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United States v. Gyurnek

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

November 19, 2019




         Defendant, Jeremy Michael Gyurnek, had an encounter with a police officer that was either consensual or an illegal detention. That encounter led to the police officer's seeing drug paraphernalia in plain sight in Defendant's vehicle, which in turn led to Defendant's arrest, and ultimately to Defendant's being charged in this case.

         The matter is now before the Court on the report and recommendation (the “R&R”) of Magistrate Judge Susan K. Lee, recommending the Court deny Defendant's motion to suppress all evidence that was discovered as a result of that encounter. (Doc. 63.) Defendant objects to the R&R. (Doc. 64.) The United States (“the Government”) opposes the objection. (Doc. 65.)

         The Court has reviewed the transcript of the evidentiary hearing the Magistrate Judge held on July 9, 2019, the exhibits introduced at the hearing, and the briefs the parties filed before and after the R&R issued. The Court will ACCEPT the R&R (Doc. 63). Defendant's motion to suppress (Doc. 51) will be DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The R&R begins with a detailed summary of the testimony provided by the three witnesses at the suppression hearing: Officer Joshua Hodge of the Cleveland, Tennessee Police Department; Vikram Vashi, the owner of the Economy Inn at which the events in question took place; and Defendant. (Doc. 63 [R&R] § I, at 1-6.) The following summary of the factual background is derived from the R&R and the evidence presented at the hearing.

         On April 3, 2018, between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m., Hodge was on patrol in a marked police car near the Economy Inn. He was patrolling the area because his supervisors had told him the hotel management had asked for an increased police presence based on concerns about drug trafficking. Hodge had also received information from his supervisors that a male suspect may have been using Room 111 at the Economy Inn for illegal drug activity.

         While driving past the parking lot, Hodge saw a man, the Defendant, get out of a pickup truck that had a dealer's license tag on it. Hodge considered this irregular, because it was not a likely time or place for a test drive. He also knew that people sometimes use dealer tags to hide their identity. Hodge testified on direct examination that Defendant was walking towards a door that was near Room 111, but he admitted on cross examination that other destinations were possible, including a staircase or the lobby.

         Hodge pulled into the parking lot, stopped his patrol car, rolled down his window, and initiated verbal contact with Defendant. The facts of the initial part of the encounter are the basis of Defendant's motion to suppress. The disputed facts begin with Hodge's first words to Defendant and end when the footage from Hodge's body camera starts.

         Hodge testified that Defendant was about fifteen or twenty feet away, walking toward the hotel. Hodge gave a greeting of some kind to get Defendant's attention. Hodge did not remember what greeting he gave, but it was probably along the lines of “Hey, how's it going?” or “What's going on?” Defendant turned and began walking toward the patrol car. While Hodge was parking, rolling his window down, and getting Defendant's attention, Hodge pushed the button to activate his body camera and his dash camera. According to Hodge, the only thing he said to Defendant before the recording started was that single greeting.

         Defendant testified that Hodge yelled at Defendant three times before Defendant turned and started walking toward Hodge. Defendant testified that as he was walking toward the front office to rent a room for the week, he heard someone yell “Hey, man.” He looked back and saw a police officer in a patrol car, but he kept walking. After a few more paces, he heard “Hey, come here.” Defendant kept walking. Then the officer raised his voice and yelled “Hey, man, I said come here.” Defendant then turned and started walking back toward the officer because he believed he was not free to leave.

         From the time Defendant started approaching Hodge's patrol car on, the events are captured on video and are not in dispute. Hodge asked Defendant if he had identification. Defendant said he did. Hodge asked to see it. Defendant again said yes, and then said it was in his truck. Defendant turned and walked toward his truck. Hodge called out for Defendant to “hold up.” Defendant did not wait, but kept walking away from Hodge toward his truck. Hodge got out of his patrol car and followed Defendant to his truck.

         At the truck, Hodge shined a flashlight into the vehicle as Defendant looked for his identification. Eventually Defendant got into the driver's seat to search. Defendant moved items around in his truck as he searched, touching and moving a fixed-blade knife in the pocket of the driver's side door more than once. As he did so, Hodge saw several syringes in the pocket of the door. Hodge grabbed Defendant's arm, told him to step out of the truck, and told him to put his arms behind his back. The parties agree that Defendant was under arrest at this point and that Hodge had probable cause for the arrest based on seeing the syringes. Defendant struggled and fled, but was eventually apprehended.

         Subsequent searches revealed drugs in the pickup truck and more drugs, a loaded firearm, and cash on Defendant's person. Based on this evidence, Defendant was indicted for possession with intent to distribute fifty 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 (b)(1)(B), possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(i), and possession of a firearm by a felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). (See Doc. 1.) Defendant filed a motion to suppress on June 12, 2019 (Doc. 51), and the Government responded in opposition on June 27, 2019 (Doc. 56). The Magistrate Judge held a hearing on July 9, 2019. (Doc. 60.)

         The Magistrate Judge issued an R&R pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) recommending the Court deny the motion to suppress. (Doc. 63.) The R&R first summarizes the testimony and applicable law. The R&R then finds that the issue turns on the witnesses' respective credibility: based on Hodge's testimony, a reasonable person in Defendant's position would have believed he was free to leave, making the encounter consensual; but based on Defendant's testimony, a reasonable person could have believed he was not free to leave, indicating a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The Magistrate Judge therefore analyzed the witnesses' credibility and concluded that Hodge was the more credible witness and his version of events was more credible than Defendant's. Based on the Magistrate Judge's acceptance of Hodge's version of events, the Magistrate Judge recommended that the Court deny the motion to suppress.

         Defendant objects to the recommendation in the R&R. (Doc. 64.) The Government has responded. (Doc. 65.)

         II. ...

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