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United States v. Sleet

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

April 15, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
JAMEEL SLEET, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Danny C. Reeves United States District Judge

         Defendant Jameel Sleet has moved to suppress all evidence discovered on his person following a traffic stop on November 14, 2018. [Record No. 24] The motion was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Matthew Stinnett for the issuance of a Report and Recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). Magistrate Judge Stinnett held an evidentiary hearing and issued an opinion, recommending that Sleet's motion to suppress be denied. [Record No. 34] No. objections were filed.

         After reviewing the record and the Report and Recommendation, the Court will deny the defendant's motion.

         I.

         Gang Unit Detective Jody Kizis began an investigation regarding Tavis Chenault in mid-2018. On November 14, 2018, Kizis briefed Detective Luke Valdez and Officer Brandon Hazlewood regarding his findings. He explained that Chenault: (i) was a gang member of the Kill or Be Killed gang; (ii) bragged on social media about carrying firearms; (iii) was suspected of drug trafficking; (iv) may be associating with armed and dangerous individuals; and (v) was carrying a weapon during his last interaction with law enforcement.

         Defendant Sleet was traveling in a car with Chenault on November 14, 2018, while Kizis and other members of the Lexington Police Department conducted surveillance. Police observed Chenault and three others traveling in a silver Buick heading toward North Broadway Street in Lexington. Hazlewood noticed that the license plate on Chenault's car was not illuminated and stopped the vehicle. Valdez arrived on scene and approached the driver side while Hazelwood approached the passenger side of the car. Hazlewood and Valdez detected the odor of marijuana and directed the four individuals to exit the vehicle. The occupants included Sleet, Chenault, Angela Renfro (Chenault's mother), and Devin Lovette. Sleet and the other individuals exited the vehicle as ordered.

         Valdez recognized Sleet from a prior interaction at a residence on Hinton Road where multiple guns were recovered. Valdez conducted a pat down and felt something in Sleet's pocket. Valdez testified at the suppression hearing that he immediately recognized the item as a plastic bag, likely containing narcotics. He instructed Sleet to remove the bag from his pocket, confirmed that it contained narcotics, and placed Sleet under arrest. Later, the defendant also removed cocaine base, cocaine hydrochloride, and fentanyl from his underwear.

         II.

         The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. Const. amend. IV. Sleet contends that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated because: (i) there was no valid reason for the traffic stop; (ii) officers lacked reasonable suspicion that he was armed and dangerous to justify the pat down; (iii) the officer conducting the search of his person exceeded the scope of a Terry pat down; and (iv) he did not voluntarily remove the narcotics from his person.

         i. There was a lawful reason for the stop.

         A traffic stop constitutes a seizure of the driver and all of his passengers within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249, 259-69 (2007). An officer may stop a car when there is probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred. United States v. Blair, 524 F.3d 740, 748 (6th Cir. 2008). And if a traffic stop is supported by probable cause, the subjective intent of the officer's is irrelevant. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 813 (1996). “Police officers [may] stop vehicles for any infraction, no matter how slight, even if the officer's real purpose was a hope that narcotics or other contraband would be found as a result of the stop.” United States v. Mesa, 62 F.3d 159, 162 (6th Cir. 1995). However, an officer may not “further detain the vehicle or its occupants unless something that occurred during the traffic stop generated the necessary reasonable suspicion to justify a further detention.” Blair, 524 F.3d at 752 (quoting United States v. Perez, 440 F.3d 363, 370 (6th Cir. 2006)).

         Here, the officers stopped the vehicle driven by Chenault because the license plate was not illuminated. As Magistrate Judge Stinnett noted, it is hard to see the license plate in the body cam footage, but the footage appears to show that the license plate was not illuminated. [Body Cam Footage USA-217 at 1:47; 9:10] Hazlewood also testified that the license plate was not illuminated.[1]

         Additionally, there was a continued justification for the stop because the officers smelled marijuana. Both Valdez and Hazlewood testified that they approached the vehicle and immediately smelled marijuana. [Audio Recording of Suppression Hearing (“Rec.”) at 47:50; 1:16:29][2] As Magistrate Judge Stinnett correctly noted, “an officer's detection of the smell of marijuana in an automobile can by itself establish probable cause for a search.” United States v. Elkins, 300 F.3d 638, 659 (6th Cir. 2002).

         The officers were justified in initially stopping the car for a legitimate civil violation. Also, the officers had probable cause ...


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