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United States v. Locklear

United States District Court, Sixth Circuit

August 30, 2013



DAVID L. BUNNING, District Judge.


This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion to Suppress (Doc. # 15) evidence seized from his vehicle during a traffic stop conducted on March 27, 2013 in Ashland, Kentucky. After the matter was fully briefed (Doc. # 18), the Court held an evidentiary hearing to consider three issues: (1) whether the officer had probable cause to believe the Defendant committed a traffic violation, justifying the stop; (2) whether the officer detained Defendant for a reasonable amount of time; (3) and whether Defendant gave knowing and voluntary consent to search his vehicle. Attorney Michael Curtis appeared on behalf of Defendant, who was also present. Assistant United States Attorney Elaine Leonhard appeared on behalf of the United States. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Court submitted the motion pending written decision. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court will deny Defendant's motion.


(1) On the evening of March 27, 2013, Kentucky State Police Trooper Shane Goodall, Trooper Zachary Thompson, and Detective Chris Kirk were patrolling the area around the bus station in Ashland, Kentucky, looking for suspected drug trafficking activity.

(2) At approximately 8:40 p.m. that evening, Trooper Thompson called Trooper Goodall and advised him that an African American male carrying a backpack had left the bus station and walked to Katie's Corner, a local restaurant located nearby. After waiting in the restaurant for some time, Trooper Thompson advised, the individual ran outside and jumped into a blue Jeep Grand Cherokee, which then sped off.

(3) Trooper Goodall pulled behind the Grand Cherokee and noticed that it had a West Virginia temporary license plate which was worn and faded. Trooper Goodall was able to see the license plate number and expiration date, but was unable to read the make, model and vehicle identification number (VIN), [1] which was handwritten on the side of the tag. Trooper Goodall testified that he was unable to see this portion of the tag, in part, because the ink had faded.

(4) Trooper Goodall stopped the Grand Cherokee because he felt the license plate was not legible as required by K.R.S. § 186.170(1). As he exited his police cruiser and approached the Grand Cherokee, he was able to clearly read the make, model and VIN on the license plate. Nonetheless, Trooper Goodall continued to the driver's side window to speak with the driver.

(5) Trooper Goodall asked the driver and passenger to produce identification. The driver, who was later identified as the Defendant, complied by handing Trooper Goodall his drivers license, registration and proof of insurance. However, the passenger was not able to produce identification.

(6) Trooper Goodall ordered the Defendant out of the vehicle. He asked the Defendant how he knew the passenger and where the passenger was traveling from. The Defendant responded that he had received a phone call from the passenger to pick him up, and that the passenger was traveling from Detroit, Michigan.

(7) Trooper Goodall then confronted the passenger. He identified himself as Dominique Noland and explained that he was traveling from Toledo, Ohio. Noland, however, was not able to produce his bus ticket to verify his city of origin because he had thrown it away at Katie's Corner. With doubts about Noland's origin city, Trooper Goodall asked Detective Kirk to retrieve the ticket from the restaurant. When Detective Kirk returned with the ticket, Trooper Goodall verified that Noland had actually traveled from Detroit, Michigan, in contradiction with his story.

(8) At this point, both the Defendant and Noland were standing behind the Grand Cherokee. Neither individual was in handcuffs, nor had they been told they were under arrest. Approximately fifteen minutes had elapsed from the time of the initial stop.

(9) After verifying that Noland was, in fact, traveling from Detroit, Trooper Goodall asked the Defendant whether he had anything illegal in the vehicle. Defendant responded that he did not. Trooper Goodall then asked the Defendant whether he would give consent to search the vehicle. Defendant initially hesitated, prompting Noland to encourage Defendant to give consent. Trooper Goodall then advised Defendant that "we could get a dog if [you] would like us to, to come to the area" (Doc. # 21 at 13), and Noland again encouraged Defendant to give consent. Defendant then said that the officers "could go ahead and look in the vehicle." ( Id. ).

(10) Having received consent from Defendant, Trooper Goodall proceeded to search the vehicle. He found a black backpack on the back seat and opened it. Inside, he found a large brick of a white substance, as well as a large bag of pills. Based on his suspicion that these were illegal narcotics, Trooper Goodall stepped out of the vehicle and told Trooper Thompson to place both the Defendant and Noland in handcuffs.

(11) Upon hearing Trooper Goodall's command, Noland quickly sprinted away from the scene. Trooper Goodall chased him on foot to no avail. Trooper Goodall then returned to the Grand Cherokee and placed Defendant in handcuffs. According to the Uniform Citation, Defendant was arrested at 9:14 p.m.


A. Legality of the initial traffic stop

Defendant argues that the initial traffic stop violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure. The government responds that the stop was lawful because Trooper Goodall had probable cause to believe that Defendant violated K.R.S. § 186.170(1), which states in pertinent part:

... Plates shall be kept legible at all times and the rear plate shall be illuminated when being operated during [designated hours]....

In support of this assertion, the government points to Trooper Goodall's testimony that he was unable to read the make, model and VIN on the temporary tag because the ink had faded.

1. Legal standard justifying a traffic stop

Sixth Circuit case law is in conflict about the amount of suspicion necessary to stop a vehicle for a civil traffic violation. United States v. Blair , 524 F.3d 740, 748 n. 2 (6th Cir. 2008). Some panels uphold a stop where the police had reasonable suspicion of a civil infraction, see Weaver v. Shadoan , 340 F.3d 398, 407-08 (6th Cir. 2003), while other panels require probable cause to believe a civil traffic infraction has occurred. See, e.g., United States v. Freeman , 209 F.3d 464, 466 (6th Cir. 2000). In United States v. Simpson , a published decision from 2008, the Sixth Circuit addressed a set of facts nearly identical those at issue here: the officer stopped a vehicle because the expiration date on the license plate was not "clearly visible" in violation of Tennessee statute. 520 F.3d 531 , 533 (6th Cir. 2008). The court noted that previous published decisions required probable cause to stop a vehicle for a civil traffic violation, but held that an officer only needs reasonable suspicion if the traffic violation is ongoing. Id. at 541. The court then concluded that an illegible license plate amounts to an ongoing traffic violation and, thus, analyzed the stop under the reasonable suspicion standard. Id. Despite the clear holding in Simpson , another Sixth Circuit panel-albeit in an unpublished decision-more recently analyzed a traffic stop based on a ...

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