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United States v. Gardner

United States District Court, Third Circuit

November 1, 2013

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
RONALD GARDNER, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

NORA BARRY FISCHER, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on a Motion to Suppress Evidence, (Docket No. 25), filed by Defendant Ronald Gardner on January 22, 2013 and the Government's opposition thereto, (Docket No. 26). On March 7, 2013, the late Chief Judge Gary L. Lancaster Court held an evidentiary hearing on Gardner's motion. (Docket Nos. 30, 39). Following the reassignment of this case from Chief Judge Lancaster's docket, this Court held a hearing on June 24, 2013 during which the Court reviewed the physical evidence previously presented to Chief Judge Lancaster, (Gov. Ex. 1), accepted documentary exhibits from the parties which were not admitted at the initial hearing, (Def. Exs. 1-4, Docket Nos. 40-1:40-5), and heard oral argument from counsel. The official transcripts of both proceedings have been reviewed and considered by the Court. (Docket Nos. 39, 42). The parties then submitted proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law on October 7, 2013. (Docket Nos. 47, 48). Upon consideration of all of the parties' submissions and the evidence of record, and for the following reasons, Defendant's Motion to Suppress [25] is denied.

I. FINDINGS OF FACT

The credible evidence offered at the March 7, 2013 and June 24, 2013 suppression hearing established the following facts.[1]

On February 3, 2010, at approximately 1:30 a.m., Officer Michael Manfredi of the Washington, Pennsylvania Police Department responded to a police dispatch that a fight had occurred at the Comfort Lounge bar in Washington, Pennsylvania. (Transcript I at 5:11-17) (Officer Manfredi testifying). When Officer Manfredi and other officers entered the bar, they saw broken bottles and glass. (Transcript I at 6:12-17) (Officer Manfredi testifying). The officers spoke with a female, Helen Jordan, who was bleeding from the nose and stated that she had been beaten up by several individuals, one of whom was "that Barfield boy."[2] (Transcript I at 6:12-17, 14:13-21) (Officer Manfredi testifying). Jordan, who was ultimately arrested for being drunk and disorderly, also informed the police that the male individual involved in the fight had displayed a handgun and that the actors had fled in "a white vehicle." (Transcript I at 6:24-7:14, 15:23-17:19) (Officer Manfredi testifying). The officers each testified that Ms. Jordan described the vehicle as having "four doors, " (Transcript I at 6-7 (Officer Manfredi testifying; at 30-31 (Officer Mitchell testifying)), but Officer Manfredi's police report prepared on the date of the incident states only that they were told by Ms. Jordan that "those involved in the altercation fled in a white vehicle" (Def. Ex. 3, Docket No. 40-3 at 2).

After leaving the bar, Officer Manfredi resumed his patrol. (Transcript I at 8:02-07) (Officer Manfredi testifying). Several minutes later, and approximately eight blocks from the bar, Officer Manfredi observed a white four-door Ford Taurus sedan exiting a nearby housing complex. (Transcript I at 8:02-08, 9:15-19) (Officer Manfredi testifying). According to Officer Manfredi, the housing complex, Maple Terrace Housing Projects, is considered a high-crime area. (Transcript I at 8:08-15) (Officer Manfredi testifying). Specifically, Officer Manfredi was personally familiar with a homicide that occurred in that location, as well as reports of gunfire and arrests in that area. (Transcript I at 8:12-15) (Officer Manfredi testifying). Officer Manfredi then ran the registration number of the vehicle through the National Crime Information Center database and learned that the vehicle had been reported as stolen. (Transcript I at 8:19-9:01) (Officer Manfredi testifying). Officer Manfredi followed the vehicle a short distance until it pulled up to a residence. (Transcript I at 10:20-11:05) (Officer Manfredi testifying). At that point, Officer Manfredi activated his police lights and back-up officers arrived on the scene. (Transcript I at 11:03-05) (Officer Manfredi testifying).

