United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division
WAVERLY D. CRENSHAW, JR., CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
the Court are motions to suppress the evidence obtained
during several vehicle stops. Specifically, Johnson and
Bryant move to suppress evidence resulting from a stop on
July 14, 2015 (Doc. Nos. 40, 45, 131); Johnson challenges
stops on August 11, 2016 and February 13, 2017 (Doc. No. 68);
and Bryant attacks a stop on February 21, 2017 (Doc. No. 61).
The Government opposes all of the motions. (Doc. Nos. 43, 67,
73, 137.) After full briefing, the Court held a three-day
evidentiary hearing. (Doc. Nos. 170-172, 176.) For the
following reasons, the Court will grant Defendants'
motions to suppress evidence obtained from the July 14, 2015
and February 13, 2017 vehicle stops. In all other respects,
the motions will be denied.
Vehicle Stops and the Fourth Amendment
Fourth Amendment guarantees “[t]he right of the people
to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,
against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S.
Const. amend. IV. Temporary detention of individuals during
an automobile stop by the police, even if only for a brief
period and a limited purpose, constitutes a
“seizure” of “persons” within the
Fourth Amendment. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S.
806, 809-10 (1996); see also Brendlin v. California,
551 U.S. 249, 263 (2007) (vehicle stop is a seizure of
passengers as well as drivers). The Court of Appeals for the
Sixth Circuit “has developed two separate tests to
determine the constitutional validity of vehicle stops: an
officer must have probable cause to make a stop for a civil
infraction, and reasonable suspicion of an ongoing crime to
make a stop for a criminal violation.” United
States v. Blair, 524 F.3d 740, 748 (6th Cir. 2008). Any
evidence seized during an illegal traffic stop must be
suppressed as “fruits of the poisonous tree.”
Id. (quoting Wong Sun v. United States, 371
U.S. 471, 484 (1963)).
Stopping a Vehicle for a Civil Infraction
police officer may stop a car if he or she has probable cause
to believe that a civil traffic violation has occurred.
Blair, 524 F.3d at 748 (citing United States v.
Sanford, 476 F.3d 391, 394 (6th Cir. 2007)).
“Probable cause is a reasonable ground for belief
supported by less than prima facie proof but more
than mere suspicion.” United States v.
Jackson, 470 F.3d 299, 306 (6th Cir. 2006) (quoting
United States v. Bennett, 905 F.2d 931, 934 (6th
Cir. 1990)). It does not require an actual showing of a
violation; rather, a probability or substantial chance of a
violation is sufficient. United States v. Christian,
925 F.3d 305, 2019 WL 2308021, at *4 (6th Cir. 2019) (citing
United States v. Tagg, 886 F.3d 579, 585 (6th Cir.
2018)); United States v. Collazo, 818 F.3d 247, 254
(6th Cir. 2016).
question is whether the police officer actually
“believe[d] that a traffic violation occurred.”
Sanford, 476 F.3d at 396 n.2. “The legality of
the stop turns on the validity of the officer['s]
objective explanation for making the stop, not on the
subjective intentions of the officer in initiating the
stop.” United States v. Herbin, 343 F.3d 807,
809 (6th Cir. 2003); see also Whren, 517 U.S. at
812-13 (officer's subjective intent is irrelevant). The
Court must focus on whether the particular officer who
stopped a vehicle “had an objectively verifiable
reason” for doing so. United States v.
Tullock, 578 Fed.Appx. 510, 513 (6th Cir. 2014) (citing
United States v. Hughes, 606 F.3d 311, 315-16 (6th
Cir. 2010); Herbin, 343 F.3d at 809); see also
Whren, 517 U.S. at 813. The Court does not focus
“on whether a reasonable officer ‘would' have
stopped the suspect (even though he had probable cause to
believe that a traffic violation had occurred), or whether
any officer ‘could' have stopped the suspect
(because a traffic violation had in fact occurred), but on
whether this particular officer in fact had
probable cause to believe that a traffic offense had
occurred, regardless of whether this was the only basis or
merely one basis for the stop.” United States v.
