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United States v. Prado

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 1, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
ANGEL PRADO, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Robert L. Mariani United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Presently before the Court is Defendant's Amended Motion to Suppress Physical Evidence and Incrimination Statements, (Doc. 66). Defendant, Angel Prado, is charged with a single count of possession of heroin with intent to distribute in violation of 21 U.S.C. 841(a). The present motion-which has had the benefit of two separate evidentiary hearings and multiple briefings-seeks to suppress physical evidence obtained as a result of a roadside car search and Defendant's subsequent statements to police. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Defendant's Motion to Suppress.

         II. Background

         On December 19, 2013, Pennsylvania State Trooper Paul Lindsay was patrolling a section of Interstate 80 in Monroe County, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 74, 6/9/16 Tr., at 7; Doc. 84, 12/13/16 Tr., at 22-23). At the time, Trooper Lindsay was assigned to the Safe Highway Initiative through Effective Law Enforcement Detection unit, or SHIELD unit. (Doc. 74, 6/9/16 Tr., at 5). In that role, Trooper Lindsay was "trained to look beyond the traffic stop for indicators of criminal activity, " including drug interdiction activities. (Id.). Slightly before 10:00 a.m.. Trooper Lindsay noticed Defendant driving in the lane next to his. (Id. at 7, 25).

         According to the Trooper:

As I was traveling the left lane, the Defendant ... was driving a Honda Odyssey. I saw him veering over into the shoulder of the road over into the fog line. It raised my suspicions. I don't know if he was falling asleep, or he was under the influence of something, or he was having a medical issue, and I took action.

(Id. at 7). Thereafter, at approximately 9:58 a.m., Trooper Lindsay initiated a traffic stop for violation of 75 Pa. C.S. § 3309, driving on roadways laned for traffic. (Id. at 25-26; Doc. 84, 12/13/16 Tr., at 23).[1]

         After both vehicles stopped, Trooper Lindsey contacted, via radio, the nearest State Police Barracks and relayed the car's license plate numbers. (Doc. 84, 12/13/16 Tr., at 33- 34). Trooper Lindsey then approached Defendant's car and asked Defendant some questions regarding where he was coming from, who owned the car, and whether Defendant had a criminal history. (Doc. 74, 6/9/16 Tr., at 8-11). Defendant indicated that he had never been arrested before. (Id. at 11). The Trooper later testified that, although Defendant seemed to understand everything the Trooper was asking, English did not appear to be his first language. (Id. at 10-11). Trooper Lindsey asked for Defendant's credentials and noted that Defendant's hand was shaking as he handed his license to the Trooper. (Id..at11).

         Thereafter, Trooper Lindsey returned to his car and used the on-board computer to verify some of Defendant's information, (Doc. 84, 12/13/16 Tr., at 37). After inputting some of Defendant's data, Trooper Lindsey found that Defendant appeared to have two prior arrests for drug offenses under an alias name of Raul Garcia, (Id. at 37-38; Doc. 74, 6/9/16 Tr., at 12). Because the alias had a Social Security number associated with it, Trooper Lindsey returned to Defendant's car and asked Defendant for his Social Security number. (Doc. 84, 12/13/16 Tr, at 38-39; Doc. 74, 6/9/16 Tr, at 12). The Trooper then returned to his car and determined that the two Social Security numbers matched. (Doc. 84, 12/13/16 Tr, at 39). It was at this time that Trooper Lindsey placed a call to request a canine unit on scene. (Id.).

         Trooper Lindsey then decided to issue Defendant a warning for the traffic offense and began the process of inputting Defendant's information into the on-board police computer in order to print out a written warning. (Id. at 40-41). Sometime during this process, a second State Trooper arrived with a canine unit. (Gov't Ex. 7). After completing the warning, Trooper Lindsey went back to Defendant's car and asked him to exit the car. (Doc. 84, 12/13/16 Tr, at 41; Doc. 74, 6/9/16 Tr, at 14-15). Trooper Lindsey then explained the warning and gave Defendant the warning and his credentials. (Doc. 84, 12/13/16 Tr, at 41; Doc. 74, 6/9/16 Tr, at 15-16). Immediately thereafter, Trooper Lindsey asked a series of questions with respect to where Defendant was coming from and whether the car contained anything illegal. (Doc. 74, 6/9/16 Tr., at 15-16; Gov't Ex. 7). After less than two minutes of questioning, Defendant told Trooper Lindsey that, if the Trooper wanted to, he could check the car. (Gov't Ex. 7).

