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U.S. v. BROWN

May 9, 2003

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
MONTE F. BROWN, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Friedman, United States District Judge

OPINION

This matter came before the Court for a hearing on defendant's motion to suppress tangible evidence. For a variety of reasons, and because of the need for supplemental briefing on certain issues, the hearing took place over the course of portions of two days, December 10, 2002 and March 5, 2003. Upon consideration of the memoranda submitted by counsel for both sides, the relevant case law, and the testimony of the witnesses, the Court has determined to grant the motion to suppress. The following constitutes the Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

At the motions hearing, Officer Robert LaChance of the United States Park Police testified that on July 29, 2001, at approximately 1:00 o'clock in the morning, he was on patrol in the Fort Dupont area. At that time, he observed a gray Chevrolet Celebrity traveling at a speed faster than the posted speed limit; with the aid of radar, he clocked the car driving at 44 miles an hour in a 25-mile per hour speed zone. See Transcript of December 10, 2002 Motions Hearing ("Tr.") at 8-9. Officer LaChance stopped the vehicle which had only one occupant, the driver, who subsequently was identified as the defendant Monte Brown. The officer walked to the driver's side of the car, identified himself as a police officer and asked the driver for his driver's license and registration. See id. at 9-10, 43. The driver did not provide either a license or a registration but instead handed the officer a District of Columbia non-driver's identification card. The photograph on the identification card depicted the driver and identified him as Monte Brown. With the identification card in hand, Officer LaChance returned to his cruiser, wrote out a speeding ticket, and radioed the Park Police communications center, asking for a driving status check of Monte Brown. See id. at 10-11. The center advised Officer LaChance that Monte Brown did not have a license to operate a motor vehicle in the District of Columbia. See id. at 12, 33-34, 46-47. Officer LaChance then returned to the vehicle, asked the defendant to get out of the car, arrested him for driving without a permit, handcuffed him and placed him in the back of the police cruiser. See id. at 12, 35-36.*fn1

Once the defendant was handcuffed and seated in the police cruiser, Officer LaChance returned to the defendant's vehicle and undertook what he described as a "search incident to arrest." Tr. at 13; see also id. at 36. First the officer searched the passenger compartment, which he defined as the front and back seats, "the entire compartment," or the interior of the vehicle. Id. at 13, 19-20. On the driver's side under the seat, Officer LaChance found an identification card bearing the defendant's photograph but a different name and different address, that of one David Linchvancid, and a District of Columbia driver's license with the defendant's photograph on it but with yet another name and address, that of John Wright. See id. at 13-16. The officer also found an American Express card in the name of David Linchvancid and a check printed with the same name. See id. at 16-17. Finally, the officer found a receipt for repairs on the vehicle in the name of defendant Monte Brown. See id. at 18. The officer testified that he thought it "unusual" that some of the identification cards he had located pictured the defendant but listed a different name. Id. at 14-15.

After Officer LaChance finished searching the inside of the vehicle, he went to the back of the car and opened the trunk. By this time, Officer Lehn had arrived on the scene. See Tr. at 20. Inside the trunk, the two officers found a pager, a comforter, and some shoes — all of which appeared to be new items and were contained in shopping bags with the names of stores on them. See id. at 21-23, 51. The officers also found a loaded handgun in a brown paper bag. See id. at 21-24. The weapon was a Barnardelli .380 caliber semi-automatic pistol. See id. at 23.*fn2 The grand jury subsequently returned a one-count indictment, charging the defendant with unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition by a prior convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).

II. ANALYSIS

A. The Arrest And Search of The Passenger Compartment

The defendant argues that Officer LaChance did not have probable cause to stop and search his vehicle. He further argues that even if the officer lawfully could have stopped him for speeding, neither speeding nor driving without a license is an arrestable offense in the District of Columbia, and that it therefore was unlawful for Officer LaChance to arrest Mr. Brown, place him in handcuffs and take him into custody. According to the defendant, the officer should have given him a traffic citation and have let him leave. The defendant next argues that once he was in handcuffs and thus disabled, any search of the interior of the vehicle was improper, particularly because the officer had no reason to fear for his safety. Finally, the defendant maintains that even if the arrest and the search of the interior of the car were lawful, propositions with which he vehemently disagrees, the officer had absolutely no lawful justification for opening and searching the trunk.

The government responds that Officer LaChance had probable cause to stop the defendant's vehicle and issue a citation for speeding, and that in the course of doing so, it was reasonable for the officer to ask the defendant for his license and registration. The government then argues that once Officer LaChance had determined that the defendant had no license to drive in the District of Columbia, he had probable cause to arrest the defendant for driving without a permit and to take him into custody. Furthermore, once the defendant was under arrest, the officer was free to search the interior of the vehicle as a search incident to arrest. Finally, the government maintains that the false identifications the officer found in the passenger compartment of the vehicle gave him probable cause to believe that the defendant was engaged in or about to engage in identity fraud and that further evidence of that crime might be located in the trunk, giving the officer the right to search the trunk.

The Court is satisfied that Officer LaChance had probable cause to stop the defendant's vehicle for speeding and that it was lawful for him to ask the driver to display a license and registration. When the defendant was unable to produce a driver's license and could only produce what the officer recognized as a non-driver's identification card, and a radio check confirmed the fact that Monte Brown had no license to operate a motor vehicle in the District of Columbia, the officer then had probable cause to believe that the defendant was committing the offense of driving without a permit. While there was a good deal of testimony and speculation during the course of the hearing about whether driving without a license is or is not an arrestable offense, the Court concludes that Officer LaChance had the lawful authority to arrest the defendant for driving without a license and was justified in taking him into custody and handcuffing him as a prelude to transporting him to the police station.*fn3

The Supreme Court has made clear that the police may stop a motor vehicle when they have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred. See Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 810 (1996); see also United States v. Searcy, 181 F.3d 975, 978 (8th Cir. 1999) ("An officer may stop a vehicle when he has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation, however minor, has occurred."); United States v. Scopo, 19 F.3d 777, 782 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 877 (1994) (same). The police also may place the driver of the vehicle under arrest if there is probable cause to believe that he or she has committed or is committing a crime, even a violation of the traffic laws. See Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318, 344-45, 354 (2001). Furthermore, once a police officer "has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that vehicle." New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 460 (1981).

While the Supreme Court's earlier decisions required as a justification for a search of a vehicle incident to arrest in a particular case the need "to disarm and to discover evidence," United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 234-35 (1973), the Court in Robinson announced a bright-line rule that would "treat[] all custodial arrests alike for search justification." Id. at 235. In Belton, the Court extended that bright-line, "straightforward [], . . . easily applied, and predictably enforced" rule to the search of vehicles incident to the custodial arrest of an occupant: The police may conduct a search of a vehicle incident to a lawful custodial arrest regardless of whether the defendant is still in the vehicle or has been removed and is no longer near any weapon that might remain inside. New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. at 460 (citing United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. at 235). Thus, as our court of appeals has articulated the rule of Belton, any time the police arrest a driver (or a passenger) of a motor vehicle on probable cause, with or without a warrant, "the police may search the passenger compartment of the vehicle without regard to whether the occupant was removed and secured at the time of the search." United States v. Wesley, 293 F.3d 541, 549 (D.C. Cir. ...


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