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United States v. Brown

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

July 19, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
PRESLEY BROWN

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO Judge

         Defendant Presley Brown is charged with one count of possessing a firearm as a felon. He was arrested on a warrant when officers spotted him riding as a passenger in his girlfriend's car. A search of the car revealed a firearm below his seat and led to the seizure of his cell phone. Officers later obtained a search warrant for the phone, which contained videos of Mr. Brown possessing firearms. After Mr. Brown's girlfriend signed a consent to a search of her house, officers also conducted a search there, where they found additional firearms that Mr. Brown is alleged to have possessed. Mr. Brown has now moved to suppress all of that evidence, arguing that the warrantless searches of the car and his girlfriend's house were unlawful, and that the warrant for the search of his phone was invalid. For the following reasons, the Court denies the motion as to the searches of the car and the phone, but grants the motion as to the search of the house.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         On November 9, 2016, Presley Brown had an active warrant for his arrest, and he was a person of interest in a recent homicide. Homicide detectives wanted to speak with him, so officers on the South Bend Police Department's Strategic Focus Unit began searching for him to arrest him on the warrant. In preparing to look for Mr. Brown, the officers confirmed that he was a convicted felon, and they also found pictures on a social media site showing him with firearms. The officers found Mr. Brown just after 5:00 p.m., as he was riding as a passenger in a car driven by his girlfriend, Dominique Brown.[1] The officers initiated a traffic stop to arrest Mr. Brown on the warrant. The car pulled over, officers approached on both sides of the car, and they immediately ordered Mr. Brown out of the car. He complied, though he tossed his cell phone back into the car just before the officers began frisking him. While that was going on, the officer on the driver's side asked Dominique for her identification, and then directed her to step out of the car. She complied as well, and the officer informed her that the reason she was pulled over was that they had a warrant for Mr. Brown's arrest. After searching Mr. Brown and securing him in handcuffs, an officer led him back towards the police cars. Another officer radioed in Dominique's identification to confirm her driving status, and after a brief delay, learned that Dominique had a learner's permit, meaning she could not drive on her own.

         Another officer then asked Dominique if there was anything in the car they should know about. Though her response is not audible in the recording, the Court finds that she told the officers that there was a gun in the car, as explained in more detail below. The officers asked where in the car, and thanked her for her honesty. One of the officers then explained that they were going to photograph everything, and also told Dominique that they needed to take a statement from her. She asked to retrieve her cell phone, but the officer told her the officers were going to go into the car first, and that he couldn't allow her to make phone calls at that point. Dominique was then led to and placed in the back seat of one of the officers' cars. Several minutes later Dominique signed a written form consenting to a search of her car, and officers seized the firearm and the cell phone from the car.

         Dominique was then driven to the police station, where she was placed in an interrogation room after a detective took her purse and cell phone from her. Two detectives spoke to her for about forty-five minutes before they drove her to pick her mother up from work, after which they drove straight back to the station and placed her in the same interrogation room. At that point, Dominique confirmed that a picture showing Mr. Brown with a firearm was taken in her house. Accordingly, the detective told her that they wanted to search the house, and Dominique signed a written consent form consenting to the search. Dominique was then brought back to her house, where a number of officers conducted the search. They found a variety of evidence, including an AK-47 rifle, a pistol, and ammunition. That same evening, a state prosecutor applied for a search warrant for the cell phone recovered from the car, based on information provided to him by the officers. The warrant was issued, and a search of the phone revealed videos of Mr. Brown posing with several guns.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Mr. Brown moves to suppress all of the evidence recovered through the searches of the car, the cell phone, and the house. The Court considers the legality of each search in turn.[2]

         A. Search of the Car

         Mr. Brown first argues that the search of the car was unlawful, and that the firearm and cell phone should be suppressed as the fruits of that search. The parties dispute a number of issues relative to the search of the car. The government argues that Mr. Brown was a mere passenger in the car, and thus lacks standing to object to a search. Mr. Brown disagrees, and further argues that Dominique's consent to a search of the car was not effective because it was not voluntary and occurred after the search had already begun. The Court need not resolve any of those disputes, though, as the officers plainly had probable cause to search the car, so the motion can be denied on that basis alone.