         Soon afterward, Defendant signed a Spanish language version of the "Pennsylvania State Police Waiver of Rights and Consent to Search" form. (Doc. 74, 6/9/16 Tr., at 16; Doc. 84, 12/13/16 Tr., at 43; Gov't Exs. 2, 12). Trooper Lindsey also orally informed Defendant that Defendant could revoke his consent at any time during the search. (Doc. 74, 6/9/16 Tr., at 16-17). A subsequent search of the car uncovered six kilograms of heroin. (Id. at 22). Defendant was arrested and Trooper Lindsey advised him of his Miranda rights in English. (Doc. 74, 6/9/16 Tr., at 23-24). Defendant was questioned and made several incriminating statements. (Gov't Ex. 7). He was then taken to a police station where Trooper Francis Carito advised Defendant, in Spanish, of his Miranda rights. (Id. at 63). Defendant then answered some more questions and provided a written statement. (Gov't Ex. 8).

         Defendant was eventually charged with a single count of possession of heroin with intent to distribute in violation of 21 U.S.C. 841(a). On November 30, 2015, Defendant filed the motion presently before the Court which seeks to suppress (1) the physical evidence obtained from the search of the car, and (2) Defendant's incriminating statements to police. (Doc. 66). A suppression hearing was held on June 9, 2016. Thereafter, the case was transferred to the undersigned and Defendant requested a new evidentiary hearing. (Doc. 77). A second hearing was held on December 13, 2016. At that time, the parties requested that the Court consider evidence produced at both hearings when ruling on the motion. (Doc. 84, 12/13/16 Tr., at 3).

         After the second hearing, the parties submitted briefs with their arguments. (Docs. 85, 87). On February 15, 2017, the Court issued an Opinion in which it expressed its concerns with whether the initial traffic stop was proper in light of the video evidence before the Court. (Doc. 91 at 2). The Court, however, noted that Defendant's brief stated that Defendant "does not contest the propriety of the initial stop." (Id:, Doc. 85 at 4 n.2). Therefore, the Court directed the parties to file additional briefs concerning whether Defendant's waiver of the issue precludes the Court from considering the propriety of the initial traffic stop and whether the initial stop was indeed lawful. (Doc. 91 at 7-8). The parties have submitted their supplemental briefs, (Docs. 93, 94), and Defendant's Motion is ripe for review. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Defendant's Motion to Suppress.

         III. Discussion

         In addition to the basis for which the Court directed the parties to brief, Defendant raises three other grounds for suppressing evidence in this case. The Court will address each in turn.

         A. Initial Traffic Stop

         As discussed above, the Court directed the parties to brief the issues of (1) whether the Court may address the propriety of the initial traffic stop in light of what appears to be a waiver of this issue by Defendant's counsel, and (2) whether the initial traffic stop was valid. (Doc. 91 at 7-8). Both parties agree that the Court, despite Defendant's counsel's apparent waiver of the issue, may address the question of whether the initial traffic stop was valid. (Doc. 93 at 4-5; Doc. 94 at 2-3). The parties diverge, however, on the second question of whether the initial stop was valid. Specifically, Defendant argues that because the video shows that the car Defendant was driving did not cross the fog line, the stop was invalid. (Doc. 94 at 4). The Government argues that, even though the car never crossed the fog line, Trooper Lindsey's perception that it did was a reasonable mistake of fact, and therefore the stop is still valid. (Doc. 93 at 6-12).

         The Fourth Amendment provides that individuals shall not be subject to "unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const, amend. IV. "[A] defendant who challenges a search or seizure typically bears the burden of proving that it was illegal." United States v, Headen, 264 F.App'x 244, 246 (3d Cir. 2008). "However, once the defendant has established a basis for his motion, i.e., the search or seizure was conducted without a warrant, the burden shifts to the government to show that the search or seizure was reasonable." United States v. Johnson, 63 F.3d 242, 245 (3d Cir. 1995).

