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United States v. Baxter

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Winchester

March 13, 2018




         Before the Court is a motion to suppress and memorandum filed by Shannon Baxter (“Defendant”) seeking to suppress all evidence resulting from a traffic stop [Docs. 21 & 22].[1]Defendant alleges the stop violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and, more specifically, the guidelines set in Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. __, 135 S.Ct. 1609 (2015). Plaintiff United States of America (“the government”) filed a response in opposition to the motion [Doc. 24]. An evidentiary hearing on the motion was held on March 1, 2018. After fully considering all of the parties' evidence and argument, I RECOMMEND that Defendant's motion to suppress be DENIED.


         During the evidentiary hearing, the government presented the testimony of Tennessee Highway Patrol (“THP”) State Trooper Donnie Clark (“Clark”). Defendant presented the testimony of THP Dispatcher Jessica Partin (“Partin”). The following pertinent facts are undisputed and, for the most part, visually (but largely inaudibly) recorded by Clark's dashboard camera, [2] which activated when he turned on his blue lights and captured from a short time period prior to the activation of the blue lights through Defendant's arrest. The tape counter runs from about 2 minutes before Clark first spoke to Defendant until the end of the encounter.

         Clark has 24 years of law enforcement experience, including training as a drug interdiction officer conducting traffic stops. Turning to the events at issue, on a cloudy afternoon around 3:00 p.m. on November 7, 2017, Clark initiated a stop of a gray Chevy Malibu (“Malibu”) traveling westbound on I-24 in Coffee County, Tennessee after he observed what he thought was a window tint violation coupled with a driver cellphone violation, both Class C misdemeanor traffic violations. As Clark began to catch up to the Malibu, he observed what he thought was a “trailer” car pull closely and directly behind the Malibu. Clark thought the trailer car, which had Ohio plates, was attempting to block or deter him from initiating a traffic stop of the Malibu. Clark believed this blocking maneuver was consistent with illegal interstate transportation of narcotics based on his extensive experience and training.

         Clark turned on his blinker and wedged behind the Malibu. Clark then activated his blue lights to stop the Malibu, which also activated his dashboard camera. Clark approached the passenger's side of the Malibu and informed Defendant, who was the driver, why the stop was initiated. Defendant told Clark the Malibu belonged to a “lady friend” and provided his driver's license, which indicated he resided in Indiana. The Malibu had an Indiana tag. Clark told Defendant why he was stopped and obtained Defendant's license and registration papers about a minute and a half after the Malibu pulled over. Clark concluded that Defendant was more nervous than typical because Defendant's hands were shaking when he handed Clark his driver's license and registration. Clark also concluded that the sole passenger in the Malibu, Chanel Satter (“Satter”), was more nervous than normal because she avoided making eye contact with Clark.

         Clark directed Defendant to exit the Malibu, patted his outside pockets down, and spoke with him in front of the patrol car. Clark asked Defendant why he was texting and driving and Baxter stated that he was looking at a map on his phone. Clark asked Defendant about his travel plans and Defendant responded that he was returning from Atlanta, Georgia after visiting a lady friend and baby for a couple of days.

         Next, Clark left Defendant at the front of his patrol car and went to the Malibu to speak with Satter, who was sitting in front passenger seat. In response to Clark's questions about their travel, Satter advised Clark that neither she nor Baxter had visited anyone in Atlanta; instead, she reported they went to Georgia to go shopping. While Clark was speaking with Satter, Defendant yelled at Clark, “Don't tell her about the baby.” As he was yelling, Defendant approached Clark in what Clark thought was an aggressive manner.

         Clark then returned to his patrol car to review Defendant's documentation. While in his patrol car, Clark made his initial contact with the THP dispatcher about the stop. In this radio communication, Clark requested the THP dispatcher to run the license tag on the Malibu, requested backup, and requested a drug detection canine because he suspected criminal activity based on Defendant's nervousness and aggressive behavior. Clark also began writing a warning ticket for a window tint violation under Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-9-107 and a texting violation under Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-199.

         As Clark was sitting in the patrol car writing the warning ticket, Defendant, who was still at the front of the patrol car, asked to speak with Clark. As a result, Clark exited his patrol car. Defendant then questioned why he was stopped and accused Clark of “racial profiling.” During this communication, Clark asked for permission to search the Malibu and Defendant declined to give consent.

         Approximately 11 minutes after the video was activated, Clark finished speaking to Defendant and returned to his patrol car. Clark contacted his dispatcher and submitted Defendant's driver's license information for a license check. Clark also used his cell phone to request a background check on Defendant from a law enforcement service known as the Blue Lighting Operations Center (“BLOC”). Clark would have requested a record check from the BLOC the first time he entered his patrol car, but Defendant interrupted him when Defendant asked to speak with him so Clark was unable to request the BLOC records at that time.

