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United States v. Reed

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Evansville Division

January 5, 2018




         After being arrested for a parole violation, police officers searched a vehicle in which Defendant was a passenger. The search uncovered two firearms located in the rear of the vehicle where Defendant had been sitting. A grand jury subsequently returned an indictment charging Defendant, Freddie Demarka Reed III, with being a felon in possession of a firearm. Defendant now moves to suppress the firearms found during the search of the vehicle arguing that the officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights by conducting an unlawful search incident to arrest. For the following reasons, the court DENIES Defendant's Motion to Suppress.

         I. Background

         The facts are not disputed. On March 13, 2017, Detective Sergeant Kurt Althoff and Task Force Officers from the United States Marshals Fugitive Task Force began searching for Defendant because of an outstanding warrant. The warrant had been issued by the State of Indiana for a parole violation. The officers conducted surveillance on the residence located at 724 E. Iowa Street in Evansville, Indiana. Eventually, they observed Defendant and two women enter a white Nissan Pathfinder and drive away. After following the vehicle for a couple of blocks, the officers initiated a traffic stop.[1]

         As the vehicle was slowing, Officer Althoff was informed by other officers on the radio that there was movement within the rear of the vehicle. Once the vehicle came to a stop, Defendant, who was seated in the rear, was ordered out of the vehicle. The officers then detained and arrested him without incident. Defendant was searched subsequent to his arrest, and a large amount of currency was found on his person. The officers then spoke with the two women who were with Defendant in the vehicle. The driver-Katie Hawkins-stated that while pulling over, Defendant had asked her to hide two methamphetamine pipes and a bag of marijuana. She subsequently produced the items from her pants and bra for the officers. The front-seat passenger-Breea Galiher-told officers that Defendant had attempted to hand her a pink-gripped handgun but she refused his request.

         Further discussion with Hawkins and Galiher revealed to officers that neither Hawkins nor Galiher owned the vehicle. It was later determined that the vehicle's owner was Jessica Jackson. Jackson, the mother of one of Defendant's children, had allowed Defendant to use the vehicle to assist Hawkins and Galiher, who had trouble with their own vehicle. This is important because Vanderburgh County Sheriff's Office Towing and Impounding policy permits officers to impound a vehicle when the owner of the vehicle is not present and it is located in a high-crime area. Once a vehicle has been impounded, the officers are permitted to search and tow the vehicle away. Based on this department policy, and the fact that no firearms had been found contrary to what Galiher had indicated, Officer Althoff made the decision to search the vehicle. The search turned up, among other things, two firearms: a Ruger LCP .38 caliber and a Taurus PT-25. The firearms were located in the rear of the vehicle inside a compartment under the middle seat. The officers then requested the vehicle be towed due to the fact that the owner was not present.[2]

         Defendant was subsequently indicted on one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. On August 23, 2017, he filed the present motion to suppress. The court held a suppression hearing on October 17, 2017, and each party submitted a supplemental brief. The motion is now ripe for ruling.

         II. Discussion

         Defendant moves pursuant to Rule 12(b)(3)(C) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure to suppress the firearms seized because the search of the vehicle was conducted without a warrant, probable cause, or exigent circumstances. Defendant's theory is that the officers conducted the search incident to his arrest but ran afoul of the rules established in Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009). The government responds with a number of arguments, [3] but the court need not address all of them because it finds one of them determinative: the officers had probable cause to search the vehicle under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.

         A. Standing

         The court will briefly comment on the issue of standing.[4] The government initially pressed that Defendant lacked standing to challenge the search. However, at the suppression hearing, the government stated that if the court finds Defendant's testimony credible-that Jackson gave him permission to use the vehicle to help Hawkins and Galiher-then Defendant would have established standing. (See also Filing No. 27, Gov't Response, at 1). The government did nothing to call Defendant's testimony into question at the hearing: it did not offer an alternative explanation nor did it show that Defendant was using the vehicle without permission. See United States v. Garcia, 897 F.2d 1413, 1418 (7th Cir. 1990) (“Because the government hasn't proven the vehicle was stolen, we find Carlos satisfies the two-prong standing inquiry.”). With no other explanation of how Defendant possessed the vehicle, the court finds Defendant credible, and accordingly, that he has standing to assert his Fourth Amendment claim.[5]

         B. Search of the Vehicle

         The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. Const. amend. IV. “Warrantless searches are considered per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment unless one of a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions applies.” United States v. Williams, 627 F.3d 247, 251 (7th Cir. 2010) (citing Gant, 556 U.S. at 338)). One exception-the automobile exception-permits the warrantless search of an automobile so long as the officers have probable cause to believe the automobile contains contraband or evidence of a crime. United States v. Zahursky, 580 F.3d 515, 521 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 153-56 (1925)).

         Probable cause to search exists where “the known facts and circumstances are sufficient to warrant a man of reasonable prudence in the belief that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found.” Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 696 (1996) (citations omitted). Probable cause is a “nontechnical” concept and is concerned with the “factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men, not legal technicians, act.” Ornelas, 517 U.S. at 695 (quoting Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 231 (1983)). When determining probable cause, a court employs an objective standard considering only the facts that were actually known to the officers at the time of the search. See Richardson v. Bonds, 860 F.2d 1427, 1431 (7th Cir. 1988). The court ordinarily does not give any weight to an officer's view of the legal basis for ...

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