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United States v. Larry Taylor

August 9, 2012


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CF2-23595-10) (Hon. Michael Ryan, Trial Judge)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fisher, Associate Judge:

Argued April 24, 2012

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, and FISHER and EASTERLY, Associate Judges.

The United States appeals from the trial court‟s order suppressing a handgun and ammunition discovered during a police search of a truck driven by appellee Larry Taylor. Concluding that the police did not have reason to believe that evidence of the offense of arrest would be discovered in the vehicle, see Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 343 (2009), we affirm.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

On December 17, 2010, on New York Avenue, appellee Larry Taylor rear-ended an SUV occupied by three Deputy United States Marshals.Deputy Mark Beard approached Mr. Taylor, who had already alighted from the pickup truck he had been driving, and asked for his insurance information.Appellee returned to his truck and searched "for a while" for his insurance card.He then handed his card to Deputy Beard, who noticed that it had expired.While they were talking, Mr. Taylor suddenly indicated that he had to use the bathroom and urinated on a nearby tree.Based on this behavior, as well as the smell of alcohol on Mr. Taylor‟s breath and his unusual swaying back and forth, Deputy Beard suspected that appellee had been drinking.One of the otherdeputies called the police.

Metropolitan Police Department Officers Jeffrey Weber and Gunther Hashida arrived on the scene shortly thereafter.After speaking with Mr. Taylor, Officer Weber concluded that he was intoxicated based on his slurred speech, his swaying from side to side, the odor of alcohol coming from his person, the way he fumbled with his wallet while searching for his driver‟s license, and his statement that he had consumed two beers at his sister‟s house about two hours earlier.Officer Weber then administered one of the standard field sobriety tests, which appellee failed.*fn1 A roadside breath test, to which appellee consented, indicated that his blood alcohol content was .161.The police arrested Mr. Taylor for driving under the influence, placed him in handcuffs, and walked him over to the patrol car for transport.

Following the arrest, Officer Hashida searched the passenger compartment of appellee‟s truck, looking for a current insurance card and evidence of alcohol consumption.During that search, Officer Hashida unlocked the glove box, where he found a loaded handgun.

A grand jury indicted Mr. Taylor for carrying a pistol without a license,*fn2 possession of an unregistered firearm,*fn3 and unlawful possession of ammunition.*fn4 Mr. Taylor moved to suppress the handgun and ammunition as the fruits of an unlawful search. At the suppression hearing on November 29, 2011, the government responded that the firearm and ammunition were admissible because they had been seized during a lawful search incident to arrest. The prosecutor relied upon Arizona v. Gant, which permits a search of the passenger compartment if it is "reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle." 556 U.S. at 343 (citation omitted).

According to the government, it was reasonable for the police to believe they would find evidence of drinking in the vehicle because, in this case, there were "more facts than just any DUI."In addition, Mr. Taylor had known that the police were on their way and had had the time and opportunity to hide evidence while he was searching for his insurance card.Based on his experience with "numerous DUI investigations," Officer Weber testified that "typically someone who is driving under the influence also has an open container of alcohol or multiple containers of alcohol in their vehicle."In other cases,he had found alcohol "in the glove box, underneath seats . . . [and] in the map compartments along side the doors." At the end of the testimony, the government argued that "when you have a person who is visibly intoxicated driving a car," it is reasonable to believe "that there may be evidence of that intoxication . . . in the car somewhere."

On December 5, 2011, the trial court granted appellee‟s motion to suppress. Although the court found the officers‟ testimony "credible" and sufficient "to provide probable cause for the arrest for DUI,"it held that the evidence was insufficient to establish a reasonable belief "that there may have been evidence of the crime of Driving Under the Influence in the vehicle at the time of the search." Describing the government‟s evidence as going to "the nature of the crime itself,"the court concluded that allowing searches based on this kind of generalized evidence, including officer testimony about the presence of open containers in other cases, would result in a per se rule in which arrests for certain offenses would automatically provide the police with authority to conduct a vehicle search.Rejecting this approach, the court ruled that, to pass muster under Gant, a search must be based on "articulable facts leading to a reasonable belief that evidence of the crime of arrest may be in the car in the specific case."The court then held that the government had failed to meet this burden.This appeal by the government followed. See D.C. Code § 23-104 (a)(1) (2001) (government right to appeal a pre-trial order suppressing evidence).

II. Analysis

A.Legal Principles and Standard of Review

The trial court‟s interpretation of Gant‟s "reasonable to believe" standard, and its further determination that that standard was not met, are conclusions of law which this court reviews de novo. Joseph v. United States, 926 A.2d 1156, 1160 (D.C. 2007) ("The court‟s legal conclusions on Fourth Amendment issues . . . are "subject to de novo review.‟" (quoting Brown v. United States, 590 A.2d 1008, 1020 (D.C. 1991))). When conducting our review, however, "[w]e must defer to the court‟s findings of ...

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