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United States v. Whitis

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

July 20, 2017

JASON WHITIS, et al., Defendants.


          Joseph M. Hood Am Senior U.S. District Judge


         This matter is before the Court upon Defendant Joshua Kelley Pyles's Motion to Suppress [DE 23], which co-Defendants Jason Whitis and Robbie Neal Whitis have joined [DE 25, 28, 32]. Defendants seek to exclude evidence of firearms and methamphetamine discovered by Kentucky State Police during a traffic stop in April 2017. The United States submitted a Response [DE 27], and Defendants filed their Reply [DE 33], making the Motion ripe for the Court's review. On July 19, 2017, the Court held an evidentiary hearing, during which the United States presented testimony from KSP Trooper Brad Ramsey whom Defendants cross-examined. Defendants offered no evidence. At the close of the hearing, the Court orally denied the Motion. This Memorandum Opinion and Order supplements the Court's oral ruling.


         On April 26, 2017, Trooper Ramsey was conducting radar surveillance of eastbound traffic on I-64 in Fayette County. He had parked his unmarked car in the median facing west. At about 3:15 p.m., he observed a 1999 gold Mazda 626 traveling east at 63 miles per hour in a zone with a speed limit of 70 miles per hour, much slower than other vehicles. As the vehicle passed him, he saw two men sitting in front. They seemed tense and avoided eye contact with Trooper Ramsey. He also spotted a third person in the back seat, but did not observe whether that individual was male or female.

         Trooper Ramsey drove onto I-64 and followed the Mazda for a few miles, running its license plate number through the Law Enforcement Information Network of Kentucky (“LINK”)/NCIC database. The database revealed that the vehicle was registered to a woman named Angela Burdine, who had an outstanding arrest warrant for failure to appear and failure to produce an insurance card in Kentucky. He initiated an investigatory traffic stop near the convergence of I-64 and I-75 in Lexington.

         Trooper Ramsey approached the passenger side of the vehicle, rapping on the rear passenger-side window as he did so. He observed Pyles, who was sitting in the rear passenger seat, attempting to hide something under a pile of clothes in the seat next to him. Pyles rolled down the window in response to the knock, whereupon Trooper Ramsey detected the smell of marijuana. He secured the Mazda and called for backup.

         Next, Trooper Ramsey asked all three men for identification. Robbie Neal Whitis, who was driving the vehicle, complied with the request. When Trooper Ramsey asked the other occupants for identification, he noticed that Robbie Whitis began moving around in the front seat and concealing his hands in his shirtsleeves. Trooper Ramsey ordered Robbie Whitis to place his hands on the steering wheel, and again he complied. Pyles then provided identification. Jason Whitis stated that he did not have any identification on his person, and proceeded to give Trooper Ramsey a Social Security number and date of birth that proved to be false. He also confirmed that the vehicle belonged to his girlfriend, Angela Burdine.

         Shortly thereafter, Troopers Brian Smith and Joshua Giles arrived on the scene. Trooper Ramsey removed Pyles from the vehicle, while Trooper Smith dealt with Jason Whitis. Trooper Giles asked Robbie Whitis to step out of the vehicle. When he complied, Trooper Giles noticed that he had a gun on his person and disarmed him. The troopers searched the three men and found nothing, then searched the vehicle. They discovered a Wal-Mart bag under the front seat that contained fresh marijuana. Under a pile of clothes in the back seat, they found a weapon and more marijuana. There was also a small bag in the back seat that held burnt roaches and marijuana cigarettes. The trunk contained a Nike shoe box with a grocery sack inside. The troopers found a small, clear plastic bag of methamphetamine in the grocery sack.

         On May 25, 2017, a federal grand jury returned an Indictment against all three Defendants for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. [DE 9]. Pyles and Robbie Neal Whitis were also indicted on charges of possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking. [Id.]. The instant Motion to Suppress followed shortly thereafter. In their Motion, Defendants argue that Trooper Ramsey did not have reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop and, thus, all evidence discovered as a result of that search should be excluded as fruit of the poisonous tree.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Investigatory Stops

         “The Fourth Amendment prohibits ‘unreasonable searches and seizures' by the Government, and its protections extend to brief investigatory stops of persons or vehicles that fall short of traditional arrest.” United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273 (2002) (citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 9 (1968)). “Because the balance between the public interest and the individual's right to personal security tilts in favor of a standard less than probable cause in such cases, the Fourth Amendment is satisfied if the officer's action is supported by reasonable suspicion to believe that criminal activity may be afoot.” Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted); see also United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417 (1981) (“An investigatory stop must be justified by some objective manifestation that the person stopped is, or is about to be, engaged in criminal activity.”).

         To “make reasonable-suspicion determinations, … [courts] must look at the ‘totality of the circumstances' of each case to see whether the detaining officer has a ‘particularized and objective basis' for suspecting legal wrongdoing.” Arvizu, 534 U.S. at 273 (quoting Cortez, 449 U.S. at 417). “This process allows officers to draw on their own experience and specialized training to make inferences from and deductions about the cumulative information available to them that ‘might well elude an untrained person.'” Id. (quoting Cortez, 449 U.S. at 417). This standard is “less demanding than that for probable cause, ” and “considerably less than proof of wrongdoing by a preponderance of the evidence.” United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7 (1989). ...

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