Ferguson, 8 F.3d 385, 391 (6th Cir. 1993) (emphasis
a fact-dependent analysis that turns “on what the
officer knew at the time he made the stop.”
Id.; United States v. Valdez, 147 Fed.Appx.
591, 594 (6th Cir. 2005). If the Court concludes that an
officer “did not see the traffic violation” or
“did not have probable cause to believe a violation had
occurred” until events that occurred after the stop, it
cannot find that probable cause existed. Ferguson, 8
F.3d at 391. The credibility of the officer and other
witnesses is central to the probable cause determination, so
“due regard shall be given to the opportunity of the
trial court to judge the credibility of the witnesses.”
Blair, 524 F.3d at 749 (quoting Anderson v. City
of Bessemer City, N.C. , 470 U.S. 564, 573 (1985)).
Because “the whole is often greater than the sum of its
parts, ” the final determination regarding probable
cause must be made based on the totality of the
circumstances. District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138
S.Ct. 577, 586-88 (2018); United States v. Arvizu,
534 U.S. 266, 277-78 (2002); Christian, 2019 WL
2308021, at *3-4.
Stopping a Vehicle for Criminal Activity
v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), governs traffic stops made
on the basis of the reasonable suspicion of criminal
activity. Id.; Arvizu, 534 U.S. at 273
(2002); United States v. Belakhdhar, 924 F.3d 925,
927 (6th Cir. 2019). The Government bears the burden of
proving the existence of reasonable suspicion by a
preponderance of the evidence, United States v.
Torres-Ramos, 536 F.3d 542, 552 (6th Cir. 2008), and the
court evaluates reasonable suspicion based on the totality of
the circumstances. United States v. Martin, 289 F.3d
392, 396 (6th Cir. 2002) (citing United States v.
Roberts, 986 F.2d 1026, 1029 (6th Cir.1993)). The
analytical framework involves two steps. First, the
government must articulate specific facts that create
reasonable suspicion for the initial detention. Id.
(citing United States v. Torres-Ramos, 536 F.3d 542,
551 (6th Cir. 2008)). These specific facts must
“warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that
the action taken was appropriate.” Terry, 392
U.S. at 21-22 (citations omitted). Critically, “[t]he
officer must be able to articulate more than an
‘inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch'
of criminal activity.” Illinois v. Wardlow,
528 U.S. 119, 124 (2000) (citing Terry, 392 U.S. at
initial detention based on reasonable suspicion is proper,
then the second question is “whether the degree of
intrusion . . . was reasonably related in scope to the
situation at hand, which is judged by examining the
reasonableness of the officials' conduct given their
suspicions and surrounding circumstances.”
Torres-Ramos, 536 F.3d at 551-52 (quoting United
States v. Caruthers, 458 F.3d at 464 (6th Cir. 2006));
Terry, 392 U.S. at 19-20. In short, the second
aspect of the Terry analysis is whether the
detention is “limited in [both] scope and
duration.” Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 500
(1983). This means that (1) a stop “must . . . last no
longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the
stop, ” and (2) “the investigative methods
employed should be the least intrusive means reasonably
available to verify or dispel the officer's suspicion in
a short period of time.” United States v.
Everett, 601 F.3d 484, 489-89 (6th Cir. 2010) (citing
Royer, 460 U.S. at 500). The burden for both is on
the Government. Royer, 460 U.S. at 500.
vehicle stop for a civil traffic infraction is analogous to a
Terry stop for purposes of the duration and scope
limitations. Rodriquez v. United States, 135 S.Ct.
1609, 1614 (2015); United States v. Hill,
195 F.3d 258, 264 (6th Cir. 1999). “[B]ecause
addressing the [traffic] infraction is the purpose of the
stop, it may last no longer than is necessary to effectuate
th[at] purpose, ” Rodriguez, 135 S.Ct. at 1614
(internal quotation marks and citation omitted), unless
something occurs to create reasonable suspicion to justify a
further detention. Blair, 524 F.3d at 752. In
determining the reasonable duration of a stop, “it [is]
appropriate to examine whether the police diligently pursued
[the] investigation.” United States v. Sharpe,
470 U.S. 675, 686 (1985). Beyond determining whether to issue
a traffic ticket, an officer's mission includes
“ordinary inquiries incident to [the traffic]
stop.” Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 408
(2005). “Typically such inquiries involve checking the
driver's license, determining whether there are
outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the
automobile's registration and proof of insurance.”
