United States District Court, D. Maryland
THEODORE D. CHUANG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
January 22, 2016, the Prince Georgess County Police
Department stopped a vehicle because it did not have a
registration sticker on its license plate, conducted pat
frisks on the two occupants, and initiated a search of the
car. Defendant Justin Devan Johnson, the passenger in the
vehicle, seeks suppression of a firearm and other evidence
found in a backpack in the trunk after he asked for
permission to retrieve a battery necessary to power a medical
device that sustains his life. At issue is whether the
officers' actions comported with the Fourth Amendment to
the United States Constitution. Because the Court concludes
that they did not, Johnsonss Motion to Suppress Tangible
Evidence and Statement is GRANTED.
April 6, 2016, a grand jury returned an indictment against
Johnson in which he was charged with possession of a firearm
by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. S 922(g)(1).
On September 16, 2016, Johnson filed a Motion to Suppress
Tangible Evidence and Statement in which he sought
suppression of a firearm and ammunition seized during the
traffic stop on January 22, 2016, as well as post-arrest
statements. At an evidentiary hearing on April 3, 2017, the
Court heard testimony from Prince Georgess County Police
Department ("PGPD") Officer Cory Nelson
("Officer Nelson"), PGPD Officer Nicholas Hernandez
("Officer Hernandez"), and Defendant Johnson. Based
on this testimony, and several exhibits introduced at the
hearing, the Court makes the following findings of fact.
afternoon of January 22, 2016, Johnson and his brother,
Darien Simpson, were traveling westbound on Marlboro Pike in
District Heights, Maryland in a Hyundai Sonata that Johnson
had rented from Enterprise Rent-A-Car ("Enterprise)) the
previous day. Simpson was driving, and Johnson was riding in
the front passenger seat. At approximately 2:15 p.m., Officer
Nelson, who was patrolling the 5800 block of Marlboro Pike in
a marked police cruiser, observed the Sonata and noticed that
the rear license plate was missing validation tabs, required
by Maryland law, which consist of stickers showing the date
of expiration of the vehicless registration. Officer Nelson
activated his emergency equipment and pursued the Sonata.
Simpson pulled over to the side of the road.
Nelson exited his police cruiser, approached the driver's
side of the Sonata, and informed Simpson that the vehicle was
missing validation tabs on the rear plate. Simpson showed
Officer Nelson a second license plate bearing the required
validation tabs, which he retrieved from the area between the
driver's seat and the center console, and told him that
the car was rented. Undeterred, Officer Nelson obtained
Simpsonss driver's license, but he did not ask to see the
registration for the vehicle or the rental agreement. He
returned to his police cruiser to run a records check, which
revealed that Simpsonss license was suspended, but did not
identify any open warrants or other derogatory information
about Simpson. Officer Nelson then called for backup, and
approximately 30 seconds later, Officer Hernandez, who had
been patrolling only a short distance away, arrived on the
scene. According to Officer Nelson, when there are two
occupants in a car that has been stopped, PGPD officers
always call for backup for officer safety.
Nelson then approached the car, informed Simpson and Johnson
that Simpsonss license was suspended, and asked Johnson for
identification. Although Officer Nelson testified that he
wanted to determine whether Johnson "had a valid license
so they could perhaps drive away" at the conclusion of
the stop, he did not inform Johnson of the reason he was
asking for his identification. Tr. at 17. According to
Officer Nelson, Johnson handed him a Maryland learnerss
permit with an issue date of October 28, 2015 and an
expiration date of September 4, 2017. A learnerss permit
would not have permitted Johnson to drive the car away.
According to Johnson, he did not give Officer Nelson his
learnerss permit or any other identificaiion; rather, he
testified that in response to a later request from Officer
Hernandez, he handed over a valid provisional driver's
license, which permitted him to drive the car alone.
Whichever document was provided, Officer Nelson asked no
questions about it. During this exchange, Johnson offered to
show Officer Nelson the rental agreement for the car, but
Officer Nelson did not take it.
