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United States v. Johnson

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 22, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
JUSTIN DEVAN JOHNSON, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          THEODORE D. CHUANG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On 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.

         BACKGROUND

         On 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.

         On the 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.

         Officer 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.

         Officer 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.

         Officer 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.

         Officer 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.

         Officer 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.

         At that 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.

         Officer 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 stand there.

         Officer 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.

         Because 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.

         Johnson 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.

         While 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.

         Johnson 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.

         DISCUSSION

         Johnson 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 ammunition.

         I. Traffic Stop

         The 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 ...


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