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United States v. Blanding

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 25, 2019



          Baylson, J.

         I. Introduction and Background

         Defendant, Jamaal Blanding, was arrested on state charges following a traffic stop of the vehicle he was driving on October 25, 2017. Certain evidence was seized from the vehicle, including two cell phones, mail, currency, and other papers. Subsequently, the FBI secured a search warrant for the cell phones, and the Court understands that the contents of the cell phones, and possibly other items seized from Defendant's vehicle, are likely to be introduced as evidence at the upcoming trial.

         On October 17, 2018, a grand jury returned a Superseding Indictment against nine Defendants, including Mr. Blanding, who is accused of four counts of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances in violation of drug trafficking provisions. (ECF 16.) Defendant has filed a Motion to Suppress evidence obtained during the traffic stop based on violations of his constitutional rights, which was supplemented three times. (ECF 162, 195, 197, 282.)[1] The Government has filed a Response in opposition, which was supplemented once. (ECF 203, 256.) Defendant has also filed a Reply in support of the Motion. (ECF 276.) Defendant's Motion was the topic of an evidentiary hearing on April 16, 2019. (ECF 206, 207, 235.) The hearing was followed by a Court Order identifying several issues for briefing and oral argument on June 17, 2019. (ECF 210, 277, 285.) The Court has carefully reviewed the evidentiary record and the briefs, and for the reasons discussed below, the Court will deny the Motion.

         II. Discussion

         A. Reasonable Suspicion to Conduct the Traffic Stop

         Initially, the Court finds that the traffic stop in this case was lawful because it was based on Philadelphia Police Officer Michael Vargas's reasonable suspicion that Defendant committed a traffic violation, which is the appropriate test. Briefly stated, FBI Task Force Officer Gregory Stevens contacted Officer Vargas to ask him to attempt to locate a car driven by Defendant, which the FBI had reason to believe contained contraband. As Officer Vargas credibly testified, he observed the car travel northbound on Route 1 and enter an exit lane toward Wissahickon Avenue. Officer Vargas testified that he was approximately two car lengths behind the car when he observed the car roll through a stop sign as it proceeded toward Wissahickon Avenue and come to a stop in a crosswalk zone at the intersection of Abbotsford Avenue and Wissahickon Avenue. As a result, Officer Vargas conducted a traffic stop of Defendant's vehicle on Roberts Avenue.

         After extensive testimony, and also argument and briefing, the Court concludes that Officer Vargas had grounds to stop Defendant, independent of, and supplemented by, information transmitted from Officer Stevens to Officer Vargas over police radio. Although the Government does not specifically rely on the FBI call to support its opposition, the Court finds it to be a valid component of the reasonable suspicion that justified the traffic stop. See Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393, 397 (2014) ("The [reasonable suspicion] standard takes into account 'the totality of the circumstances-the whole picture.'" (quoting United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417 (1981))); United States v. Torres, 534 F.3d 207, 210 (3d Cir. 2008) ("When officers are told to investigate a situation by a police dispatcher, ... the court must look beyond the specific facts known to the officers on the scene to the facts known by the dispatcher.... [T]he knowledge of the dispatcher is imputed to the officers in the field when determining the reasonableness of the [traffic] stop.").

         While Officer Vargas specifically stopped Defendant for coming to a stop in a crosswalk, the Court finds there were grounds to stop Defendant because he went through a stop sign prior to coming to the crosswalk. There is some evidence that the crosswalk was not marked as such.

         The Government has pointed out that while the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code prohibits drivers from stopping in a crosswalk, it does not require that the crosswalk be painted or marked. See 75 Pa.C.S. §§ 102, 3710. Officer Vargas did not give Defendant a citation for a traffic offense. Defendant's failure to come to a full stop before turning onto Wissahickon Avenue would have been very dangerous because the stop sign is not flush with the borders of the intersection. Given the unique location of the stop sign behind the actual intersection, which requires any vehicle approaching Wissahickon Avenue to stop in wha| constitutes a crosswalk, Defendant could not have been properly convicted of a traffic violation if one had been issued. However, that is not the legal test to determine the constitutionality of the stop.

         The leading Supreme Court case on the reasonableness of traffic stops is Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996), where the Supreme Court unanimously held that the constitutional reasonableness of a traffic stop does not depend on the subjective intent of the officers involved. The Supreme Court has been clear that a traffic stop is lawful if based on reasonable suspicion, which is '"a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped' of breaking the law." Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, 135 S.Ct. 530, 536 (2014) (quoting Navarette, 572 U.S. at 397); see also United States v. Johnson. 63 F.3d 242, 245 n.2 (3d Cir. 1995) (noting that the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code permits an officer who has "reasonable and articulable grounds to believe that a vehicle or driver is in violation of the Vehicle Code" to stop the vehicle).

         The Court concludes that under all of the facts, the traffic stop did not violate Defendant's constitutional rights because Officer Vargas possessed a "particularized and objective basis" for suspecting that Defendant committed a traffic violation. Not only was the traffic stop lawful in its inception, but Officer Vargas also legally expanded the stop by inspecting the interior of the car and asking questions of Defendant. See United States v. Givan, 320 F.3d 452, 458 (3d Cir. 2003) ("After a traffic stop that was justified at its inception, an officer who develops a reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity may expand the scope of an inquiry beyond the reason for the stop and detain the vehicle and its occupants for further investigation.").

         Once Defendant's car was stopped, Officer Vargas credibly testified to having reasonable suspicion that the car contained contraband. This came from the smell of burnt marijuana, with which Officer Vargas was familiar, two large bulges in Defendant's pockets, which Defendant told Officer Vargas contained currency, the discovery that Defendant's license was suspended, and Defendant's behavior. The reasonable suspicion standard, which has been approved by the Supreme Court and the Third Circuit, covers the factual circumstances of this case and requires this Court to conclude that Defendant's constitutional rights were not violated by the traffic stop.

         B. Probable Cause to Search the Vehicle and Seize ...

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