         Clark routinely uses both the THP dispatch system and the BLOC for background checks because the BLOC is capable of conducting a more complete record check than THP. Clark testified extensively about the different types of information available from the BLOC and from the THP dispatch system. In summary, the BLOC provides a far more detailed criminal history, a more thorough warrant check, and parole and probation information not available from the THP dispatcher. Clark finds the BLOC information useful in conducting traffic stops and routinely uses the BLOC to obtain information during traffic stops. In Clark's experience, sometimes the BLOC is quicker to return requested background information and sometimes the THP dispatcher is quicker to return requested background information.

         Approximately 16 minutes/20 seconds after the video was activated, Clark's backup, THP Trooper Jason Boles (“Boles”), arrives. Boles obtains and reports the Malibu's Vehicle Identification Number (“VIN”) to Partin, the THP dispatcher for this incident, because she has determined that she cannot obtain the Indiana tag information without the VIN. Later, Partin learns she is unable to obtain the tag information even with the VIN. Partin eventually had to call the Indiana State Police directly to obtain the tag information. The tag information was not obtained until well after the below referenced canine alert.

         Clark testified license tag information is often important to obtain in traffic stops to determine if the driver is in lawful possession of the vehicle. Clark also testified that he routinely seeks license tag information especially when he knows the driver is not the owner of the vehicle as was the case in the instant stop.

         About 18 minutes after the video was activated, Coffee County Deputy Jennifer Curbow (“Curbow”) arrived with her canine, Max. Approximately 18 minutes/20 seconds after the video was activated, Clark asked Satter to exit the Malibu. About 18 minutes/45 seconds after the video was activated, Curbow deployed Max and within 15 seconds, Max alerted on the Malibu. At the time of Max's alert, the request for background information made to the BLOC and the tag information request to the THP dispatcher were still pending. Clark could not recall when, if ever, he received information back from the THP dispatcher regarding the requested check on Defendant's driver's license.[3]

         Based on the canine alert, Clark and Boles searched Defendant and Satter and then began to search the Malibu. Very shortly after the canine alert, Clark received a call on his cellphone from the BLOC reporting that Defendant had no outstanding warrants but had a criminal record, including a recent drug trafficking conviction and a recent charge for robbery.

         The Malibu search revealed about five kilograms of methamphetamine packaged in five separate plastic containers in the trunk of the Malibu. This is the evidence Defendant seeks to suppress. Defendant and Satter were placed under arrest. After the search was completed, Clark finished the warning ticket with a noted time of 3:38 p.m. and gave it to Defendant.

         Clark agreed that it typically takes him about 10 minutes to conduct a routine traffic stop and about three additional minutes/30 seconds to write a routine citation.

         On November 28, 2017, Defendant was indicted for possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(A) [Doc. 1].

         II. ANALYSIS

         Although not entirely clear in Defendant's original motion and memorandum, Defendant clarified at the hearing that he alleges the search of the Malibu was unconstitutional because law enforcement unreasonably extended his uncompleted traffic stop by requesting a records check from the BLOC. It is essentially undisputed that Clark first requested a records check from the BLOC about seven or eight minutes into the stop, and that it took the BLOC about 10 minutes more to respond with the requested information. Defendant argues a constitutional violation occurred under the reasoning of Rodriguez because the THP dispatcher may have returned some information from her records check to Clark before the canine unit arrived and, under Defendant's theory, the stop should have been completed prior to the arrival of the canine unit. As pertinent, the government contends the stop was not completed until after the BLOC returned the requested information and the warning citation was completed, by which time the canine had alerted on the Malibu providing probable cause for the ensuing search.

         A. Standards

         The cornerstone of Defendant's argument is the Fourth Amendment, which provides, “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated . . . .” U.S. Const. amend. IV.[4] Stopping and detaining a motorist is a seizure-a non-consensual, investigative detention-within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, analyzed under the framework of Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1(1968). See United States v. Stepp, 680 F.3d 651, 661 (6th Cir. 2012) (citations omitted). While law enforcement may stop a vehicle for any traffic infraction, detention beyond the scope of the initial stop requires reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. United States v. Davis, 430 F.3d 345, 353 (6th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). “[W]ithout such reasonable suspicion, all the officer's actions must be ‘reasonably related in scope to circumstances justifying the original interference.'” United States v. Townsend, 305 F.3d 537, 541 (6th Cir. 2002) (quoting United States v. Hill, 195 F.3d 258, 264 (6th Cir. 1999)).

         Defendant, as the proponent of the motion to suppress, generally bears the burden of establishing his Fourth Amendment rights were violated, see Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128, 130 n.1 (1978), but it is the government's burden to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the stop and the warrantless search were proper under the Fourth Amendment, see United States v. Winfrey, 915 F.2d 212, 216 (6th Cir. 1990) (citation omitted); see also United States v. Haynes, 301 F.3d 669, 677 (6th Cir. 2002). If either the initial traffic stop or the scope and duration of the stop was unlawful, then the evidence obtained ...

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