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United States v. Matthews

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

October 31, 2019




         Defendant Garrick Matthews is charged with two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm. (Docket No. 1) The charges arise from arrests of Matthews following traffic stops on April 6, 2018, and December 9, 2018. (Id.) Matthews argues that the stops and the subsequent searches of the vehicles were unconstitutional. (D.N. 37) He has moved to suppress evidence obtained from those stops, claiming that any such evidence is the fruit of an illegal search. (Id., PageID # 72) The Court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion to suppress on August 27, 2019. (D.N. 46) For the reasons explained below, Matthews's motion to suppress will be denied.

         I. April 6, 2018, Traffic Stop

         This case arises out of two separate traffic stops and searches of automobiles driven by Matthews. (D.N. 47, PageID # 97) The Court will address each one in turn.

         On April 6, 2018, Officers Brenton Woodford and Rex Kelly of the Louisville Metro Police Department stopped Matthews on South Preston Street. (D.N. 51, PageID # 218) Woodford testified that he stopped Matthews because Matthews ran through a stop sign and because Woodford saw him go by at a high rate of speed. (D.N. 47, PageID # 105) Specifically, Woodford testified that at the intersection of West Ormsby and South Preston Street, all four tires of Matthews's vehicle were past the white “stop bar.” (Id.)

         Once Matthews pulled his car over, Woodford approached from the driver's side and Kelly approached from the passenger's side. (Id., PageID # 106) The bodycam video shows that as Woodford approached the car, Matthews said, “I'm running out of gas man.” (D.N. 49-10, 00:44) Woodford asked Matthews if that was why he was traveling so fast. (Id., 00:53) When Woodford reached the driver-side door, Matthews was leaning out of the car window with his right arm on the window frame of the driver's door and his chest turned toward Woodford. (Id., 00:57) Woodford asked Matthews for his driver's license. (Id., 01:11) Matthews responded that he did not have his driver's license, but he stated that his first name was Terrance and provided “07/29/83” as his date of birth. (Id., 01:11-51) Matthews also stated that he could not remember his social security number. (Id., 01:46) This information later turned out to be false; as discussed below, Matthews eventually told the officers his real name and his social security number. (D.N. 47, PageID # 99; D.N. 49-10, 23:35-24:22)[1] Meanwhile, Kelly shined his flashlight into the vehicle from the passenger-side window, illuminating a long, thin brown item in the ashtray adjacent to the glove compartment. (D.N. 49-11, 00:54-56) Kelly motioned for Matthews to roll down his window and then shined his flashlight on the item again multiple times. (Id., 01:08-52)

         Once Woodford finished taking down Matthews's information, the two officers walked back to Woodford's police car. (D.N. 49-10, 02:49) Kelly asked Woodford, “Did you see that joint right there in the ashtray?” and later remarked that “it look[ed] like there was a joint right there in the little ashtray.” (D.N. 49-11, 2:35-54) Kelly also stated that Matthews was “floating too.”[2] (Id., 03:15) As Woodford tried to check Matthews's identity, the two officers continued discussing the fact that Matthews was “floating.” (D.N. 49-10, 03:36-53; D.N. 47, PageID # 121)

         After Woodford was not able to get any information on “Terrance Matthews, ” the officers re-approached the vehicle. (Id., 04:27-05:09) When Kelly reached the passenger-side window, he shined his flashlight on the item in the ashtray again and asked if Matthews had anything else in the car “besides that weed right there” and whether he had “anything else besides that joint.” (D.N. 49-11, 05:22-28) Matthews did not respond because he was arguing with Woodford, asking the officers why they pulled him over. (D.N. 49-10, 05:19) Woodford responded that Matthews was “all over the top” of the stop sign bar, and that Matthews was also “floating down that street too on top of it.” (Id., 05:23-35) Matthews responded that he did not run any stop sign. (Id., 05:55) As they argued, Woodford asked Matthews several times to exit the vehicle. (Id., 05:42-08:31) Matthews remained inside the vehicle and continued asking what he did wrong, while Woodford answered several times that he saw Matthews run a stop sign. (Id.) As Matthews continued to argue with the officers about having to get out of his car, Woodford informed Matthews that they also saw that he had a marijuana joint in his car. (Id., 08:17) Matthews tried to show them the item, saying “it's a cigarette.” (D.N. 49-11, 08:04)

         Eventually the officers pulled Matthews out of the car, placed him against the side of the vehicle, and handcuffed him. (D.N. 49-10, 08:30-49) The officers then put Matthews behind his car while Kelly began searching the car, uncovering a handgun in the area between the driver's seat and the armrest and cupholders, and an unlabeled yellow pill bottle in the armrest. (Id., 08:50; D.N. 49-11, 08:40, 09:04-10:16) Matthews protested when Kelly searched his car, but Woodford informed him that the marijuana they saw gave them probable cause to search the vehicle. (D.N. 49-10, 09:24-29) Matthews stated that the “marijuana” was a cigar. (Id., 09:30)

