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United States v. Ratcliff

September 25, 2006

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
STACEY OLIVER RATCLIFF



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Harry S. Mattice, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Before the Court is Defendant Stacey Ratcliff's Motion to Suppress Because of Stop [Court Doc. No. 9]. In that motion, Defendant Ratcliff seeks to suppress the evidence obtained during a stop of his vehicle on November 5, 2005, on the grounds that: (1) the arresting officer lacked a reasonably articulable suspicion justifying the stop under Terry v Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 27, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 1883 (1968) and (2) the arresting officer lacked probable cause for the arrest. Id. After considering the evidence offered at the evidentiary hearing, the arguments of counsel and other materials submitted in connection with Defendant Ratcliff's Motion, and for the reasons set forth herein, the Court has determined that said Motion will be DENIED.

I. RELEVANT FACTS

An evidentiary hearing was held before the undersigned on Monday, August 14, 2006. Defendant was represented by Attorney Jes Beard. Assistant United States Attorney Steven Neff represented the Government. The only witness testifying at the hearing was Patrolman Larry Posey of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department. Officer Posey testified as follows.

On the evening of November 5, 2005, at about 8:00 p.m., Officer Posey was driving northbound in the 10900 block of Highway 58 in Hamilton County, Tennessee. At about that time a black 1988 Chevy S-10 pick-up truck passed Officer Posey going north; he immediately fell in behind and began following it. Officer Posey tried to read the registration tag on the truck in order to run a routine check on the status of the tag and the owner. The running of such a routine check is a normal part of Officer Posey's duties.

Due to the interposition of a trailer hitch attached to the rear bumper of the pick-up truck between the tag and Officer Posey's line of vision, Officer Posey was unable to read the first numeral of the tag. As a result, he was unable to provide the necessary information to the radio dispatcher to permit the dispatcher to run a computer check of the tag.

Eventually, by maneuvering slightly to his left and thereby changing his line of sight, Officer Posey was able to make out the entire sequence of letters and numerals on the license tag and was able to run the number through his radio dispatch system. Officer Posey then learned that the license tag was registered to one Stacey Ratcliff. Another Sheriff's deputy who had been listening to the radio traffic, Officer Gienapp, radioed in that Stacey Ratcliff's driver's license might be revoked. At that point, the dispatcher notified Officer Posey via radio that Stacey Ratcliff's driver's license was valid but expired.

In the course of the radio traffic occurring before Officer Posey stopped the Chevy pick-up truck, there was discussion to the effect that there were two Stacey Ratcliffs known to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department, a father and son. The son was born in 1969, but Officer Posey believed the driver of the Chevy pick-up truck was the father, who was born in 1946. It was the father's license that the dispatcher had indicated was expired.

At this point Officer Posey decided to pull over the Chevy pick-up truck in the 12800 block of Highway 58 (somewhere between approximately one and one half and two miles beyond where Officer Posey had initially sighted Defendant's vehicle) based on probable cause for two separate traffic violations. The first violation related to the fact that a portion of the pick-up truck's license tag had been obscured by the trailer hitch attached to the rear bumper of the truck, thus rendering the tag not clearly visible as required by statute. The second violation was based on the information that the driver's license had expired.

Once the pick-up truck was stopped on the side of Highway 58, Officer Posey walked to the vehicle and asked the driver if he knew that his driver's license was expired. The driver advised that his license was not expired and handed Officer Posey a valid, current license. Officer Posey also asked the Defendant to provide him with evidence of financial responsibility for operation of a motor vehicle as required by Tennessee law, but the Defendant was unable to do so. While standing at the driver's side window of Defendant's vehicle, Officer Posey observed in plain view an open 12-ounce can of Busch beer sitting in the floor board, also a violation of Tennessee law.

Officer Posey then returned to his patrol car and ran through the dispatch check system the driver's license which had been handed to him by Defendant Ratcliff. He also radioed for another patrolman from the Meigs County, Tennessee Sheriff's Department to come to the scene to back him up. Shortly thereafter, Officer Posey learned that the license which the Defendant had handed him was indeed valid, but indicated a different residence address from the license which the dispatcher had previously informed him was expired. It was later determined that there were duplicate records for two different driver's licenses in Defendant's name in the computer records system accessible by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department, listing two different residence addresses. This duplication and difference accounted for the earlier mistaken indication regarding the expired status of the Defendant's driver's license.

Once the back-up officer from the Meigs County Sheriff's Department arrived on the scene, Officer Posey walked back to the Defendant's vehicle and asked if he (Officer Posey) could search the vehicle, and the Defendant gave his oral consent. Upon receiving such consent, Officer Posey asked the Defendant to step out of his car and go stand by the Sheriff's patrol car.

Officer Posey then proceeded to search the Defendant's vehicle. In the course of the search he found a loaded Francadia POR .45 caliber pistol under the driver's seat. The gun was in a holster which also held two additional loaded magazines. Officer Posey testified that he had prior knowledge that the Defendant was a convicted felon and therefore that his possession of a firearm and ammunition would be a violation of state and federal law. More specifically, Officer Posey testified that he had had at least one earlier encounter with the Defendant, and knew that he had been engaged in drug trafficking, and had been previously convicted of murder, although such conviction had been overturned on appeal. At that point, Officer Posey arrested the defendant and placed him in custody.

Officer Posey eventually charged the Defendant with the criminal offenses of unlawful possession and/or carrying of a weapon and violation of the Tennessee open container law. In addition, Officer Posey cited the Defendant with the traffic offenses of improper display of a ...


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