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United States v. Pierson

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

December 20, 2019

United States of America, Plaintiff,
Joseph Pierson, Defendant.


          Hon. Jane Magnus-Stinson, Chief Judge

         Defendant Joseph Pierson was indicted on two counts of unlawful possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). [Filing No. 5.] He filed a Motion to Suppress evidence that was discovered during what he argues was an unlawful traffic stop and a statement that he asserts was the result of an unlawful interrogation. [Filing No. 26; Filing No. 27.] The Motion is now ripe for the Court's decision.



         On December 19, 2019, the Court held an evidentiary hearing on Mr. Pierson's Motion to Suppress. [See Filing No. 32.] The following are the Court's factual findings based on the evidence presented at that hearing and submitted with the parties' briefs. In making the findings that follow, the Court has considered the testimony and demeanor of the witnesses who testified at the hearing: Lieutenant Jason Lee of the Marion County Sheriff's Office and Amanda Pierson, Mr. Pierson's wife. Where Lt. Lee's testimony and Mrs. Pierson's testimony conflict, the Court concludes that Mrs. Pierson is highly motivated to testify in her husband's favor, and therefore credits the testimony of Lt. Lee, which the Court finds credible.

         On April 13, 2019, Mr. Pierson was a passenger in a vehicle belonging to and driven by his wife. The vehicle was travelling south down North Mickley Avenue in Indianapolis, Indiana as the couple was headed from Mrs. Pierson's residence to a gas station on that street. Lt. Lee was conducting proactive traffic enforcement in the area, which he characterized as a “high crime” area in which there had been a recent murder and regular incidents of gunfire. Lt. Lee observed Mrs. Pierson's vehicle drive past where he was parked and heard what he believed was excessive noise resulting from a defective muffler. As he followed the car, Lt. Lee observed Mr. Pierson in the passenger's seat leaning forward and moving his arms in a manner that was consistent with placing something underneath the seat.[1] Lt. Lee followed Mrs. Pierson's vehicle for a short distance before observing her fail to signal a right turn into a gas station parking lot, at which point he activated his lights and conducted a traffic stop of the vehicle.

         After Mrs. Pierson's vehicle came to a stop, but before Lt. Lee approached the vehicle, Lt. Lee ran the license plate and discovered that Mrs. Pierson was the owner of the car and her driver's license was suspended. Lt. Lee approached the passenger's side of the vehicle because of the movements he had seen and observed that Mr. Pierson's hands were visibly shaking, and he appeared to be nervous. Lt. Lee instructed Mr. Pierson to exit the vehicle and place his hands on the roof. Mr. Pierson complied, and when he raised his hands to place them on top of the car, his shirt was lifted, revealing a handgun in his waistband. At that time, Lt. Lee shoved Mr. Pierson against the car and called for backup, and Mr. Pierson identified himself and disclosed that there was a warrant out for his arrest. Once backup arrived, Lt. Lee placed Mr. Pierson in handcuffs and another officer ran his name through the system to confirm that he did indeed have an active arrest warrant.

         Lt. Lee did not read Mr. Pierson his Miranda[2] warnings at any time during the stop, but Lt. Lee acknowledged that Mr. Pierson was not free to leave. Because Mrs. Pierson's driver's license was suspended, she was not permitted to drive the vehicle after the stop, so it was towed from the scene. Other officers conducted an inventory search of the vehicle and a second firearm was located underneath the front passenger's seat. When that gun was found, Mr. Pierson was standing next to Lt. Lee near the front of the patrol car, and Mr. Pierson, unprompted, stated that the second gun was not stolen, and he had received it from his uncle.



         A. The Initial Traffic Stop

         Mr. Pierson argues that the traffic stop was not supported by probable cause because Mrs. Pierson did not commit a traffic violation before her car was pulled over. [Filing No. 27 at 2-3.] The government responds that the vehicle's exhaust was defective, and Mrs. Pierson failed to signal a turn, either of which was sufficient to provide probable cause to stop the vehicle. [Filing No. 30 at 4-5.]

         A passenger has standing to challenge the constitutionality of a stop because he is seized during a stop just as the driver is seized. Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249, 256-59 (2007). Upon such challenge, “[t]he prosecution bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that a warrantless stop is supported by probable cause.” United States v. Garcia-Garcia, 633 F.3d 608, 612 (7th Cir. 2011) (citations omitted). “When a police officer reasonably believes that a driver has committed even a minor traffic offense, probable cause supports the stop.” Id. (citations omitted). The probable cause inquiry is objective and involves two separate questions: first, the Court must determine what facts were known to the officer when he stopped the vehicle, and second, the Court must decide whether a reasonable officer could conclude that those facts amount to a violation of the law. Id. at 612-13.

         Here, the Court credits Lt. Lee's testimony that he believed Mrs. Pierson's car had an excessively loud exhaust, indicative of a defective muffler. Indiana law requires that a vehicle be equipped with a muffler or other device that is in good working order and reduces excessive noise. Ind. Code. § 9-19-8-3 (“A motor vehicle must be equipped with a muffler or other noise dissipative device that meets the following conditions: (1) Is in good working order. (2) Is in constant operation to prevent excessive noise.”). Accordingly, based on Lt. Lee's observation that the vehicle's exhaust was loud and likely defective, a ...

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