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United States v. Pleasant

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

November 2, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
RAHEEM PLEASANT

          MEMORANDUM

          Gerald Austin McHugh United States District Judge

         Defendant Raheem Pleasant stands accused of taking part in four robberies. He was arrested following an investigation that involved a number of law enforcement techniques.

         Several pretrial motions have been filed, and following briefing, a full evidentiary hearing was held, rendering the motions now ripe for resolution.

         1) Defendant's Motion to Suppress Physical Evidence

         Defendant Pleasant seeks to suppress physical evidence found in his car-a fake gun, two ski masks, and plastic bags-because he believes his arrest and the subsequent search of his car violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

         Following a bank robbery that occurred on January 2, 2017, police reviewed the security camera footage from the bank and nearby businesses. As a result of that review, they were able to identify a burgundy sedan with two missing hub caps. In addition to the missing hubcaps, the vehicle had a rear spoiler, tinted windows, two window visors, and a prominent Chevrolet Impala logo on the side pillar. A Philadelphia police detective assigned to the Violent Crimes Task Force pondered the suspects' likely route of travel and, following his intuition, continued to gather footage from available surveillance cameras to trace its path. On one recording, the detective observed an item being thrown from the suspect vehicle that visually appeared to have fluttered to the ground. Upon site inspection he recovered a black scarf. Later, approximately one block away, the detective recovered two black gloves along the car's route of travel.

         A description of the car was broadcast, and on January 10, 2017, Philadelphia police officers located the vehicle parked approximately five miles from the site of the robbery. The license plate was communicated to the case investigators, who determined through records that it was owned by Defendant Raheem Pleasant. They then compared surveillance photographs from the bank with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Motor Vehicle photo for Mr. Pleasant, as well as with photos in a law enforcement database, and positively identified him as one of the two bank robbers. In the bank surveillance photographs, one of the robbers can be shown to be wearing a black scarf, partially covering his face with it, and two black gloves.

         The FBI agent assigned to the case, Special Agent Percy Giles, proceeded to the scene where the car was parked. When Mr. Pleasant returned to the vehicle he was asked to accompany the agent to the FBI offices in Philadelphia. The Government does not dispute that this constituted an arrest. As the FBI was questioning Mr. Pleasant, officers from Upper Darby Township in Delaware County presented an arrest warrant in connection with one of the other open bank robbery cases, and Defendant was remanded into their custody. That same day, Philadelphia police were instructed to impound the vehicle. Also on January 10, Mr. Pleasant's girlfriend was shown photographs from the bank surveillance camera, and positively identified him as one of the robbers. The Government secured a federal arrest warrant on January 12, 2017, secured a warrant to search the car on January 17, and ultimately conducted the search on January 18, finding ski masks, a fake firearm that was consistent in appearance with the handgun seen on the bank surveillance video and as described by witnesses, and crumpled plastic bags similar to ones used in the robberies.

         On these facts, I have a little hesitation in denying the Motion to Suppress. Thoughtful and diligent police work making use of surveillance cameras provided investigators with a clear description of the vehicle. When Philadelphia police located the vehicle, a comparison of available photographs of Mr. Pleasant provided convincing evidence that he was one of the two robbers. For probable cause to exist, there need only be a “fair probability that the person committed the crime at issue” and the standard is met when the “facts and circumstances within the arresting officer's knowledge are sufficient in themselves to warrant a reasonable person to believe that an offense has been committed by the person to be arrested.” Wilson v. Russo, 212 F.3d 781, 789 (3d Cir. 2000); see also United States v. Edwards, No. CRIM. 11-735, 2013 WL 2256125, at *12 (E.D. Pa. May 23, 2013), aff'd, 591 F. App'x 156 (3d Cir. 2014) (finding probable cause on similar facts).

         This leaves the question whether police had a reasonable basis upon which to seize Defendant's car. Florida v. White, 526 US. 559 (1999), is the controlling case. There, the Supreme Court held that the police have authority to seize a vehicle from a public street if they have a reasonable belief that the vehicle “may have been used at some point in the past to assist in illegal activity.” Id. at 567. The Court held that a lesser standard was applicable because police activities such as towing a vehicle which is parked in a public street does “not involve any invasion of [the owner's] privacy.” Id. at 566. The Court further noted that seizure of a vehicle can be required because of the nature of automobiles-their inherent mobility creates a risk that evidence can be lost. Law enforcement concern over possible loss of evidence is underscored by the facts of this case, because the defendant sought to have a family member tow the car after he was arrested.

         Arguably, the police could have searched the vehicle without securing a warrant, because the United States Supreme Court has given the automobile exception an expansive interpretation. United States v. Donahue, 764 F.3d 293, 295 (3d Cir. 2014). Here, however, the agents took the additional precaution of securing a warrant before searching the vehicle. Eight days elapsed from the time the vehicle was seized to the time it was searched, and the defense argues that in some way this undermined the existence of probable cause. With the vehicle impounded the evidence was secure. Furthermore, the investigators continued to accumulate more evidence, making the case for searching the vehicle that much stronger. In the context of a warrantless search of a seized vehicle, the Third Circuit has held that a delay of five days was “immaterial, ” Donovan, 764 F.3d at 300, and cited with approval one case approving a warrantless search 38 days after impound, United States v. Gastiaburo, 16 F.3d 582 (4th Cir. 1994), and another upholding a search seven days after seizure, United States v. McHugh, 769 F.2d 860 (1st Cir. 1985). See also United States v. Jones, 994 F.2d 1051 (3d Cir. 1983) (passage of two weeks between the time of the robbery and time of the search was not so long as to undermine probability that perpetrators would still have possession of the robbery proceeds).

         In that regard, authorities here were investigating an ongoing series of bank robberies, supporting an inference that the defendant would likely still possess the handgun displayed at the various banks or other instrumentalities it used to carry out the crimes. Once again, the record shows that such an inference is supportable, because the FBI did in fact recover the firearm, bags, and masks that appear to have been used by the robbers. Finally, it bears emphasis that ultimately the search was conducted pursuant to a warrant that was based upon a detailed affidavit of probable cause. The agents performing the search were entitled to rely on the presumed validity of the warrant. United States v. Williams, 3 F.3d 69 (3d Cir. 1993). For these reasons, the Motion to Suppress Physical Evidence will be denied.

         2) Defendant's Motion to Suppress Out-of-Court Identifications

         Several witnesses to the bank robberies have viewed photo arrays and identified Defendant Pleasant as one of the bank robbers. Defendant now argues that those identifications violated his constitutional right to due process and, as a result, the government ...


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