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Johnson v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

September 9, 2019


          Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No.: 116145002

          Meredith, Kehoe, Berger, JJ.


          KEHOE, J.

         While conducting what the Baltimore Police Department called a "traffic initiative" in downtown Baltimore, members of the Department stopped Clifton Johnson, who was halted at a red light, for failure to wear a seat belt. As a result of that stop, the police discovered an open warrant for Johnson's arrest, as well as a loaded handgun under the driver's seat of the vehicle. Johnson was charged with illegal possession of a regulated firearm, wearing, carrying and transporting a handgun on his person and in a vehicle, possession of ammunition, and operating a vehicle while not wearing a seat belt. Johnson filed a motion to suppress the evidence relating to the handgun, which was denied. A jury of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City convicted Johnson of illegal possession of a regulated firearm, wearing, carrying, and transporting a handgun on his person and in a vehicle, and possession of ammunition. Johnson has appealed his convictions and presents the following question:

Did the trial court err in denying appellant's motion to suppress because the evidence was discovered as a result of an illegal traffic checkpoint?

         We conclude that the traffic initiative in this case does not constitute a "checkpoint" for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, U.S. Const. amend. IV, and hold that there was no violation of Johnson's Fourth Amendment rights in this case.[1] We will affirm the convictions.

         The Traffic Initiative

         On May 7, 2016, at around 4:30 or 5:00 p.m., seven officers from the Baltimore City Police Department stationed themselves at the intersection of West Pratt Street and South Payson Street to conduct a traffic initiative in order to find infractions of vehicles pertaining to seatbelts and cell phones. Two of those officers, Officer Zachary Serio and Officer Karl Dauphin, testified at the suppression hearing. Officer Serio was positioned, on foot, near the traffic light, and was looking for drivers halted at the light who were not wearing their seat belts. Officer Serio explained that Pratt Street was a one-way street, travelling east towards the city center, and that traffic was moderate at the time.

         When traffic was stopped at the red light, Officer Serio walked in front of or beside vehicles and to see if the occupants were wearing their seat belts or were talking on a cell phone. If the light was green, the officers did not initiate any traffic stops, even if they observed an infraction. Instead, the officers allowed the vehicles to proceed on Pratt Street, unimpeded so as, according to Officer Dauphin, not to "interrupt the traffic." In that way, drivers were stopped only during the red light sequences and the flow of traffic was not adversely affected. Officer Serio testified:

Q. So can you briefly describe like what exactly you do?
A. Whenever there was a red light and the cars were stationary, I would walk through and see if I could find any drivers of vehicles that were not wearing their seat belts or were on their cell phones at this time.
Q. Okay. And if someone wasn't wearing a seat belt or on their cell phone, what would you do?
A. I would advise them to pull off onto Payson Street where there would be another officer who would go forth and write the citation.

         Officer Serio testified that there were no places where a car could turn around between those two locations; that there were no signs indicating that the police were conducting a checkpoint; and that this police activity was not advertised in any manner. Additionally, he confirmed that orange traffic cones were located on the side of the street, but only for purposes of officer safety, and were not used in any way to funnel traffic down to one lane. In his testimony, Officer Dauphin clarified that the traffic cones were placed between cars parked on Pratt Street and the curb as a signal to motorists parking their vehicles that officers were present. Officers parked their police cruisers on Payson Street and not on Pratt Street in order to avoid obstructing traffic.

         In addition to Officers Serio and Dauphin, there were approximately five other officers at the intersection of Pratt and Payson, and another seven police officers stationed at the preceding signalized intersection west of their location. This second group of officers would alert Officers Serio and Dauphin if they saw someone driving by without a seat belt or while talking on a cell phone.

         Officer Serio further testified that all the officers involved were recent graduates of the police academy. Although the initiative was done at the suggestion of a supervisor, no supervisors were present on the street. Further, no drug sniffing dogs were present at either intersection. The initiative ended at around 6:00 or 6:30 p.m.

         The Stop of Johnson

         Midway through the initiative, at around 5:35 p.m., Johnson stopped his vehicle at the red light located at Pratt and Payson Streets. Officer Serio walked by the driver's side of the vehicle and noticed that Johnson was not wearing his seat belt. Officer Serio told Johnson to pull over to the side of the street to Officer Dauphin's location. Officer Serio then notified Officer Dauphin about his observations.