         "The United States Supreme Court has held that stopping a car and detaining its occupants is a seizure under the Fourth Amendment." id. "Generally, for a seizure to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, it must be effectuated with a warrant based on probable cause." United States v. Robertson, 305 F.3d 164, 167 (3d Cir. 2002). "A well-established exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement permits an officer to 'conduct a brief, investigatory stop when the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.'" United States v. Lewis, 672 F.3d 232, 237 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 123, 120 S.Ct. 673, 145 L.Ed.2d 570 (2000)). Accordingly, "[a] routine traffic stop is constitutional when it is supported by reasonable suspicion." United States v. Gooch, 915 F.Supp.2d 690, 702 (W.D. Pa. 2012); see also United States v. Delfm-Colina, 464 F.3d 392, 397 (3d Cir. 2006) (holding that the "reasonable suspicion standard applies to routine traffic stops").[2] "Where reasonable suspicion for the traffic stop is lacking, the evidentiary fruits of the traffic stop must be suppressed." Lewis, 672 F.3d at 237.

         "Reasonable, articulable suspicion is a less demanding standard than probable cause and requires a showing considerably less than preponderance of the evidence."' Delfin-Colina, 464 F.3d at 396 (quoting Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 123, 120 S.Ct. 673, 145 L.Ed.2d 570 (2000)). "In forming a reasonable suspicion, officers may rely on their own experience and knowledge." United States v. Jones, 506 F.App'x 128, 131 (3d Cir. 2012). "When determining whether an officer possessed reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop, [a court] must consider the totality of the circumstances." Lewis, 672 F.3d at 237. Further, "an officer need not be factually accurate in her belief that a traffic law had been violated but, instead, need only produce facts establishing that she reasonably believed that a violation had taken place. Consequently, a reasonable mistake of fact 'does not violate the Fourth Amendment.'" Delfin-Colina, 464 F.3d at 398 (quoting United States v. Chanthasouxat, 342 F.3d 1271, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003)); see also United States v. Fleetwood, 235 F.App'x 892, 895 (3d Cir. 2007) (noting that the standard for a traffic stop "is not particularly rigorous, as no traffic law need actually have been broken, nor does the stopping officer have to be correct regarding the facts").

         In the case at hand, Trooper Lindsey testified that he pulled Defendant over for a violation of 75 Pa. C.S. § 3309(1). (Doc. 84, 12/13/16 Tr., at 23). That statute provides, in pertinent part, that "[a] vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from the lane until the driver has first ascertained that the movement can be made with safety." 75 Pa. C.S. § 3309(1). This statutory language- specifically the use of the phrase "as nearly as practicable"-"does not foreclose minor deviations" from marked lanes. Commonwealth v. Enick, 70 A.3d 843, 847 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2013). The statute does, however, prohibit drivers from "mov[ing] from the lane until the driver has first ascertained that the movement can be made with safety." Therefore, a violation of section 3309(1) occurs when a driver's "deviations from his lane of travel create[s] a significant safety hazard on the roadway." Feczko, 10 A.3d at 1292; see also Commonwealth v. Thrower, 2013 WL11276824, at *5 (Pa. Super Ct. 2013) ('Thus, whether an officer possesses probable cause to stop a vehicle for a violation of section 3309(1) depends largely upon whether a driver's movement from his lane is done safely").

         Here, because the seizure of Defendant occurred without a warrant, the Government bears the burden of showing that the seizure was reasonable. As the Court previously noted, the "clear video evidence... shows that Defendant Prado did not cross over the white fog line at any time." United States v. Prado, 2017 WL 630854, at *4 (M.D. Pa. 2017). Defendant argues that, for this reason alone, the Court should find that the stop was invalid. (Doc. 94 at 4). The Government, in contrast, argues that Trooper Lindsey made a mistake of fact with respect to whether or not Defendant crossed the fog line. The Government further argues that the mistake was a reasonable one, and, therefore, Trooper Lindsey still possessed the requisite reasonable suspicion that the traffic code was violated. (Doc. 93 at 6-12). For the ...


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