         While Kelly continued searching the vehicle, Woodford placed Matthews in the backseat of a police car. (Id., 09:42) Woodford again explained to Matthews that he was pulled over because his car was over the white stop line, and that if a car is “over top of that, you've run the stop sign.” (Id., 10:20-25) Matthews maintained that his car was not over the line. (Id., 10:25) He also started to tell Woodford “there's a blunt in the-” but was interrupted. (Id., 10:37) Matthews also told Woodford to “run the name on the gun, it's mine, ” (id., 10:53), though he later told the officers that the gun was his wife's and that he did not know it was in the car. (Id., 25:37-52)

         With regard to the item found in the ashtray, Matthews repeatedly told Woodford “it's a blunt.” (Id., 12:47, 12:54) Matthews later said that instead of a blunt, the item was “a cigar [with] tobacco in it” and asked the offers to “open it up” because there was “tobacco in there.” (Id., 14:07-13) Woodford asked if the item was a marijuana blunt, and Kelly picked the item up from the hood of the police car, put it up to his nose, and nodded. (Id., 14:16-19) Woodford then picked up the blunt himself, inspected it, and said “Yeah, weed” followed by “I think we know what a blunt looks like.” (Id., 15:38-42)

         Matthews now asserts that the officers had no probable cause to stop him or remove him from the vehicle and conduct a search because the “blunt” seen during the stop was a “Philly blunt cigar, a legal item sold in most every gas station and convenience store” (D.N. 47, PageID # 103); the dashboard and body cameras activated in conjunction with the stop do not show the alleged traffic violations (D.N. 51, PageID # 218); when the dash footage begins, the car is moving and the back two tires are still not across the white stop line (id., PageID # 221); there is reason to doubt Woodford's credibility as he testified that all four tires were past the line (id.); and there was no allegation Matthews was traveling in excess of the speed limit. (Id., PageID # 222)

         The government argues that the officers had probable cause to stop Matthews because he ran a stop sign and was driving at a high rate of speed. (D.N. 47, PageID # 97, 121) The United States also asserts that the officers had probable cause to search the vehicle because they observed a marijuana blunt in the ashtray of the vehicle and also smelled it. (D.N. 50, PageID # 199)

         A. Probable Cause to Stop

         The first question is whether the officers violated Matthews's Fourth Amendment rights when they performed a warrantless stop on April 6, 2018. “The Fourth Amendment provides that, [t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable seizures, shall not be violated . . . .” Camera v. Mun. Ct. of San Francisco, 387 U.S. 523, 528 (internal quotations omitted). “An ordinary traffic stop by a police officer is a ‘seizure' within the meaning of the Fourth [and Fourteenth] Amendment[s].” United States v. Blair, 524 F.3d 740, 748 (6th Cir. 2008) (alteration in original). “The warrantless stop of an automobile will be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment if the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation occurred.” United States v. Bachelor, No. 3:15-CR-0005-CRS, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162157, at *14 (E.D. Ky. Oct. 8, 2015) (quoting Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 810 (1996)). As long as the stop of the vehicle is found to be objectively reasonable, the subjective motive of the officers involved in the traffic stop is not relevant to the Court's constitutional inquiry. See United States v. Herbin, 343 F.3d 807, 809-10 (6th Cir. 2003) (“From beginning to end the constitutionality of a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment depends upon the objectively reasonable justifications for the officer's actions, not their subjective intentions.”).

         “A traffic stop is allowable if officers have probable cause that the motorist violated the law-and even a minor traffic violation provides probable cause for a traffic stop.” United States v. Parker, 17 F.Supp.3d 667, 670 (W.D. Ky. 2014) (citing Whren, 517 U.S. at 812-13; United States v. Ferguson, 8 F.3d 385, 391 (6th Cir. 1993) (en banc), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 828 (1994)). In analyzing the reasonableness of a traffic stop, the Court asks “whether the police officer possessed probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe that a traffic violation occurred, not whether a traffic violation in fact occurred.” United States v. Sanford, 476 F.3d 391, 396 (6th Cir. 2007). “[S]o long as the officer has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred or was occurring, the resultant stop is not unlawful and does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.” United States v. Bradshaw, 102 F.3d 204, 210 (6th Cir. 1996) (citing Ferguson, 8 F.3d at 391).

         In determining whether officers had probable cause for a stop, courts look to whether the officers had “reasonable grounds for [their] belief [that a violation occurred], supported by less than prima facie proof but more than mere suspicion.” United States v. Copeland, 321 F.3d 582, 592 (6th Cir. 2003). “A court must determine whether ‘the facts and circumstances within [the officers'] knowledge and of which [they] had reasonable trustworthy information [were] sufficient to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that' an offense has been or is being committed.'” United States v. Hughes, 606 F.3d 311, 320 (6th Cir. 2010). The probable-cause standard is objective; “[s]ubjective intentions play no role in probable cause Fourth Amendment analysis.” Schneider v. Franklin Cty., 288 Fed.Appx. 247, 251 (6th Cir. 2008). The relevant inquiry in traffic-stop cases is “whether this particular officer in fact had probable cause to believe that a traffic offense had occurred, regardless of whether this was the only basis or merely one basis for the stop.” Ferguson, 8 F.3d at 391.