Rodriguez, 135 S.Ct. at 1615.
Terry, officers may extend a stop for a traffic
violation beyond the scope of what was originally permissible
if “something happen[s] during the stop to cause the
officer to have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that
criminal activity is afoot.” United States v.
Davis, 430 F.3d 345, 353 (6th Cir. 2005). In analyzing
whether officers have impermissibly extended a traffic stop
without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, courts
have “consistently eschewed bright-line rules, instead
emphasizing the fact-specific nature of the reasonableness
inquiry.” Everett, 601 F.3d at 492.
“[T]he proper inquiry is whether the totality of the
circumstances surrounding the stop indicates that the
duration of the stop as a whole - including any
prolongation due to suspicionless unrelated questioning - was
reasonable.” Id. at 494 (internal quotation
marks and citations omitted). This requires examination of
“whether the police diligently pursued a means of
investigation that was likely to confirm or dispel their
suspicions quickly.” Sharpe, 470 U.S. at 686.
This diligence standard does not “require [an officer]
to move at top speed, ” and some amount of questioning
is permissible so long as the officer's “overall
course of action during a traffic stop, viewed objectively
and in its totality, is reasonably directed toward the proper
ends of the stop.” Everett, 601 F.3d at 495.
Consent to Be Searched
a society based on law, the concept of agreement and consent
should be given a weight and dignity of its own.”
United States v. Drayton, 536 U.S. 194, 207 (2002).
Accordingly, while the Fourth Amendment protects citizens
against unreasonable searches and seizures, a search of a
person is reasonable if that person gives free and voluntary
consent. Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218,
219 (1973); United States v. Beauchamp, 659 F.3d
560, 571 (6th Cir. 2011). Consent is voluntary when it is
“unequivocal, specific and intelligently given,
uncontaminated by any duress or coercion.” United
States v. Moon, 513 F.3d 527, 537 (6th Cir. 2008)
(internal citations omitted).
is a fact-specific inquiry determined by examining the
totality of the circumstances. Bustamonte, 412 U.S.
at 227; Schneckloth 412 U.S. at 226; United
States v. Worley, 193 F.3d 380, 386 (6th Cir. 1999). The
circumstances surrounding an individual's consent are
examined objectively and a searching examination is required.
See Whren, 517 U.S. at 813; Worley, 193
F.3d at 386. Several factors guide the examination. First,
“a court should examine the characteristics of the
accused, including the age, intelligence, and education of
the individual; whether the individual understands the right
to refuse to consent; and whether the individual understands
his or her constitutional rights.” Beauchamp,
659 F.3d at 572 (citing United States v. Jones, 846
F.2d 358, 360 (6th Cir. 1988)). Second, a court should
consider the details of the detention, including the length
and nature of detention, Bustamonte, 412 U.S. at
226; the use of coercive or punishing conduct by the police,
id. at 226; and indications of “more subtle
forms of coercion that might flaw [an individual's]
judgment.” Beauchamp, 659 F.3d at 572 (quoting
United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411, 424 (1976)).
While the police do not have to inform an individual of his
right to refuse consent, Ohio v. Robinette, 519 U.S.
33, 39-40 (1996), the absence of such a warning is to be
considered in the totality of the circumstances analysis.
Beauchamp, 659 F.3d at 572 (citing
Bustamonte, 412 U.S. at 227). The Government's
burden “cannot be discharged by showing no more than
acquiescence to a claim of lawful authority.”
Bumper v. North Carolina, 391 U.S. 543, 548-49
argue that none of the four vehicle stops satisfy the Fourth
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Government disagrees.
The Court considers each stop in turn.
