out. (Id. 24--25.)

The police then secured the vehicle. Johnson was taken out of the backseat and handcuffed. (Hr'g Tr. 25--26.) He was not placed under arrest; rather the officers intended to detain him until the cab was cleared of people. (Id. 40.) The police then ordered the driver out and also placed him in handcuffs. (Id. 26.) The last occupant removed was Johnson's son, who was placed to the side. (Id.) Once the vehicle was cleared, Officer Richard Gibney approached the cab from the rear on the driver-side. (Id. 26, 42.) The driver-side door and the passenger-side rear doors were open, and the interior dome light of the car was on. (Id. 43.) Through the driver-side rear door, which was closed, Officer Gibney noticed an unzipped duffel bag in the backseat. (Id.) He saw the butt of a gun-identified in the original and superceding indictments as a Taurus .38 Special revolver-sticking out of the bag. Two casings were spent, meaning the gun had been fired twice. (Id. 37.) Officer Gibney retrieved, unloaded, and gave the gun to Officer Doll. (Id. 26, 42.)

Officer Doll then placed Johnson under arrest for possession of the gun and suspected involvement in the shooting incident, read Johnson his Miranda rights, and began to question him about the weapon. (Hr'g Tr. 26.) Johnson did not respond to Officer Doll's questions and instead looked at the officer "dumbfoundedly." (Id. 26, 29.) Doll then searched Johnson's clothes pockets and found a small bag of marijuana, another small bag of a white, powdery substance later identified as cocaine, and a plastic straw cut in half. (Id. 27.)

Johnson was placed in a transport van and taken to the police station for booking. At the station, Johnson began to talk with Officer Doll, who had arrived at the station in a different car. (Hr'g Tr. 28.) About twenty to thirty minutes had passed since Johnson had been read his Miranda rights. (Id.) Johnson admitted that he owned the firearm but when questioned further about the shooting incident, he denied ever firing the gun. He asked the officer to go easy on him with the drug charges. (Id. 28--29.) Johnson did not sign a statement relinquishing his Miranda rights and there is no videotape of his incriminating statements. (Id. 40.)

On January 16, 2008, a grand jury indicted Johnson on one count of illegal possession of a firearm by a person with three prior felony convictions, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(e), to which Johnson pleaded not guilty. The grand jury handed down a superceding indictment on May 28, 2008, reincorporating the firearm possession count and adding one count for possession with intent to distribute marijuana and cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). Johnson pleaded not guilty to the superceding indictment on June 17, 2008. The present motion to suppress was filed on April 23, 2008. The parties have fully briefed the motion (Docs. No. 30, 24), and the Court held an evidentiary hearing on May 28, 2008.


Johnson moves to suppress physical and testimonial evidence taken as a result of the stop, specifically the handgun found in a duffel bag in the rear seat of the cab, the drugs and drug paraphernalia found on his person, and inculpatory statements made by him and others.*fn3

Johnson contends that the Harrisburg police, by stopping the cab and subsequently arresting him, violated the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. He also argues that his statements should be suppressed as the fruits of an illegal search and because they were taken in violation of his privilege against self-incrimination provided by the Fifth Amendment and Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966) and its progeny. The Court will address each argument in turn.

A. The Initial Seizure

The Fourth Amendment prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures . . . ." U.S. Const. amend. IV. "[A]n officer may, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, conduct a brief, investigatory stop when the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot." Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 123 (2000) (citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30 (1968)). It is well-settled that the initial traffic stop of the cab constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653 (1979). And during a traffic stop, passengers in the car, as well as the driver, are seized. Brendelin v. California, 127 S.Ct. 2400, 2404 (2007). Police may stop a vehicle when the officer has reasonable and articulable suspicion that either the vehicle or an occupant is in violation of the law. E.g., United States v. Johnson, 63 F.3d 242, 245 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Prouse, 440 U.S. at 663).*fn4 Traffic stops, as a subset of investigative detentions, are governed by the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness standard-an objective standard that balances the intrusion upon the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the legitimate goals of law enforcement. Prouse, 440 U.S. at 654.

Johnson argues that the Harrisburg police had neither probable cause nor reasonable suspicion to stop the taxicab in which he was riding. The Government responds that the officers' stop of the cab was an investigatory detention-not an arrest-and that it was supported by their reasonable suspicion that an occupant of the cab was involved in the "shots fired" incident. Because (as explained below) the Court finds that the stop of the cab was an investigative detention, the Court must determine (1) whether the police had reasonable suspicion to initiate the investigative detention, and (2) if so, whether, in blocking the cab in an alleyway, ordering ...

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