         As Johnson was pulling over, Officer Dauphin ran a check on the vehicle's license plate number. The officer learned that the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration did not have any record for the license plate that was displayed on Johnson's vehicle. Specifically, the information came back as "No record found."[2]

         Officer Dauphin then approached the driver's side of the vehicle, and also observed that Johnson was not wearing a seat belt. Unable to provide his driver's license or the registration for the vehicle, Johnson gave Officer Dauphin his name and date of birth. Using that limited information, Officer Dauphin ascertained that there was a possible open warrant for Johnson. Officer Dauphin stepped to the rear of the vehicle and called in to the Baltimore Police Department "Hot Desk"[3] to confirm Johnson's warrant status. As this was occurring, Officer Serio maintained watch over Johnson and noticed that he "hunched over with his left shoulder" and placed his left hand underneath the driver's seat.

         Officer Dauphin then received confirmation that Johnson was wanted on the open arrest warrant and was advised to take him into custody. Following this confirmation, Johnson was ordered out of the car, handcuffed, and placed under arrest. He was also given a citation for failure to wear a seat belt.

         Because there was no license plate record associated with the vehicle and it was, according to Officer Dauphin, "technically illegally [sic] for it to be on the street," the officers determined that the vehicle had to be towed from the scene. Prior to towing the vehicle, the officers conducted an inventory search. During that inventory search, Officer Dauphin found a loaded .357 Smith and Wesson revolver under the front driver's seat. Moreover, Officer Dauphin testified that he saw the handgun on the floor as soon as he opened the driver's side door.

         Proceedings in the Circuit Court

         Pursuant to Md. Rules 4-252 and 4-253, Johnson filed a motion to suppress the handgun. A hearing was held, at which the court heard the testimony of Officer Serio and Officer Dauphin. At the close of testimony, defense counsel made two arguments. First, counsel asserted that Johnson was stopped at an unlawful checkpoint because the traffic initiative did not satisfy the multi-factor test enunciated in Little v. State, 300 Md. 485 (1984), and so did not pass constitutional muster. Second, assuming that the stop was illegal, counsel contended that the discovery of Johnson's arrest warrant did not attenuate the unlawful stop based on the U.S. Supreme Court's analyses in Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590 (1975), and Utah v. Strieff, ___U.S.___, 136 S.Ct. 2056 (2016). The State responded that the traffic initiative was not a checkpoint; instead, this was simply a number of police officers making observations inside those vehicles that were halted by a traffic control device. Further, the State argued that the police had probable cause to stop Johnson because, not only was Johnson's vehicle not properly registered, but Johnson also had an open arrest warrant. Therefore, the handgun was discovered through a lawful inventory search.

         The motions court agreed with the State, concluding that the traffic initiative was not a checkpoint. The court distinguished the traffic initiative from a checkpoint by finding:

[A] checkpoint involves stopping a vehicle. Not one vehicle, but stopping every vehicle for the purpose of monitoring something. The testimony in this case is that no one was stopped except if a violation was noted by the them [sic] driving by and then they were directed to pull over and get their ticket. And when they pulled over to get their ticket, their license was run.
This is not a checkpoint case. This is a use of a lot of young bodies and young eyes to observe the street with great particularity driving by a two block period.
But the one person specifically asked, and that was Officer Serio, said if the light was green at what we believe is Smallwood Street and the light was green at Payson Street and you drove by, could you just - just drive by? The answer was yes. You could be clear there in a minute or two. That's not a checkpoint.
In a checkpoint, which cases arise out of literally the - the border stops that were converted into other forms of police investigative techniques, everybody gets stopped. Everybody gets talked to.
* * *
I do not believe that the officers in this case violated anyone's constitutional rights by watching people as they stopped at a red light to see if they had their seat belt on or were foolish enough to be using a cell phone in the presence of a police officer.

         Based on those findings, the court ruled that:

If there's no checkpoint, there's no illegality in the stop, and I will rule as a matter of law the stop did not take place until Mr. Johnson was waved to pull around onto Payson Street and the car came to a halt.
It was because Officer Serio had already seen him to be driving without his seatbelt on, that at that time Officer Dauphin - Dauphin ran the license and found reason to engage the Appellant beyond the seatbelt ticket that he did get according to Officer Serio.
The intrusion was minimal and all addressed specifically for the purpose of handling the traffic situation. As such, I find no violation of the Appellant's Fourth Amendment rights involving the stop and his arrest.

         The court then denied the motion to suppress.[4]

         After trial, a jury convicted Johnson of illegal possession of a regulated firearm, wearing, carrying, and transporting a handgun on his person and in a vehicle, and possession of ammunition. Johnson was sentenced to eight years for illegal possession of a regulated firearm, the first five without possibility of parole, and ...

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