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United States v. Blakemore

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee

March 14, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
DARIUS JERMAINE BLAKEMORE, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HARRY S. MATTICE, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Lee On January 27, 2017, United States Magistrate Judge Susan K. Lee filed her Report and Recommendation (Doc. 96) pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(b)(1). In her Report and Recommendation (hereinafter “R&R”), Magistrate Judge Lee recommended that Defendant's Motion to Suppress (Doc. 67) be denied. On February 10, 2017, Defendant filed timely Objections to the R&R. (Doc. 102).

         The Court has now reviewed the entire record relevant to the instant objections, and for the reasons state herein, the Court will OVERRULE Defendant's objections, will ACCEPT and ADOPT Magistrate Judge Lee's R&R, and will DENY Defendant's Motion to Suppress.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The facts giving rise to Defendant's Motion to Suppress are, for the most part, uncontested. This action stems from the Drug Enforcement Administration's (“DEA”) 2016 investigation of Defendant for illicit narcotics activity. On the morning of March 16, 2016, a bright and sunny day in Chattanooga, Tennessee, DEA agents contacted Hamilton County Sherriff's Deputy/Canine-Handler Patrol Officer Larry Posey (hereinafter “Officer Posey”), to ask if he could be on standby to conduct a traffic stop.[1]After confirming that Defendant was in the passenger seat of a dark-colored Chevrolet Trailblazer (“the Trailblazer”), DEA Task Force Officer Shane Dockery (hereinafter “DEA Officer Dockery”)[2] radioed Officer Posey asking him if he could perform a traffic stop of the Trailblazer.

         After he asked Officer Posey to perform the traffic stop, DEA Officer Dockery followed the Trailblazer in an unmarked police vehicle. DEA Officer Dockery saw through the Trailblazer's tinted windows that the front seat passenger was not wearing a seatbelt, and he relayed this information to Officer Posey in a second radio communication. (Doc. 107 at 26-27). Officer Posey travelled down a long, straight stretch of Shallowford Road for approximately thirty seconds before he caught up with the Trailblazer. During this time, Officer Posey was several car lengths behind the Trailblazer, and at least one other vehicle (a pickup truck)[3] completely obstructed Officer Posey's view thereof. At approximately 11:48 a.m., however, the Trailblazer pulled into a left turn lane to turn into a Dollar General store. At this time, Officer Posey had an unobstructed view of the Trailblazer, and followed it into the turn lane. About five seconds after the Trailblazer first came into view, as depicted in a video recorded by a camera affixed to Officer Posey's vehicle (hereinafter “the dash cam video”), Officer Posey activated his blue lights to initiate the traffic stop. Officer Posey contends that during these five seconds, he saw that the front seat passenger of the Trailblazer was not wearing his seatbelt, which gave him probable cause to stop the vehicle.

         The remaining facts are irrelevant for purposes of this Order. Briefly, during the ensuing traffic stop, law enforcement officers found narcotics and weapons in the Trailblazer. Defendant does not argue in his Motion to Suppress that the scope or duration of the stop were impermissible, but rather that Officer Posey lacked probable cause to initiate the traffic stop. (Doc. 68 at 4); (Doc. 107 at 5) (“The basis of our suppression motion is simply that there was not probable cause to initiate the traffic stop, and asking to suppress that evidence.”). Defendant claims that the stop was “based upon a direct instruction from DEA agents, ” and that “Deputy Posey was never in a position to observe [a seatbelt] violation prior to activating his lights to [begin] the stop.” (Doc. 68 at 4). The Court referred Defendant's Motion to Suppress to United States Magistrate Judge Susan K. Lee to conduct an evidentiary hearing and to issue a R&R pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). (Doc. 73).

         On January 20, 2017, Magistrate Judge Lee held an evidentiary hearing at which she heard the testimony of DEA Officer Dockery and Officer Posey. As is relevant to Defendant's Objections, DEA Officer Dockery testified that he observed that the front seat passenger of the Trailblazer was not wearing a seatbelt, and that he relayed this information to Officer Posey. (Doc. 107 at 54-55). Officer Posey testified that he had made hundreds of stops for seatbelt violations in his time as a law enforcement officer, and that he had previously been contacted by other law enforcement officers to be on standby to conduct traffic stops. (Id. at 8-9, 19-20). He further testified that he understood that in these situations he must independently find probable cause before initiating a traffic stop. (Id. at 20) (“When they call us to initiate a traffic stop for them, we are the - we know that we have to find our own probable cause to stop the vehicle. They usually don't have probable cause for us; we have to find it on our own.”). During the brief period in which the Trailblazer was visible to Officer Posey, he stated that he personally observed that the front seat passenger was not wearing his seatbelt. (Id.) (“When I got behind him, as he was turning, I got a quick shot into - inside the vehicle, and that's when I saw him not wearing a seatbelt.”). It is uncontested that it is impossible to tell from the dash cam video whether said passenger was or was not wearing his seatbelt.

         On January 27, 2017, Magistrate Judge Lee issued her R&R. (Doc. 96). Therein, she correctly noted that “[i]n a straight-forward way, the suppression issue comes down to whether it is credible that Posey observed a seatbelt violation as he claims.” (Id. at 8). On that issue, Magistrate Judge Lee found “that Posey's experience, appearance, demeanor, descriptive account of the day's events, corroborated testimony, and overall impression support finding that he gave credible testimony that he could and did observe that Defendant was not wearing a seatbelt.” (Id.). Furthermore, the R&R recognized that while Defendant “made a well-presented . . . argument that when taking into account the timing of the stop, the recorded events, and the tinted windows, it is allegedly incredible that Posey saw any seatbelt violation, ” Officer Posey's “testimony about how and when he saw the violation is possible and is not disproved by the timing, recording, or slight tint on the windows.” (Id.). Accordingly, Magistrate Judge Lee recommended that because Officer Posey's testimony that he saw a seatbelt violation was credible, Officer Posey had probable cause to initiate the traffic stop, and no Fourth Amendment violation has occurred. (Id. at 9-11).

         Defendant raises two objections to the R&R. First, he disagrees with Magistrate Judge Lee's credibility determination, and petitions the Court to conduct a de novo review thereof. (Id. at 6). Second, he argues that in making a probable cause determination, the R&R impermissibly relied on events that took place after Officer Posey initiated the traffic stop. (Id. at 7). The United States has filed a response to Defendant's Objections, (Doc. 103), and this matter is now ripe for review.

         II. ANALYSIS

         The Court must “make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations” to which Defendant has objected. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). Each objection will be discussed in turn.

         A. Officer Posey's Credibility

         Defendant does not contest that if the Court finds Officer Posey's testimony that he observed a seatbelt violation to be credible, then Officer Posey had probable cause to initiate a traffic stop and Defendant's Motion to Suppress should be denied. Defendant's first objection takes umbrage with Magistrate Judge Lee's credibility determination. Specifically, he argues that “[t]he Magistrate Court gave undue weight to the testimony of Officer Posey, and did not fully consider countervailing evidence relating to the basis for the traffic stop.” (Doc. 102 at 2). Defendant advances several arguments within this objection, but the upshot is that he believes that it is “somewhat amazing” that Officer Posey spotted a violation of Tennessee's seatbelt law ...


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