         Matthews contends that the officers did not have probable cause to stop him on April 6, 2018, because neither of the alleged traffic violations is shown on the dashcam or bodycam recordings and because there is “ample reason to doubt” Woodford's credibility. (D.N. 51, PageID # 219, 221) The government first argues that Matthews disregarded a stop sign in violation of applicable state law (D.N. 50, PageID # 202), which provides that

[e]xcept where directed to proceed by a police officer, every operator of a vehicle approaching a stop sign shall stop at a clearly marked stop line but, if none . . . then at the point nearest the intersecting roadway where the operator has view of approaching traffic on the intersecting roadway before entering it.

Ky. Rev. Stat. § 189.330(4). Matthews argues that when the dashcam footage begins, the two back tires of the vehicle had not crossed the white stop line and that § 189.330(4) only requires that a vehicle stop “at” the stop line, not “before” it. (D.N. 51, PageID # 221) The Court finds, however, that the defendant failed to stop properly. His front tires were past the white bar, and the defendant points to no authority-and the Court can find none-which suggests that the violation only attaches when all four tires extend past the white line.

         While Woodford testified that all four tires were past the stop bar (D.N. 47, PageID # 105), the vehicle's back two tires are still on the white stop line and the car is in motion when the dashcam footage begins. (Id., PageID # 126; D.N. 49-13, 00:00-00:02) Woodford testified, however, that the camera automatically starts 30 seconds after the police vehicle's sirens and lights turn on. (Id., PageID # 126) He explained that the camera would therefore not go back more than 30 seconds to see if Matthews was stopped just before the camera turned on. (Id.) Further, the dashcam footage shows that Matthews was driving a large SUV and the vast majority of the car was over the white stop line-with the back two tires almost entirely over the line-when the footage begins. (D.N. 49-13, 00:00-00:02) Therefore, although Matthews argues that the dashcam footage is inconsistent with Woodford's testimony, the Court finds that the footage is not dispositive because it picks up in progress. This leaves the Court with Woodford's unrebutted testimony that he saw Matthews run the stop sign.[3] (D.N. 47, PageID # 105) Woodford was traveling directly behind Matthews and testified that he observed Matthews's failure to stop firsthand. (Id.) As the Court finds Woodford's testimony on this point to be credible, the officers had probable cause to believe Matthews committed a traffic violation when he failed to properly stop at the stop line on April 6, 2018.

         In any event, the officers also observed Matthews speeding in violation of Kentucky law, which provides that an “operator of any vehicle upon a highway shall operate the vehicle in a careful manner, with regard for the safety and convenience of pedestrians and other vehicles upon the roadway.” Ky. Rev. Stat. § 189.290. Matthews argues that the alleged “high rate of speed” was never established and that the officers never informed him of the speed limit or alleged that he was driving in excess of the speed limit. (D.N. 51, PageID # 222) Although Matthews insists that he was not driving recklessly (id., PageID # 218), the Court finds that the testimony of Officer Woodford on this point is credible.

         Woodford testified that he saw Matthews go by at a high rate of speed. (D.N. 47, PageID # 105) The minor discrepancy in the exact location is not enough for the Court to discredit the testimony of Woodford as he testified that Matthews was speeding “down Jackson Street” (id., PageID # 105), while the arrest report stated that the vehicle was speeding as it crossed over Jackson Street. (D.N. 49-1) Further, the contemporaneous statements and reactions of the officers as shown on their bodycam recordings support Woodford's testimony. (See D.N. 49-10, 00:53-57 (Matthews states he is running out of gas, and Woodford asks if that is why Matthews was going so fast); 03:36 (Kelly states that Matthews was “floating”); 03:35-53 (officers continue to discuss how Matthews was “floating”); 5:35 (Woodford tells Matthews that he was “floating down that street too”)) The citation issued to Matthews on April 6 listed reckless driving among the offenses, and Woodford explained at the hearing that he cited Matthews for reckless driving because Matthews was speeding. (D.N. 47, PageID # 121) These types of contemporaneous statements and actions are less likely to be feigned. See United States v. Conway, No. 17-43-DLB-CJS, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 119929, at *21-*22 (E.D. Ky. June 4, 2018) (finding the search of a vehicle constitutional after body camera recordings showed contemporaneous statements and reactions from the officers supporting their testimony). As Woodford's testimony is consistent with the bodycam footage of the officers, the Court finds the testimony credible.

         In sum, the Court finds that the officers were permitted to detain Matthews's vehicle on April 6, 2018, because they had probable cause to believe Matthews committed two traffic violations. See United States v. Burton, 335 F.3d 514, 516 (6th Cir. 2003) (citing Whren, 517 U.S. at 812-13 (“The Fourth Amendment . . . permits an officer who has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation is ...

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