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United States v. Simpson

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville Division

April 10, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA Plaintiff
v.
KENNETH G. SIMPSON Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          REBECCA GRADY JENNINGS, DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Kenneth Simpson's Motion to Suppress Auto Stop and Search of Vehicle (“Motion to Suppress”). [DE 15]. The Court held a suppression hearing on February 19, 2019. [DE 26]. Briefing is complete, and the Motion is ripe. [See DE 18; DE 31; DE 34]. For the reasons below, the Court DENIES Simpson's Motion.

         BACKGROUND

         Louisville Metro Police officers Stafford, Seng, and Weber, driving separately, were dispatched to Elliott Avenue in Louisville, Kentucky in response to a 911 report of a man wearing a red hat, white t-shirt, and standing outside a white vehicle armed with a gun. [DE 26, Tr. of Supp. Hearing at 77:2-7]. The report did not suggest that the man was pointing the gun at anyone or otherwise committing a crime. [Id. at 134:9-24].

         On Elliott Avenue, the officers saw a man matching the report's description enter a white vehicle and travel west on Elliott Street to 26th street, where the vehicle turned left and made an immediate right on Broadway. [DE 18 at 39]. Officer Stafford drove east on Elliott and south on 24th street before turning right on Broadway to follow the white car, now driving west on Broadway about twenty-five miles above the speed limit. [DE 26, Tr. of Supp. Hearing at 82:21- 25; 83:1-3]. The car crossed over the line dividing the left and right westbound lanes of Broadway without signaling, so Officer Stafford turned on his emergency lights to signal for the vehicle to pull over. The car slowed but traveled between one and one-half to two blocks before coming to a complete stop. [Id. at 84:3-11].

         Officer Stafford drew his service weapon and held it by his side as he approached the driver's side of the vehicle. [Id. at 103:2-4]. Officer Stafford tried to open the driver's side door. [Id. at 103:2-5]. Officer Stafford then ordered the driver, Simpson, to place his hands on the steering wheel and step out of the vehicle. After Simpson exited the vehicle, Officer Stafford conducted a frisk of Simpson's clothing and told Simpson to stand at the rear of the vehicle. [Id. at 84:23-25; 85:1-25; 86:1-2]. Officer Stafford asked Simpson if there were weapons in the car, and Simpson replied that there were not. The officers did not see a weapon or ammunition in plain view. [Id. at 108:1-11].

         Officers Stafford and Seng then searched the car's passenger compartment, and Officer Seng later discovered a loaded gun under the front passenger seat within reach of the driver. [Id. at 86:12-20; 131:9-13; 133:6-7].[1] Officer Stafford asked Simpson if he was a convicted felon, and Simpson replied that he was. Officer Stafford placed Simpson in handcuffs and advised him of his Miranda rights. [Id. at 86:22-25; 87:1-3]. Officer Stafford asked Simpson for his personal information, and Simpson responded that his identification card was in his pocket. [DE 31 at 162- 63]. Because Simpson was handcuffed, Officer Stafford searched Simpson's pants pocket for the identification card. Officer Stafford found another round of pistol ammunition in Simpson's pocket. [DE 26, Tr. of Supp. Hearing at 88:2-9].

         The United States indicted Simpson for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and possession of ammunition by a convicted felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2). [DE 1; DE 20]. Simpson argues that the stop and search of his vehicle were improper because the police did not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion. [DE 15 at 30-31]. Simpson seeks to suppress the evidence found in the vehicle as fruits of the poisonous tree. [Id. at 32]. The Court held a suppression hearing and briefing is complete. [See DE 18; DE 31; DE 34].

         DISCUSSION

         A. The Officers Had Probable Cause to Stop Simpson's Vehicle.

         First, Simpson asserts that his vehicle was stopped without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. [DE 15 at 30]. In his post-hearing brief, Simpson further alleges that the 911 call, Officer Stafford's belief that a firearm was in the vehicle, Simpson's alleged speeding, Simpson's improper lane change and failure to signal, and the fact that Simpson was driving on a suspended or revoked license cannot support the probable cause or reasonable suspicion necessary to justify the traffic stop. [DE 34 at 179-83]. As to the improper lane change and failure to signal, Simpson notes that he was never charged with these violations. [Id. at 180].

         Law enforcement can lawfully stop any vehicle when it has probable cause that a traffic violation has occurred. United States v. Ferguson, 8 F.3d 385, 391 (6th Cir. 1993). And a traffic stop is justified even if the traffic violation is pretext for further investigation by law enforcement. Id.; see also Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 813 (1996). An officer's actual motivation for making the stop is irrelevant to the constitutionality of the stop when there is probable cause to make the stop. See United States v. Bailey, 302 F.3d 652, 656 (6th Cir. 2002). Thus, if a traffic stop is properly supported by probable cause, “it is irrelevant what else the officer knew or suspected about the traffic violator at the time of the stop.” Ferguson, 8 F.3d at 391.

         Improperly changing lanes, failing to signal, and speeding each violate Kentucky law. See Ky. Rev. Stat. § 189.380 (improperly changing lanes and failing to signal); Ky. Rev. Stat. § 189.390(2) (speeding). Officer Stafford observed Simpson driving over the speed limit, improperly change lanes, and failing to use his turn signal. [DE 26, Tr. of Supp. Hearing at 82:21- 25; 83:1-3]. It is irrelevant that Officers Stafford and Seng also ...


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