August 11, 2016 Stop
argues that detectives made an improper investigatory stop of
his vehicle at a Hermitage, Tennessee car wash on August 11,
2016. He believes that Metro-Nashville Police
(“Metro”) detectives only became suspicious of
him when he had a brief encounter with occupants of another
vehicle suspected of illegal activity. Johnson contends,
therefore, that there was no particularized suspicion to stop
his vehicle. The Government argues that the totality of
circumstances establishes that Metro detectives had
reasonable suspicion that Johnson was involved in an illegal
drug transaction at the car wash. The Government specifically
contends that detectives had suspected that the occupants of
another vehicle had engaged in a type of gift card theft used
to make drug transactions; detectives reasonably followed
that vehicle to the car wash, which is a common location for
drug transactions; and they witnessed behavior consistent
with a drug transaction between Johnson and a passenger of
that other vehicle.
suppression hearing, the Government presented then-Metro
Detective Rory O'Farrell and Metro Detectives Erik Funk
and Joseph Snyder. All were members of the Madison Crime
Suppression Unit and spent a significant amount of their time
surveilling retail parking lots where drug transactions
occur. Each described the events of August 11, 2016.
first observed a male from a silver Saturn, later identified
as Daniel Richardson, enter a Lowe's Home Improvement
(“Lowe's”) store with a plastic bag and
return to the silver Saturn with what looked like a receipt
in his hand. The detectives then saw a Lowe's employee
follow Richardson and appear to write down the license plate
number of the silver Saturn. A female, later identified as
Toni Lance, then got out of the silver Saturn, went into the
Lowe's, and exited with a drink in her hand. The
detectives contacted Lowe's, and in response to
information they received, decided to continue surveillance
of the silver Saturn.
detectives then followed the silver Saturn when it left the
Lowe's parking lot. It first stopped briefly in an alley
behind several pawn shops, and then it continued
approximately eight miles to a car wash in Hermitage, an area
also known for drug transactions. Upon arrival at the car
wash, Johnson was already parked in one of the car wash bays
in a white Nissan Altima. O'Farrell parked on the front
side of the car wash, and the silver Saturn parked on the
back side. He received radio updates from Funk and Snyder,
who were parked across from the car wash. O'Farrell saw
Lance exit the silver Saturn and walk towards Johnson's
Nissan. She went out of view for a minute and then
O'Farrell saw her come back into view and walk back to
her car. O'Farrell testified that, based upon his
experience and training, he believed Lance and Johnson had
just met up for a drug transaction. O'Farrell then
initiated the traffic stop on Johnson's vehicle, and
Johnson was detained. Johnson denied knowledge of any
narcotics transaction. A Lowe's gift card and cash were
recovered on Johnson.
Funk's testimony was closely aligned with
O'Farrell's version of events. However, Funk also
testified that he actually saw Richardson exit the Lowe's
with a gift card in his hand, and Lance return into the
Lowe's with the gift card and exit with a drink. Based on
training and experience that includes dozens of actual
observations, Funk knows that it is common behavior for
people to fraudulently obtain gift cards and then test the
cards to be sure they are working and have a monetary
balance. Funk also saw Lance leave the silver Saturn and go
into the bay containing Johnson's car for 45-60 seconds.
Funk, however, added the detail that when Lance left the bay
he saw her “clutching something in her right
Detective Snyder provided substantially similar testimony.
Snyder, however, explained that, from his angle in the police
cruiser, he could actually see Lance physically enter
Johnson's white Nissan in the car wash bay and then leave
with something “cupping [in] her hand.”
Considering the totality of circumstances, the Court finds
that the detectives articulated a particularized and
objective basis for having a reasonable suspicion, as opposed
to a vague hunch, that Johnson was involved in criminal
activity on August 11, 2016. The detectives' testimony
was consistent and credible. Each testified based on their
personal observations. Each had extensive knowledge of drug
activity and schemes in the area. And each relied on their
experience and training concerning such street narcotics
activity. O'Farrell's testimony mirrors his Arrest
Affidavit (Doc. No. 68-1), and the detectives' testimony,
viewed together, is cohesive and logical. The detectives'
credible testimony established, by a preponderance of the
evidence, that Johnson was detained on August 11, 2016
because of a suspected drug transaction. Specifically, Lance
walked towards Johnson's vehicle sitting unwashed in a
car bay, ...