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UNITED STATES v. ALSTON

September 3, 1993

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
DALION ALSTON



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ALDON J. ANDERSON

 On April 1, 1993, defendant, Dalion Alston ("Alston"), driving a 1991 Acura Legend (hereafter the "Acura"), was stopped by the police on the Whitney Young Bridge in the District of Columbia. The Acura was on the look out sheet, or hot sheet, for stolen vehicles. The telex on the Acura, which placed the car on the hot sheet, informed police that the car would be driven by Alston who, due to prior criminal behavior, might be armed. The telex stated, however, that Alston was not to be arrested unless, in fact, inspection of the vehicle determined its stolen status.

 After stopping the Acura, Alston was asked by an Officer Wen Ai to exit the vehicle. Alston did so and was taken by the police to the rear of the vehicle, near the trunk, where he was questioned. While Alston was being questioned, a police detective by the name of Brian Henry noted that the glove box of the Acura was open and that he could see what appeared to be part of a plastic baggie sticking out of a hidden area of the box. Opening the passenger door, the officer pulled out the baggie, and determined that it was filled with cocaine. Further inspection of the glove box area of the vehicle found additional bags of drugs and three unregistered handguns. Alston was charged with various drug and gun crimes, as well as unauthorized use of vehicle.

 Alston filed a number of motions, including motions to suppress. The court took evidence on the motions during the week of August 30, 1993. On September 3, 1993, after oral argument, the court orally rendered its rulings on the motions. This memorandum order sets forth those rulings in a written format.

 I. Motion to Suppress Tangible Evidence:

 Evidence has been presented by defendant challenging the validity of the government claim that the Acura being driven by Alston on April 1, 1993, was stolen. In that regard, Alston argued that the police did not have probable cause to stop him on April 1, 1993.

 The police are entitled to stop on individual if they have a reasonable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889, 88 S. Ct. 1868 (1968). Further, the police may arrest an individual, and may seize property, it they have probable cause of criminal wrongdoing.

 The government presented ample evidence that the officers who stopped Alston had probable cause that the vehicle was stolen. Reliable informants had informed Detective Daniel Straub of the auto theft unit of the police that there existed problems with title documents for vehicles and Alston. For example, a title was being sought for Alston for a Lexus which was not owned by Alston. Further, the Vehicle Identification Number ("VIN") number on an Acura, reported on title documents as being owned by Alston, belonged to another vehicle. When the Acura could not be located by Detective Straub, a look out was issued for the car.

 The problem with the government's case is that Terry-like stops and warrantless arrests and seizures are premised on the concept that insufficient time exists to obtain a warrant from the proper judicial officer. Here, the government had sufficient information to obtain a warrant more than eighteen hours before the Alston stop. Detective Straub acknowledged that on May 31, 1993, he had all the basic information necessary to obtain a warrant.

 The court does not want to compel police to go to a magistrate as soon as they have probable cause to arrest or seize property. The police can decide when to show their hand to a magistrate. Nonetheless, the police cannot, without risk, sit on probable cause evidence and then proceed to arrest an individual or, as in this case, seize property without first going to a magistrate.

 If the police believe they have probable cause, they should go to a magistrate or other proper judicial authority. If they do, the system and police are protected because even if no probable cause is ultimately found to have existed, as long as an independent magistrate issues a warrant, the police may rely in good faith on that warrant, and evidence will not be suppressed.

 Unfortunately, in this case the police did not obtain a warrant, and consequently, the court had to take four days of evidence and testimony to determine, after the fact, if probable cause existed at the time of the stop. The law prefers warrants.

 At the same time, a warrant is not always required. See Kamisar, Y., LaFave, W., Israel, J., Modern Criminal Procedure (4th Ed. 1974) at 228-31. In that regard, the government presented Section 23-581 of the D.C. Code in response to the court's request that the parties brief the warrant issue. That code provision provides that a law enforcement officer may arrest, without a warrant having been previously issued, where "he has probable cause to believe [the suspect] has committed or is committing a felony." This statute reflects the common law. See United States v. Hamilton, 390 A.2d 449 (1978). Thus, where the police have probable cause that a felony has been committed, they may arrest individuals and may seize property. Unlike the warrant situation, however, no good faith exception exists if it is determined subsequently that no probable cause existed.

 Fortunately for the government, a good faith exception is not needed. This is because, the court finds, based on the evidence presented, that the police had probable cause to stop the Acura. (The knowledge of Detective Straub is presumptively known to the other officers who were involved in stopping the Acura. See, e.g., Illinois v. Andreas, 463 U.S. 765, 771 n.5, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1003, 103 S. Ct. 3319). The fact that evidence was presented at the hearing that the Acura may not have been stolen does not destroy the probable cause at the time of the stop. The evidence simply weakened the stolen vehicle claim of the indictment. The government has now dismissed the stolen vehicle claim.

 Further, even if probable cause did not exist, which it did, this court finds sufficient facts existed to justify the police in having a reasonable suspicion that the Acura was stolen. That suspicion was adequate to justify the officers in stopping the Acura to determine if, in fact, it was stolen. See Terry v. Ohio, supra, and its progeny.

 The next issue to be addressed is whether, following the stop, the police exceeded their authority in searching for, and finding the drugs and guns which form the basis ...


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