Officer Manfredi then ordered the driver of the vehicle, Trina Barfield, to exit the vehicle and walk towards him. (Transcript I at 11:07-10) (Officer Manfredi testifying). Barfield was visibly disoriented and was taken into custody by the officers. (Transcript I at 21:07-23) (Officer Manfredi testifying). Simultaneously, Gardner, who was sitting in the passenger seat, began to exit the vehicle despite repeated police orders to stay inside. (Transcript I at 11:12-12:05) (Officer Manfredi testifying). Officer Manfredi testified that once outside of the vehicle, Gardner complied with orders to lie on the ground where Officer Kent Mitchell handcuffed him. (Transcript I at 23:05-21) (Officer Manfredi testifying); (Transcript at I 32:10-12) (Officer Mitchell testifying).

Because of the concern over other potentially-armed occupants being inside the vehicle, Officer Manfredi then cleared the vehicle. (Transcript I at 12:12-13:06) (Officer Manfredi testifying). While Officer Manfredi was clearing the vehicle, Officer Mitchell performed a frisk of Gardner's person for officer safety. (Transcript I at 12:12-13:06) (Officer Manfredi testifying); (Transcript at 32:10-34:11) (Officer Mitchell testifying). At the time, Gardner was lying face down on the ground with his hands handcuffed behind his back. (Transcript I at 42:13-22) (Officer Mitchell testifying). During the frisk, Officer Mitchell turned Gardner onto his side and felt what he believed to be ammunition in Gardner's right front pants pocket. (Transcript I at 32:12-13, 43:07-44:10) (Officer Mitchell testifying). Officer Mitchell has extensive experience with firearms and ammunition, and handles ammunition on a daily basis. (Transcript I at 29:05-24) (Officer Mitchell testifying). According to Officer Mitchell, he was able to determine that what he felt in Gardner's pocket was ammunition based on the shape and heavy weight of the objects. (Transcript I at 33:15-34:01, 44:15-45:14) (Officer Mitchell testifying). Officer Mitchell removed the bag from Gardner's pocket and placed it on the ground. (Transcript I at 45:18-25) (Officer Mitchell testifying). The bag contained twelve.45-caliber rounds of ammunition. (Transcript I at 47:08-09) (Officer Mitchell testifying).

Officer Mitchell then placed Gardner in the back of the patrol car and proceeded to look inside the passenger area of the Ford Taurus. (Transcript I at 34:14-17) (Officer Mitchell testifying). In the rear passenger seat, Officer Mitchell located the butt of a handgun protruding from underneath a baby seat. (Transcript I at 34:18-22) (Officer Mitchell testifying). Officer Mitchell seized the gun, which was determined to be a.45-caliber Springfield Army handgun containing six live rounds. (Transcript I at 47:09-13) (Officer Mitchell testifying).

According to Officer Mitchell, two other officers who arrived on the scene, Officer John Linley and Lieutenant John Yancosek, recognized Gardner as a felon at some point prior to his arrest.[3] (Transcript I at 32:14-24) (Officer Mitchell testifying). Officer Mitchell testified thateven if the ammunition had not been found on Gardner's person, Gardner would have been arrested in connection with the bar fight and for possession of the gun in the backseat. (Transcript I at 34:23-35:21) (Officer Mitchell testifying).

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On August 14, 2012, the Government filed an Indictment charging Gardner with one count of Possession of a Firearm by a Convicted Felon, on or about February 3, 2010, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) and 924(e), and one count of Possession of Ammunition by a Convicted Felon, on or about February 3, 2010, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) and 924(e). (Docket No. 3). On January 22, 2013, Gardner filed the instant Motion to Suppress Evidence. (Docket No. 25). On February 4, 2013, the Government filed its Response to Gardner's Motion to Suppress, (Docket No. 26), and on February 14, 2013, Gardner filed his Reply, (Docket No. 27).

