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United States v. Simon

April 1, 2005


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ellen Segal Huvelle United States District Judge


Defendant has moved to suppress the tangible evidence seized from his person and his vehicle during a traffic stop on June 14, 2004, on the grounds that the stop and the search of his car were unlawful. An evidentiary hearing was held on February 10 and 11, 2005, after which the Court made findings of fact and tentatively granted defendant's motion, but allowed the United States to submit additional briefing. Upon consideration of the evidence presented and the pleadings filed by the parties, the Court concludes that defendant's motion should be granted.


Metro Transit Police Officer John Freeny was parked at the entrance to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro Station when he observed defendant's vehicle fail to stop*fn1 at a stop line just outside of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ("WMATA" or "Metro") property. Officer Freeny mistakenly believed that the stop line was on WMATA property and for two to three years had been giving tickets to drivers who disregarded the stop signal. (Feb. 11 Tr. at 33.) He pursued defendant's vehicle to a nearby supermarket parking lot (not owned by WMATA), where he conducted a traffic stop. As he followed the car, he ran its license plate number and determined that the vehicle was unregistered. When he approached the vehicle, defendant told him that he did not have a driver's license. Defendant gave the officer his expired learner's permit. Officer Freeny responded that it was "okay" and he would "attempt to work with him." (Feb. 10 Tr. at 32.) After running a records check and speaking with Officer Boehm, who had also arrived on the scene, Officer Freeny asked Mr. Simon to get out of the car. He then informed him that his vehicle would be impounded. As explained at the evidentiary hearing, the vehicle was "unregistered... uninsured... and he d[id] not have a diver's license. He shouldn't [have been] driving the car, and the car shouldn't [have been] on the street." (Feb. 10 Tr. at 34.) Officer Freeny testified that, at this point, he planned to issue several traffic citations to defendant and let him make arrangements to find his own way home. (Feb. 11 Tr. at 20-22.) Officer Freeny called a private towing company to tow the car and the car was eventually towed to the company's private lot; it was never taken into police custody. ( Id. at 26.)

After the officers had instructed Mr. Simon to stand on the curb, Officer Boehm proceeded to conduct an inventory search. Officer Freeny testified that this is standard Metro Transit Police procedure when a car is impounded. (Feb. 10 Tr. at 35.) Officer Boehm discovered an asp (an expandable metal baton usually carried by law enforcement) in the front seat. The officers explained to Mr. Simon that possession of this weapon is prohibited and proceeded with the inventory search. Upon opening the trunk, Officer Freeny observed a number of small plastic ziploc bags, which, based on his experience, he identified as drug paraphernalia. ( Id. at 38.) At this juncture, Officer Freeny informed defendant he was under arrest. ( Id. at 39.)

Officer Freeny reached for Mr. Simon to effectuate the arrest, at which point Mr. Simon pulled away and "grabbed" a small bag that was attached to his body across the front. Officer Freeny ordered defendant to "get off the bag" and eventually got him to let go of it, and handcuffed him on the ground. ( Id. at 40.) He patted him down for weapons and drugs and then returned to the bag and opened it. Inside the bag was a loaded nine-millimeter handgun, ammunition, a phone, a digital scale, two plastic bags containing a chalk-like substance that later field-tested positive for cocaine base, an ice pick, and more small ziploc bags.

At the conclusion of the evidentiary hearing, the Court made the following findings of fact: (1) defendant was not on WMATA property when he failed to stop at the stop line; (2) Officer Freeny had a subjective belief that the stop line was on WMATA property; and (3) Officer Freeny had no intent to arrest defendant until he looked in the trunk of his vehicle. Before that point, he intended to give the defendant several traffic citations and let defendant go on his way. (Feb. 11 Tr. at 66-67.)


I. The Metro Transit Police Officer Had No Authority to Stop Defendant's Vehicle

The WMATA Compact, D.C. Code § 9-1107.01, provides for the establishment of the Metro Transit Police ("MTP") force. Section 76(a) of the Compact defines MTP jurisdiction as including "all the Transit facilities (including bus stops) owned, controlled, or operated by the Authority." MTP officers have the power to make arrests off of WMATA-controlled property in three limited situations: (1) "for violations committed upon, to, or against" transit facilities, while in "hot or close pursuit," id., (2) "when [on duty and] immediate action is necessary to protect the health, safety, welfare or property of an individual from actual or threatened harm or from an unlawful act," id., and (3) to execute traffic citations and criminal process "with respect to offenses committed upon, to, or against the transit facilities owned, controlled, or operated by the Authority." Id. § 76(c). As explained in United States v. Foster, 566 F. Supp. 1403 (D.D.C. 1983), "[a] Metro Transit Police official cannot patrol the streets of D.C. making traffic stops and/or arrests unless the offenses in question originated on or against WMATA facilities." Id. at 1411 (emphasis in original). See also Griggs v. WMATA, 66 F. Supp. 2d 23, 27-28 (D.D.C. 1999) (citing Foster and describing WMATA jurisdiction as "extremely circumscribed").

Despite the Court's finding at the evidentiary hearing that "defendant committed no violation of traffic laws or anything else on WMATA property," and further, "did not commit an offense upon, to or against transit facilities or any transit property" (Feb. 11 Tr. at 61), the government now argues that Officer Freeny had jurisdiction to stop defendant because the traffic offense was "clearly a violation against that Metro parking facility." (Supp. Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. to Suppress Tangible Evidence ["Supp. Opp'n"] at 5 (emphasis in original).) In support of this conclusion, it argues that "when a person runs that stop sign, it clearly places the Metro transit patrons at grave risk of harm." ( Id.

The Court cannot accept this tortured interpretation of "against," which would extend the reach of the statute far beyond its intent. The destruction of Metro property would clearly constitute a violation "against transit facilities," but a traffic violation near transit facilities cannot suffice. Moreover, there is no evidence that defendant placed any individual in immediate harm, requiring a response from Officer Freeny. As in Foster, "[defendant was] not operating a motor vehicle on WMATA property, and there was no indication that [he was] involved in criminal activity on or near any subway stations or bus stops." 566 F. Supp. at 1412. Thus, Officer Freeny had no jurisdiction to stop Mr. Simon's vehicle.*fn2

II. The Stop of Defendant's Vehicle Violated the Fourth Amendment

In Foster, this Court held that where an MTP officer makes an arrest outside his or her jurisdiction, the officer violates the arrested individual's Fourth Amendment rights. As stated by the Court, "the concept of reasonableness embodied in the Fourth Amendment logically presupposes an exercise of lawful authority by a police officer. When a law enforcement official acts beyond his or her jurisdiction, the resulting deprivation of liberty is just as unreasonable as an arrest without probable cause." Id. Objecting to Foster's conclusion, the government argues that, even if Officer Freeny lacked ...

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