United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division
For Norman Dwight Parker, Defendant: Rob Eggert, LEAD ATTORNEY, Louisville, KY.
For USA, Plaintiff: Stephanie M. Zimdahl, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. Attorney Office - Louisville, Louisville, KY.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Thomas B. Russell, Senior United States District Judge.
This matter is before the Court upon Defendant Norman Dwight Parker's Motion to Suppress Tangible Evidence and Statements, (Docket No. 22), and Motion to Suppress Identification, (Docket No. 24). The United States has responded to each. (Docket Nos. 26, 34.) The Court held a hearing on this matter on April 14, 2014, in Louisville, Kentucky. This matter is now ripe for adjudication. For the reasons explained below, the Court will DENY each of Parker's Motions.
On November 21, 2013, officers of the Louisville Metro Police Department (" LMPD" ) received complaints of gunshots in the Victory Park area of Louisville, Kentucky. Detective Mike Nobles conducted surveillance on the area from an unmarked police vehicle, aided by binoculars. Detective Nobles testified that he first observed a gathering outside a house on the 2200 block of West Kentucky Street. (Docket No. 42 at 6:13-7:12.) He suspected that a black male wearing a University of Kentucky hooded sweatshirt with a " pull-down hat" with " gray fuzzy ears on it" was carrying a gun in the waistband of his pants. (Docket No. 42 at 7:4-25.) Detective Nobles later observed the same individual running through an alley to a lot at 2237 West Kentucky Street and approach an abandoned red vehicle; the individual then " pulled the handgun from his waistband . . . bent down in the car, shut the door, walked down to his blue sedan, and got in it," driving away. (Docket No. 42 at 9:18-20.) Detective Nobles then advised other LMPD officers via radio that someone had placed a handgun in the abandoned car and communicated " the description of [the individual], what he was wearing, the description of the car, and the direction it was traveling." (Docket No. 42 at 11:1-2.)
Roughly five minutes later, Detectives Jodi Speaks and Mark Brown stopped the sedan a short distance, approximately four houses, from 2237 West Kentucky Street, ostensibly because its driver was not wearing a seatbelt. (Docket No. 48:1-6.) Upon stopping the vehicle, the detectives found that Parker was its driver and sole occupant. In the front passenger seat of the vehicle, the detectives observed in plain view a blue sweatshirt and hat similar to the one described by Detective Nobles. (Docket No. 42 at 49:13-17.) Meanwhile, Detective Nobles continued to observe the sedan from the time the individual in the blue sweatshirt entered it until the time of the traffic stop. (Docket No. 42 at 12:11-14.) He then conducted an additional, unrelated stop in Victory Park before walking to the location of Parker's vehicle. (Docket No. 42 at 29:14-24.)
Parker complied with Detective Brown's request to step outside and behind the vehicle. (Docket No. 42 at 50-22:25.) Approximately fifteen minutes after the traffic stop, Detective Nobles approached the scene and identified Parker as the individual he had observed with the handgun. Detective Nobles then announced his intention to arrest Parker, as LMPD officers had recovered a weapon from the abandoned red vehicle; accordingly, Detective Brown placed Parker in handcuffs. (Docket No. 42 at 52:18-20.) When Parker questioned why he was being handcuffed, detectives responded, " Because we found the gun." (Docket No. 42 at 15:18-19.) Although the detectives did not recall the exact wording of Parker's reply, they agree that his words were to the effect of, " You're not putting that gun on me." (Docket No. 42 at 15:19-20; Docket No. 42 at 52:20-23.)
Parker was ultimately charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).
I. Motion to Suppress Tangible Evidence and Statements
a. The stop of Parker's vehicle, even if pretextual, withstands constitutional scrutiny.
Parker's initial Motion seeks to suppress any physical evidence and statements obtained from him, arguing that LMPD officers lacked either probable cause or reasonable suspicion to conduct the stop of his car. " Stopping a vehicle and detaining its occupants amounts to a seizure under the Fourth Amendment." United States v. Freeman, 209 F.3d 464, 466 (6th Cir. 2000). The Fourth Amendment demands that a traffic stop must not be " unreasonable" under the totality of the circumstances. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 812-13, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (1996). In analyzing the reasonableness of the stop, the Court queries " whether the police officer possessed probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe that a traffic violation occurred, not whether a traffic violation in fact occurred." United States v. Sanford, 476 F.3d 391, 396 (6th Cir. 2007). " Probable cause is generally defined as reasonable grounds for belief, supported by less than prima facie proof but more than mere suspicion." United States v. Copeland, 321 F.3d 582, 592 (6th Cir. 2003).
Here, LMPD detectives observed Parker driving without a seat belt. Kentucky law dictates that " [a] person shall not operate a motor vehicle manufactured after 1981 on the public roadways of this state unless the driver and all passengers are wearing properly adjusted and fastened seat belt . . . ." Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 189.125(6). Parker does not deny that he violated the law, nor does he challenge that the detectives observed him doing so. Although he contends that the relatively insignificant nature of the seat belt violation does not support the stop, the Court does not agree. A traffic stop is allowable if officers have probable cause that the motorist has violated the law--and even a minor traffic violation provides probable cause for a traffic stop. See, e.g., Whren, 517 U.S. at 810; United States v. Ferguson, 8 F.3d 385, 391 (6th Cir. 1993) (en banc), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 828, 115 S.Ct. 97, 130 L.Ed.2d 47 (1994). Because the detectives saw Parker driving without a seatbelt, they had probable cause to believe that a traffic violation had occurred. Therefore, the stop was reasonable.
The Court need not discredit Parker's theory of pretext in order to find it inconsequential: perhaps the detectives indeed stopped the car not because of a seat belt violation but because of the alleged firearm incident--but the stop remains constitutional. A traffic stop's legality hinges upon " the validity of the officers' objective explanation for making the stop, not on the subjective intentions of the officers in initiating the stop." United States v. Herbin, 343 F.3d 807, 809 (6th Cir. 2003). Even ...