Nelson returned to his vehicle again and ran a records check
on Johnsonss identification. The computer system used by
Officer Nelson automatically provides information from both
the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administraiion ("MVA")
and the National Crime Information Center ("NCIC"..
The search therefore provided information about both
Johnsonss driver's license status and the existence of
any outstanding warrants. The report generated based on
Johnsonss identification contained specific information
reflecting that Johnson possessed a valid provisional
driver's license, not a learnerss permit. The top of the
report included biographical data for Johnson; just below
that information, midway down the first page, the report
stated that Johnson possessed a "Class C, " type
"G" driver license issued on January 8, 2016, with
an expiration date of March 21, 2024. Gov't Ex. 13.
Johnsonss license status was listed as "VALID."
Id. Officer Nelson testified that "Class
C" refers to a regular driver's license. He also
acknowledged that if an individual has a Maryland learnerss
permit that is not suspended or otherwise restricted, the
license status would not read "VALID, " as it would
for a Maryland driver's license, but would instead be
labeled as "ELIGIBLE"" Thus, this information
plainly stated that Johnson had a valid driver's license
at the time of the traffic stop.
Nelson, however, stated that as of the date of the traffic
stop on January 22, 2016, he had not been trained on how to
read these records, so even though he looked at the license
status entry, he was not familiar enough with the terminology
to understand that a license status of "VALID"
referred to a driver's license, and that a license status
of "ELIGIBLE" would refer to a learnerss permit.
Officer Nelson further stated that he was not sure whether
type "G" referred to a provisional driver's
license. He explained that he had not been trained in reading
these reports and that "it's kind of learn as you
go." Tr. at 65.
Nelson also testified that at the time he ran the records
check, he "hadntt noticed, " id. at 22-23,
the entries indicating that Johnson had a valid driver's
license and did not recall what the report stated with
respect to Johnsonss driver's license. Rather, Officer
Nelson acknowledged that his main interest in conducting the
records check was to determine whether there were any open
warrants against Johnson. None were found. Thus, despite
having reviewed records showing that Johnson had a valid
driver's license, Officer Nelson concluded that Johnson
could not legally drive the car away on his own.
point, having found no warrants or basis to further detain
either occupant, Officer Nelson planned to issue citations to
Simpson for driving with a suspended license and without the
required validation tabs, but did not plan to place him under
arrest. He had no plans to issue citations to Johnson.
Although he had not asked about Johnsonss license status, the
availability of a driver, or the ownership of the car,
Officer Nelson decided to impound the car and conduct an
inventory search. He envisioned that Simpson and Johnson
would be allowed to leave the scene, though they would have
to "find alternative means of transportation."
Id. at 26.
Nelson, however, did not write out citations for Simpson. Nor
did he inform Simpson or Johnson that citations would be
issued or that the car would be impounded and searched.
Instead, without telling him of the purpose of the traffic
stop or his plan to search the car, Officer Nelson enlisted
Officer Hernandez to approach the vehicle, with Officer
Nelson on the driver's side and Officer Hernandez on the
passenger side. Without explanation, the officers ordered
Simpson and Johnson out of the car and conducted pat frisks
for weapons on both individuals. No weapons were found.
Nothing during the stop had thus far indicated that either
Simpson or Johnson presented a threat to either officer;
rather, Officer Nelson testified that the frisks were
conducted pursuant to PGPD training, which provides that
officers should conduct routine pat-downs "to ensure the
safety of officers on the scene" any time a driver or
passengers are asked to exit a vehicle during a traffic stop.