A hearing on the Motion to Suppress was held before the late Chief Judge Gary L. Lancaster, to whom this case was originally assigned, on March 7, 2013. The case was then transferred to the current docket on May 8, 2013, following the untimely death of Chief Judge Lancaster. (Docket No. 32). A status conference was held on May 16, 2013. At the conference, counsel for the parties agreed that the evidentiary record for the pending motion to suppress had closed, but requested that the Court convene a hearing to review physical evidence in the possession of the case agents and to hear oral argument. (Docket No. 35). This Court then held a hearing on June 24, 2013, (Docket No. 42), and the parties submitted post-hearing proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law on October 7, 2013, (Docket Nos. 47, 48). As the matter has been fully briefed and argued, it is now ripe for disposition.

III. ARGUMENTS PRESENTED

In his motion, Gardner moves to suppress the ammunition found on his person because "the evidence was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment." (Docket No. 25, at 1; see also Docket No. 48 at 13). More specifically, Gardner asserts that the officer who patted him down exceeded the scope of a permissible frisk for weapons under Terry v. Ohio , 392 U.S. 1 (1968). (Id.). In response, the Government asserts that the officer possessed the requisite reasonable suspicion prior to patting down Gardner and was justified in seizing the ammunition. (Docket Nos. 26, 47). The Government further argues that even if the search of Gardner exceeded the bounds of Terry, the ammunition is admissible because the police officers inevitably would have discovered it during a valid warrantless search incident to arresting Gardner for being a felon in possession of a firearm. (Id.).

IV. DISCUSSION

It is well-settled that, at a hearing on a motion to suppress, "the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be given the evidence, together with the inferences, deductions and conclusions to be drawn from the evidence, are all matters to be determined by the trial judge." United States v. Richardson , 501 F.Supp.2d 724, 734 (W.D. Pa. 2007) (citations omitted).[4]

A. Terry Stop and Frisk

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. CONST. AMEND. IV. See also United States v. Ubiles , 224 F.3d 213, 216 (3d Cir. 2000). Warrantless searches are per se unreasonable subject only to a few specifically established and well delineated exceptions. Horton v. California , 496 U.S. 128, 133 (1990). Because no warrant authorized the search here, the burden is on the Government to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the search fell within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement. United States v. Herrold , 962 F.2d 1131, 1137 (3d Cir. 1992). One exception to the warrant requirement is the Terry stop and frisk. 392 U.S. at 20-22.

Here, the Government asserts that pursuant to Terry, the police officers possessed reasonable suspicion to stop and conduct a pat-down search of Gardner for weapons or contraband. (Docket Nos. 26, 47). The Government further argues that, under the plain feel doctrine, the officer conducting the pat-down discovered a bag of what he believed to be ammunition in Gardner's pocket, which the officer reasonably seized as a weapon pursuant to Terry. (Id.). The ammunition was also seized as contraband because Gardner, a felon, is prohibited from possessing such items. (Id.).

The Terry stop and the Terry pat-down frisk are two separate and distinct determinations: "our inquiry is a dual one - whether the officer's action was justified at its inception, and whether it was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place." Terry , 392 U.S. at 19-20. In other words, the frisk does not follow automatically from the stop. See Adams v. Williams , 407 U.S. 143, 146 (1977) ("So long as the officer is entitled to make a forcible stop, and has reason to believe that the suspect is armed and dangerous, he may conduct a weapons search limited in scope to this protective purpose.") (citing Terry , 392 U.S. at 30) (footnote omitted) (emphasis added). Accordingly, the Court will address the Terry stop and frisk in two parts: (1) whether reasonable suspicion existed to stop and detain Gardner under Terry; and (2) whether the pat-down frisk was objectively reasonable under Terry, i.e., whether the police officer's removal of the ammunition in Gardner's pocket pursuant to the "plain feel" doctrine was reasonable.

