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United States v. Mahaffey

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, Covington

December 5, 2018




         This matter is before the Court upon Defendant Tyra Nelson's Motion to Suppress (Doc. # 38), in which Defendant Trontez Mahaffey has joined (Doc. # 40), and Magistrate Judge Candace J. Smith's Report and Recommendation (“R&R”), wherein she recommends that Defendants' Motions be denied. (Doc. # 57). Defendants each having filed Objections to the R&R (Docs. # 58 and 59), the Motions are ripe for the Court's review. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' Objections are overruled, the R&R is adopted, and Defendants' Motions to Suppress (Docs. # 38 and 40) are denied.


         During a one-month span in the summer of 2017, airport police found three sets of abandoned suitcases in the short-term parking garage at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (“CVG”)-twice on July 27, 2017, in row A36, and once again on August 24, 2017, in row A35. (Doc. # 57 at 2). Officers deployed a narcotics canine to test the two sets of luggage found on July 27, and the canine “alerted, ” indicating the presence of narcotics; however, the bags were opened and found to be empty. Id. at 2. Although a canine was not available to test the third set of luggage found on August 24; officers opened the suitcases and again found them to be empty, but could smell the odor of marijuana inside. Id. at 2-3. The luggage all looked new, and some of the bags had pieces of the price tag still attached as if recently purchased. Id. at 4. The second set of bags found later in the day on July 27 consisted of a black Protégé roller suitcase and a Coleman roller suitcase. Id. Some of the bags found on August 24 appeared to be the same brand; the second set of bags found on July 27 and the set recovered on August 24 each included a black Protégé roller suitcase. Id. This pattern of suspicious luggage found abandoned in the same area of the short-term parking garage spurred a narcotics investigation by DEA task force agents with the CVG Airport Police Department, and culminated with the arrest of Defendants Nelson and Mahaffey on September 8, 2017. Id. at 2-8.

         Officers traced closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage to connect the August 24 luggage with three passengers who arrived at CVG on Frontier flight 1870 from Phoenix, Arizona-Timaya Smith, Raniza Anderson Irby, and Ashley Drake. (Doc. # 57 at 3). The women can be seen walking through the airport-at times, walking together, and at other times, separated as if they do not know each other-and into the short-term parking garage near where the officers found the abandoned luggage. Id. CCTV footage then shows Drake driving out of the garage in a vehicle registered to her mother, while Smith and Irby exit the garage on foot without the luggage and depart in separate cars at the passenger pickup area. Id. at 4. Identifying Phoenix, the women's inbound flight origin, as one of many “source cities” of narcotics for the Cincinnati area, airport police began to track inbound Frontier flights from Phoenix to target luggage that appeared to be recently- purchased. Id. at 4.

         On September 8, 2017-the day of the subject arrest-officers monitoring the inbound Phoenix flight observed the flight crew unload all the baggage from the plane. (Doc. # 57 at 4). The officers identified three bags similar in appearance to the abandoned luggage. Just like the prior three sets of abandoned luggage, the three bags identified on September 8 looked “brand new, ” with portions of the price tags still attached, and little sign of wear on the wheels. Id. The September 8 bags were made by the same brands as some of the abandoned luggage-namely, two Protégé bags and one Coleman. Id. Of the three September 8 bags pulled, Defendant Tyra Nelson's name was affixed to two of the tags, and Defendant Trontez Mahaffey's name was affixed to a tag on the third.

         The officers gathered the three September 8 bags, selected three additional, random bags from the flight, and arranged them in a bag sorting room. Id. The officers deployed the same narcotics canine. Id. The canine “alerted, ” signaling the presence of narcotics, on the three identified bags, but not the three random bags. Id. The officers then placed the three identified bags back onto the baggage system with the other luggage. Id. Subsequently, the officers observed Defendants Nelson and Mahaffey retrieve the three bags at baggage claim. Id. Defendant Mahaffey also retrieved a fourth bag that the officers had not previously identified. Id. Mahaffey was observed reading the name tags on his bags when he pulled them off the conveyor belt.

         At least four officers observed from a distance as Defendants Nelson and Mahaffey rolled the identified bags from baggage claim to the short-term parking garage and walked down row A34-35, near the same area the previous sets of abandoned bags had been found. (Doc. # 57 at 6). Defendants stopped at a white Chevrolet vehicle that was backed into a parking space and rolled their bags toward the rear of the vehicle, where the officers were unable to see what Defendants were doing. Id. The Defendants began walking out from the back of the vehicle without the bags, and the officers approached and identified themselves. Id. Mahaffey's body language indicated to the officers that he was going to try to run, so the Defendants were ordered to the ground. Id. at 6-7. Both Defendants complied. Id. at 7. Locating the luggage near the rear of the white Chevrolet, the officers observed that the tags had been removed from the bags and discarded on the back of the vehicle. Id. Two of the discarded tags-marked with Nelson's name-corresponded with bag identification stickers the airline had placed on two of the suitcases; however, the officers were not able to find tags with Mahaffey's name, and the stickers had been removed from the other two pieces of luggage. Id. Before Defendants were transported to the airport police station, officers ran the license plate of the white Chevrolet and found it to be registered to Ashley Drake-one of the three women that the officers had observed on August 24, 2017, arriving from Phoenix on the Frontier flight and entering the parking garage with the abandoned bags. Id. at 8.

         The officers then transported Defendants Nelson and Mahaffey to the airport police station and read the Miranda warnings to them. (Doc. # 57 at 8). Defendant Nelson signed a consent form granting permission to search her two bags, which were found to contain forty-three pounds of marijuana. Id. Mahaffey refused to consent to the search of the third bag. Id. The officers obtained a search warrant to search both of Mahaffey's two suitcases, finding four pounds of methamphetamine and thirty-seven pounds of marijuana. Id.

         On December 14, 2017, a federal grand jury returned an Indictment against the Defendants, charging them with conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute 500 grams or more of a substance containing methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846 (Count One). (Doc. # 1 at 1). Defendants were also charged with aiding and abetting each other to knowingly and intentionally possess with the intent to distribute 500 grams or more of a substance containing methamphetamine (Count Two), and a detectable amount of marijuana (Count Three), all in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and 18 U.S.C. § 2. (Doc. # 1 at 2).

         On June 18, 2018, Defendant Nelson filed a Motion to Suppress, arguing that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest her. (Doc. # 38). Defendant Mahaffey joined in Nelson's Motion, echoing that his arrest was not supported by probable cause. (Doc. # 40). After the United States filed its Response (Doc. # 41), Judge Smith held an evidentiary hearing on August 3, 2018. See (Docs. # 46 and 49). The parties then submitted post-hearing briefing, see (Docs. # 54, 55, and 56), and Judge Smith subsequently issued an R&R, recommending that Defendants' Motions be denied. (Doc. # 57). Defendants each having filed Objections to the R&R (Docs. # 58 and 59), the Motions to Suppress are ripe for the Court's review.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, a district court may refer a motion to suppress to a magistrate judge for the preparation of a report and recommendation. “The magistrate judge must promptly conduct the required proceedings and enter on the record a recommendation for disposing of the matter, including any proposed findings of fact.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(b)(1). If a party files timely objections to the recommendation, the district court must consider those objections de novo and accept, reject or modify the recommendation.” ...

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