         A warrantless search is per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment unless one of a few well-established exceptions applies. Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 129 (2009); United States v. Zahursky, 580 F.3d 515, 521 (7th Cir. 2009). “One such exception to the warrant requirement is the automobile exception, which allows law enforcement to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle if there is probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime.” United States v. Williams, 627 F.3d 247, 251 (7th Cir. 2010). Probable cause to search exists where, based on the known facts and circumstances, a reasonably prudent person would believe that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in the place to be searched. United States v. Edwards, 769 F.3d 509, 514 (7th Cir. 2014).

         Here, the officers had probable cause to believe that Mr. Brown was committing the crime of possessing a firearm as a felon, and that the car contained evidence of that crime: a firearm. First, prior to arresting Mr. Brown, the officers had reviewed his criminal history and confirmed that he was a convicted felon. They also conducted research on the internet and found pictures posted on a social media site showing Mr. Brown with firearms, which gave them cause for concern that he might be armed. In addition, after the officers arrested Mr. Brown, they spoke to Dominique, who told them that Mr. Brown had a firearm under his seat. Though Dominique testified that she did not recall offering that information, Officer Graber testified that she told him that Mr. Brown had a gun under his seat, and the video corroborates that testimony. One of the officers can be heard explaining to Dominique that he had dealt with Mr. Brown in the past, and he asks Dominique if there is anything in the vehicle that she needs to tell the officers about. Dominique's response was not captured by the audio recording, but the officers immediately respond by asking, “In the car? Where at in the car?” Again, Dominique's response is inaudible, but the officer responds by saying, “That's fine, I appreciate your honesty, ” and he then tells her that the officers were going to go in the vehicle and photograph everything. This exchange is consistent with and corroborates the testimony that Dominique told the officers that Mr. Brown had a firearm under his seat. Thus, given that statement by Dominique, there is no question that the officers had probable cause to search the car for evidence that Mr. Brown unlawfully possessed a firearm.

         In resisting that conclusion, Mr. Brown argues that Dominique was unlawfully detained at the time she made that statement, and that officers thus cannot rely on her statement in support of probable cause to search the car. This argument fails for two reasons, though: Mr. Brown does not have standing[3] to object to an unlawful detention of Dominique in this context, and Dominique was not unlawfully detained at that point, either. First, in arguing that officers could not rely on Dominique's statement in support of probable cause, Mr. Brown is essentially arguing that her statement and the resulting probable cause were the fruit of the poisonous tree of her unlawful detention. However, “Fourth Amendment rights are personal rights that may not be asserted vicariously.” Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128, 134 (1978). Dominique's detention, whether lawful or not, did not implicate any of Mr. Brown's personal rights under the Fourth Amendment. Accordingly, he cannot object that the probable cause to search the car was lacking because it was procured through a violation of someone else's rights. See United States v. Washburn, 383 F.3d 638, 643 (7th Cir. 2004) (holding that a defendant could not object that the probable cause for a search was procured through a prior unlawful search of someone else's vehicle); see also United States v. Davis, 750 F.3d 1186, 1190-91 (10th Cir. 2014) (holding that, even if a defendant had standing to argue that he was illegally seized during a traffic stop, he could not object that the probable cause for that stop was procured through a prior unlawful search for which he lacked standing to object).

         Second, Dominique was not unlawfully detained at the time she told the officers about the firearm in the car. Mr. Brown argues that because the only reason for the stop of the car was to arrest him pursuant to a warrant, officers were obligated to send Dominique on her way the moment he was removed from the car. The Court disagrees. As Mr. Brown notes, “a seizure that is lawful at its inception can violate the Fourth Amendment if its manner of execution unreasonably infringes interests protected by the Constitution.” United States v. Muriel, 418 F.3d 720, 725 (7th Cir. 2005). Thus, “the detention following a traffic stop . . . must be reasonable.” Id. However, “[a]n officer conducting a valid traffic stop can detain the occupants of the vehicle long enough to accomplish the purpose of the stop.” Id. ...


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