1. Reasonableness of the Terry Stop

Generally, Terry permits a police officer to conduct "a brief investigatory stop when he or she has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot." Illinois v. Wardlow , 528 U.S. 119, 123 (2000) (citing Terry , 392 U.S. at 30). "[I]n a traffic-stop setting, the first Terry condition-a lawful investigatory stop-is met whenever it is lawful for police to detain an automobile and its occupants pending inquiry into a vehicular violation." Arizona v. Johnson , 555 U.S. 323, 327 (2009). It is well established that officers are permitted to pull over a car suspected of violating any applicable vehicular traffic laws, United States v. Bonner , 363 F.3d 213, 216 (3d Cir. 2004) (citations omitted), such as a report that a vehicle was stolen. No further suspicion of criminal activity by the driver of the vehicle or the passengers therein is necessary to justify the Terry stop of the vehicle. Johnson , 555 U.S. at 327.

In the present case, Gardner concedes that the police officers were justified in conducting the initial traffic stop of the vehicle because it was reported stolen. (See Docket No. 48 at 13 ("Although the initial stop of the vehicle, which had been reported stolen, was lawful..."); Docket No. 42 at 41 ("We would agree that... the police... had probable cause for the stop of the car because it was reported stolen)). The Court agrees that the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle and investigate whether it was stolen or not. Accordingly, the Government has established the first element of the Terry inquiry by a preponderance of the evidence.

2. Reasonableness of the Terry Frisk

Prior to addressing the scope of the frisk, i.e., Officer Mitchell's removal of the bag of ammunition from Gardner's pocket, the Court must determine whether it was objectively reasonable for the police officer to frisk Gardner. Defendant maintains that the frisk executed by Officer Mitchell violated his Constitutional rights because the supposed bases for the search are allegedly insufficient to demonstrate that he possessed objective and particularized facts supporting a finding that he had reasonable suspicion to believe that Gardner was armed and dangerous or posed a threat to the officers' safety. (Docket Nos. 25; 48 at 16-21).

The Government maintains that Officer Mitchell's frisk was within the bounds of Terry and fully supported by the totality of the facts presented at the suppression hearing. (Docket No. 47 at 14-18).

"To justify a patdown of the driver or a passenger during a traffic stop, ... the police must harbor reasonable suspicion that the person subjected to the frisk is armed and dangerous." Johnson , 555 U.S. at 326. "The purpose of this limited search is not to discover evidence of crime, but to allow the officer to pursue his investigation without fear of violence." Adams v. Williams , 407 U.S. 143, 146 (1972). To assess the legality of a protective frisk, a court also looks at the "totality of the circumstances - the whole picture" to see whether the officer had a particularized, objective basis for his or her suspicion. United States v. Cortez , 449 U.S. 411, 417 (1981). A mere "hunch" or "inchoate and unparticularized suspicion" cannot justify a search for weapons under Terry. Terry , 392 U.S. at 27. Any evidence obtained pursuant to a search that does not meet this exception must be suppressed as "fruit of the poisonous tree." United States v. Brown , 448 F.3d 239, 244 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Wong Sun v. United States , 371 U.S. 471, 487-88 (1963)).

Reasonable suspicion, while not rigidly defined, may be the result of the following factors: "specialized knowledge and investigative inferences, " "personal observation of suspicious behavior, " "information from sources that prove to be reliable, and information from sources that-while unknown to the police-prove by the accuracy and intimacy of the information provided to be reliable at least as to the details contained within that tip." United States v. Brown , 448 F.3d 239, 247 (3d Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). Depending upon the totality of the circumstances, reasonable suspicion may be the result of one or a combination of the above and other relevant factors.

In evaluating the officer's actions, the Court must defer to the "officer's knowledge of the nature and nuances of the type of criminal activity the officer has observed." United States v. Robertson , 305 F.3d 164, 166 (3d Cir. 2002) (citing United States v. Nelson , 284 F.3d 472 (3d Cir. 2002)). In addition, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit gives considerable deference to police officers' determinations of reasonable suspicion. See, e.g., Nelson , 284 F.3d at 482. Similarly, courts often defer to personal observations and conclusions on the theory that experienced officers can infer ...


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