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Commonwealth v. Blake

Supreme Court of Kentucky

February 15, 2018


         ON REVIEW FROM COURT OF APPEALS CASE NOS. 2014-CA-00'1119-MR AND 2014-CA-001120-MR MUHLENBERG CIRCUIT COURT NOS. 14-CR-00025, 14-CR-00026

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Andy Beshear Attorney General of Kentucky James Coleman Shackelford Assistant Attorney General

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Ryan Driskill



         Donna Marie Blake entered a conditional guilty plea to two counts of first-degree trafficking in a controlled substance, and one count of being a -persistent felony offender ("PFO-2"), and received a seven-year sentence. Her guilty plea was conditioned on her right to appeal the Muhlenberg Circuit Court's denial of her motion to suppress evidence seized from her vehicle during a traffic stop. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that suppression was required in this case. This Court granted discretionary review and for the following reasons, reverses the Court of Appeals.

         I. BACKGROUND.

         The facts in this case are not in dispute, only the lower courts' application of the law. In 2014, Detective Wade Shoemaker, a member of Kentucky State Police's Drug Task Force, was investigating a suspected drug operation in Muhlenberg County. On January 22, 2014, Det. Shoemaker equipped a confidential informant ("CI") with audio and video devices and sent him to a suspected drug dealer's home to make a controlled buy. Det. Shoemaker and another officer watched as the CI went into the house. A short time later, a red Hyundai operated by a white female parked on the street in front of the home. The officers observed the suspected drug dealer exit his house, approach the Hyundai, stand there for a few minutes, then go back into his house.

         As the Hyundai pulled away, Det. Shoemaker called the central dispatch center and provided the vehicle's license plate number. He learned that the Hyundai belonged to Blake, with whom he was already familiar as she had been rumored to have been involved in drug trafficking. Det. Shoemaker met with the CI immediately after the controlled buy, who informed him that the suspected drug dealer had sold him two hydromorphone pills, which he had obtained from Blake.

         Det. Shoemaker set up another controlled buy from the same dealer using that same CI about a week later. Prior to this controlled buy, Det. Shoemaker contacted Central City Police Sergeant James Jenkins, briefed him on the narcotics investigation, and requested that he make a traffic stop on Blake's Hyundai if it became involved in the second controlled buy. Sgt. Jenkins knew of Blake, and was aware of her rumored involvement in the local drug trade.

         On January 28, 2014, the CI was again outfitted with recording equipment and sent into the dealer's home. Once again, while the CI was inside, the red Hyundai arrived and parked in front of the house. The dealer walked outside, briefly met with the driver, then went back inside. This time, Det. Shoemaker could not see the Hyundai's license plate, but believed the vehicle to be Blake's. A short time after the Hyundai pulled away, the CI texted Det. Shoemaker that he was leaving the house. Det. Shoemaker called Sgt. Jenkins, who was on duty at the time, and told him that the controlled buy had been completed, and asked him to make a stop on the Hyundai for a traffic violation if the operator committed one.

         Sgt. Jenkins located Blake's Hyundai at 5:15 p.m., as the sun began to set. He noticed Blake's vehicle's license plate was not illuminated, so he pulled her over for a traffic violation. Sgt. Jenkins approached the vehicle and recognized the driver as Blake. He told her he stopped her due to the license plate issue and asked if he could search her car. Blake immediately consented; Sgt. Jenkins found approximately $10, 000 in cash in Blake's purse and methamphetamine in the glove compartment and decided to arrest her. Det. Shoemaker joined him at the scene and identified a portion of the money as that Used by his CI in the controlled buy.

         A Muhlenberg County grand jury indicted Blake in two separate cases. In the first, she was charged with first-degree trafficking meth, first-degree trafficking opiates, and being a PFO-2. In the second case, she was charged with first-degree trafficking opiates and being a PFO-2. Prior to trial, Blake moved to suppress the evidence seized during the search of her vehicle. She argued that Sgt. Jenkins's traffic stop was improper because the law requiring license plate illumination did not require the light to be on until one-half hour after sunset. Because the sun set at 5:08 p.m. on January 28, 2014, Blake maintained that she was not required to have her license plate illuminated when Sgt. Jenkins pulled her over at 5:16 p.m.[1] In response to Blake's suppression motion, the Commonwealth acknowledged that the license plate violation might not have been a proper basis for the stop; nonetheless, Det. Shoemaker had reasonable suspicion of Blake's participation in the controlled drug buys and his reasonable suspicion transferred to Sgt. Jenkins so as to justify the traffic stop.

         At the suppression hearing, Det. Shoemaker testified that he wanted Sgt. Jenkins to make a stop for a traffic violation and establish his own probable cause for stopping the Hyundai in order to protect the CI's confidential identity and because he suspected, but was not sure, that Blake was the dealer's supplier. Sgt. Jenkins testified that the only reason he stopped Blake was the failure to illuminate her license plate.

         Following the suppression hearing, the trial court issued an order finding that no traffic violation had occurred: it took judicial notice that on January 28, 2014, sunset was at 5:08 p.m.; thus, Blake was not required to have her headlights illuminated until 5:38 p.m. Therefore, at the time of the traffic stop, 5:16 p.m., Blake was not committing a traffic violation. However, the trial court found that Sgt. Jenkins had reasonable suspicion to pull over Blake's vehicle, based on the information relayed to him by Det. Shoemaker, and based on the reasonable suspicion Det. Shoemaker had that Blake was involved in an illegal drug transaction. The trial court noted that the subjective motivations of Sgt. Jenkins that led to the stop of Blake's vehicle were irrelevant; Sgt. Jenkins need not have had personal knowledge of the events that occurred at the suspected drug dealer's home to justify stopping Blake's vehicle; the facts and circumstances surrounding the stop indicated the existence of a reasonable and articulable suspicion that Blake was involved in illegal drug trafficking. The trial court further noted ...

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