Id. at 45. After the frisks, Simpson and Johnson
were escorted to the rear of the vehicle and directed to
Nelson then opened the driverss side door and began to search
the vehicle. At the time, Officer Nelson had not told Officer
Hernandez that he planned to impound the car and conduct an
inventory search. Officer Hernandez testified that he was not
aware of these facts because "it wasntt my stop, "
so he "didntt know" what Officer Nelsonss
"intentions were." Id. at 87.
of a heart condition, Johnson wears a left ventricular assist
device ("LVAD"). The LVAD consists of an external
controller, worn around the waist, which is connected to
wires that enter Johnsonss abdomen and connect to an internal
heart pump that helps blood flow through his heart. The
controller contains two batteries, each with a life of four
hours. The LVAD can operate with one battery, but without at
least one live battery, the LVAD would stop working, and
Johnson could die. Replacement batteries are not available in
regular stores and must be obtained from a hospital. At the
time of the search, the first battery had run out of charge.
observed Officer Nelson begin the search of the vehicle.
Johnson also overheard Officer Nelson ask for a tow truck.
Believing that he and Simpson were going to be taken to jail
and that the car would be taken elsewhere, Johnson informed
Officer Hernandez that he had a heart condition, the
batteries on the controller were low, and if the batteries
stopped, he would die. Johnson advised Officer Hernandez that
he had an extra battery in his bookbag, located in the trunk
of the vehicle, and asked ifhe could retrieve it. Officer
Hernandez replied that Johnson could not, but stated that he
would retrieve the battery for him. Officer Hernandez then
opened the trunk to retrieve the battery pack from the
bookbag. When Officer Hernandez asked in which compartment
the battery was located, Johnson told him that it was in the
big pouch. Officer Hernandez found the battery and handed it
to Johnson, who replaced the dead battery in the controller.
Throughout this exchange, Johnsonss demeanor was calm.
reaching into the bookbag, Officer Hernandez also noticed the
butt end of a gun. He alerted Officer Nelson of what he had
found by whispering, "7A, " which is "police
code for handgun, " id. at 29, but allowed
Johnson to switch the battery before acting on the handgun.
Immediately after Johnson handed the used battery to Officer
Hernandez, the officers ordered both Johnson and Simpson to
the ground, handcuffed and searched them, and reported the
gun recovery by radio. Up to this point, the traffic stop had
lasted 10 minutes.
and Simpson were both transported to the police station. A
search of the bookbag revealed, in addition to the gun and
its loaded magazine, a rubber glove containing ammunition,
Johnsonss birth certificate, and his social security card.
Johnsonss valid provisional driver's license was also
recovered, but Officer Nelson could not recall whether it was
located in the bookbag or vehicle, on Johnsonss person, or
elsewhere. Although Officer Nelson claimed that he completed
an inventory search of the Sonata back at the station, no
inventory list was produced, and he could not recall what
items, such as the rental agreemen,, were in the car at the
time it was returned to Enterprise. He did not complete and
issue the citations to Simpson until Simpson had been
transported to the Department of Corrections.
seeks suppression of the physical evidence recovered during
the traffic stop. He argues that there was no legal basis to
stop the car, that the officers' conduct exceeded the
scope of a valid investigatory stop and thus tainted the
recovery of the firearm under Wong Sun v. United
States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963), and that he did not
voluntarily consent to the search of the bookbag. The
Government asserts that the stop was justified because
Simpson committed a traffic violation, the officers'
actions were justified under the circumstance,, the search of
the bookbag was justified because Johnson consented to it,
and even ifthere was no consent, the gun would have
inevitably been recovered during an inventory search of the
impounded car. The Court concludes that although the initial
traffic stop was permissible, the officers engaged in
multiple constitutional violations that irreparably tainted
the rest of the encounter and the recovery of the firearm and
Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees
"[t]he right of the people to be secure in their
persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonabee
searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. Because
an ordinary traffic stop is a limited seizure more akin to an
investigative detention than a custodial arrest, courts
assess the constitutionality of traffic stops under the dual
inquiry articulated in Terry v. Ohio,392 U.S. 1
(1968). Terry's two-pronged analysis requires the
Government first, to establish that the officerss action was
"justified at its inception, " and second, to
demonstrate that the "officerss subsequent actions were
reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that
justified the stop." United States v.
Digiovann,,650 F.3d 498, 506 (4th Cir. 2011). A traffic
stop is justified at its inception if the officer conducting