Good Decision on Bad Traffic Stop

Today at the Sixth Circuit, a panel consisting of Daughtrey, Gilman, and District Court Judge for the E.D. Mich., Edmunds, reversed the Eastern District of Tennessee's denial of a motion to suppress and vacated a defendant's sentence on a firearms offense in United States v. Blair, Case No. 06-6036. Kudos to Jonathan Moffatt of the Federal Defender Services for the Eastern District of Tennessee for winning a tough suppression issue on appeal, I'm sure it made the wait from when he argued on October 31, 2007 until May 2, 2008 worthwhile. Although, I'm sure his client might disagree.

On the night of March 25, 2004, around 10:35 p.m. Mr. Marcus Blair stopped at a "known drug house in a high-crime drug-trafficking area" in Knoxville, Tennessee. An undercover officer witnessed Blair's car stop at the house and also claimed to have witnessed him engage in a hand-to-hand drug transaction. When Blair's car left the house, the undercover officer radioed to a colleague that a car was leaving the house, but failed to communicate which car or any information regarding the hand-to-hand drug transaction. An officer around the corner, who did not see the defendant's car stop at the suspected drug house nor the hand-to-hand transaction, stopped his car for a pretextual. . . sorry. . . purported "tag-light" violation. The nice thing about this traffic stop was that the police car was equipped with a video-recording device, so that not just the district court, but also the Sixth Circuit could witness the exact timing of what occurred during the traffic stop.

The officer testified that after he received Blair's license he returned to his car and observed that Blair was fidgety and "reaching underneath the seats of his vehicle." The officer conducting the stop testified that he was then informed that the undercover officer had witnessed Blair engage in a hand-to-hand drug transaction. However, the video-tape indicated that the arresting officer did not receive this information for four minutes after he had run the warrant check on Blair's license. At one point in time, Blair tried to exit his car to examine his "tag-light" but was told to remain in the car by the officer. Two minutes after the warrant check had returned negative, the arresting officer asked for permission to search the car. Surprisingly, Blair actually denied permission. The officer then threatened to call a canine unit to the scene if Blair didn't consent. Blair stood his ground, and the canine unit was called, once again approximately four minutes after the warrant check had returned negative. The arresting officer also testified that during the time following the call for back-up and the canine unit, Blair appeared to be nervous.

The Sixth Circuit noted that the video shows that Blair's tag-light was operating, but the arresting officer testified that he still could not read the tag from a distance of ten-feet. Seventeen minutes after the officer ran Blair's license for the purported tag-light violation, the canine unit arrived on the scene. At that time, Blair was told to exit the car so the dog could examine the car, was patted down, and a bag of crack cocaine fell from his pants.

The defendant was indicted on an unrelated federal firearms charge on June 15, 2004. On September 8, 2004, he entered into a plea agreement on that charge that stated that his plea "constitute[d] the full disposition of the known non-tax federal charges within the Eastern District of Tennessee." The PSR was completed on October 28, 2004, and indicated that Blair had been charged in state court on the drugs found on March 25, 2004. On December 6, 2004, Blair was to be sentenced on the gun charge, but that day he was informed that the U.S. would be seeking a federal indictment for the March 25, 2004 arrest. It was then that the defendant filed his Motion to Suppress and a Motion to Dismiss the indictment since it violated the plea agreement to the gun charge.

In reversing the district court's denial of the Motion to Suppress, the Sixth Circuit first noted that it "entertains serious doubt as to Officer Holmes's justification for the stop, primarily because the video evidence shows that the tag-light was fully-0perational." But the Sixth Circuit then found that "even if Officer Holmes had probable cause to stop Blair, the evidence seized as a result of the stop must be suppressed." The Sixth Circuit then dismissed of the district court's finding that the arresting officer had reasonable suspicion to believe that Blair possessed narcotics.

The Sixth Circuit rejected the government's contention that presence in a high-crime neighborhood at 10:30 p.m led to reasonable suspicion. The Sixth Circuit stated "That a given locale is well known for criminal activity will not by itself justify a Terry stop, although it may be taken into account with other factors." The lateness of the stop was another factor relied upon by the district court, but the Sixth Circuit found that 10:30 p.m. is "an hour not late enough to arouse suspicion of criminal activity." The Sixth Circuit also found that the arresting officer did not know of the hand to hand transaction at the time of the stop, and as such, it could not justify a Terry stop of the car.

This Sixth Circuit also rejected the government's contention that the stop was justified based upon the officer's collective knowledge. The Court found that "the officers did not make a collective decision to stop Blair, and thus Officer Munday's knowledge of the hand-to-hand transaction cannot be imputed to Officer Holmes."

Finally, the district court found that the purpose of the "tag-light" stop should have been completed around the time that the officer ran the defendant's license and found no outstanding warrants. The court found that the stop was unnecessarily extended at the time that the officer first asked for consent to search the car because "Officer Holmes had not developed reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity by that point, we [therefore] hold that the remainder of the stop violated the Fourth Amendment." The Sixth Circuit also rejected the officer's fear that Blair might attempt to flee, the unsupported claim that he knew of the hand-to-hand transaction, and Blair's nervousness as justification for the extended stop. And in what to me is a SURPRISING AND VERY USEFUL HOLDING the Sixth stated that "while evasive behavior is a pertinent factor in determining reasonable suspicion, Wardlow, 528 U.S. at 124, Blair's act of reaching under the seats, without more, does not justify a Terry stop." The court found that Blair's prolonged detention violated the Fourth Amendment.

The Sixth then punted on the plea agreement issue finding that its decision on the Motion to Suppress resolved it. Finally, the defendant's guideline range was reduced from concurrent sentences of 120 and 121 months, as driven by the crack charges, to 30 to 37 months on the gun alone.

POST SCRIPT, 6/4/08: On May 23, 2008, the Sixth Circuit granted a motion by the government to extend the time to file a Petition for Rehearing until June 16, 2008.