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United States v. Belton

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 15, 2019




         During a routine traffic stop, a veteran police officer observed the end of a knotted plastic bag sticking out of the groin area of the driver's pants. The officer immediately believed that the plastic bag contained drugs. The question is whether the totality of circumstances provided probable cause to arrest the driver and conduct a search incident to arrest. The government argues yes; the defense vehemently disagrees. Defendant moves to suppress both the drugs and money found on the driver and the handgun and ammunition recovered from the center console in a search of the vehicle.

         I. FACTS

         On July 4, 2018, shortly after 7:00 pm, Lorenzo Belton was driving a Toyota Avalon when he was observed by Officers Joseph, Ledesma, Murrell, and Green of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to accelerate suddenly on Parkwood Road N.W., D.C. Tr. 69.[1] The officers' attention was drawn by the sudden burst of speed, but they also noted very dark-tinted windows on the Avalon and followed it in a marked police car. Id. After a few blocks, the officers pulled over the Avalon without incident. Tr. 25-26. Officers Joseph and Ledesma were outfitted with body-worn cameras, which captured audio and video recordings of the subsequent traffic stop.[2]

         Officer Joseph approached the driver's side window and spoke with the driver, a man later identified as Lorenzo Belton. MHV-1A at 23:14:04-08.[3] None of the officers knew Mr. Belton or his passenger, Ivan Taylor. Tr. 77-78. Officer Joseph explained to the occupants that they had been pulled over because of the vehicle's window tint and that Mr. Belton was driving “pretty quick.” MHV-1A at 23:14:14-14:23; see also Tr. 21. Upon request, Mr. Belton handed his license and registration to Officer Joseph, stating that he did not have proof of insurance in the vehicle. MHV-1A at 23:14:23-37. Standing outside the driver's window and looking down at Mr. Belton, Officer Joseph saw plastic protruding from the waistband of Mr. Belton's pants, consistent with “the end of [a] sandwich bag.” Tr. 28.[4] The plastic was “coming from his waist under his, like I guess his belly button, ” Tr. 28, with the “top portion crumpled. Kind of knotted I guess.”[5] Id. Because he could see only a few inches of the plastic bag, the officer could not see what, if anything, it contained. Tr. 31.[6] It was not protruding from pant pockets but from the center of Mr. Belton's waistband. Id. Based on his training, and his patrol experience in the same neighborhood in prior years, Officer Joseph immediately thought that Mr. Belton had a plastic bag containing drugs hidden in his groin area. Tr. 31 (“I immediately thought it was drugs.”).

         After briefly looking at Mr. Belton's identification, Officer Joseph asked him to step out of the vehicle, so he could not drive away. MHV-1A at 23:14:37-40; Tr. 33. Opening the driver's door, Officer Joseph said, “You're not in any trouble right now.” Id. Mr. Belton asked why he needed to get out of the car and Officer Joseph responded, “Because I asked you to. Could you just step out?” MHV-1A at 23:14:40-44. Mr. Belton did so and Officer Joseph reached for and held Mr. Belton's right wrist with his left hand. MHV-2A at 23:14:52. The officer then asked, “What's in your pants? I can see you stuffed something in your pants, ” as he immediately placed his right hand on Mr. Belton's stomach and waistband. MHV-1A/MHV-2A at 23:14:50-57. Mr. Belton answered, “I didn't stuff anything.” MHV-1A/MHV-2A at 23:14:54-55. Officer Joseph said, “I can see the bag right here. What is that?” MHV-1A/MHV-2A at 23:14:55-57. Mr. Belton said, “See what bag?” MHV-1A/MHV-2A at 23:14:55-56. Officer Joseph responded, “This bag right here. What is that?” MHV-1A/MHV2-A at 23:14:57-58. During this exchange, Officer Joseph “pushed back” Mr. Belton's stomach and “grabbed the plastic, ” removing a plastic bag from Mr. Belton's waistband. Tr. 41. He then said, “Oh, yeah. Cuff him, ” MHV-1A/MHV-2A at 23:15:04-05, and Mr. Belton was placed in handcuffs. Officer Joseph acknowledged that he began to touch Mr. Belton's body before Mr. Belton responded to his first question. Tr. 41.

         The plastic bag removed from Mr. Belton's person contained three separate bags: one with seven small zips of a white powder substance that field-tested positive for cocaine; one with 18 plastic twists of a rock-like substance that field-tested positive for cocaine (suspected crack); and one that contained 11 zips of a brown powder substance that field-tested positive for heroin. Gov't's Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. to Suppress Tangible Evidence (Gov't's Opp'n) [Dkt. 7] at 4 n.5. A subsequent search of the Avalon revealed a 9mm semi-automatic handgun loaded with 25 rounds of ammunition in the center console of the vehicle.[7] Id. at 4 n.6; Tr. 43; Gov't's Suppl. Exs. 4-5. Approximately $947 in currency was also found on Mr. Belton's person. Gov't's Opp'n at 4 n.6. When Mr. Belton indicated that the items in the Avalon were his, Mr. Taylor, his passenger, was released. Id.

         At the motions hearing on this matter, Officer Joseph testified that in his decade of experience drug dealers “usually” keep their “stash” in “[t]heir privates. Some in the front, some keep it in the back, and under their testicles.” Tr. 31-32. He also testified, based on his training and experience, that drug dealers “commonly” use “plastic, plastic bags, plastic sandwich bags, ” to hold their drugs. Id. at 32.

         Mr. Belton now moves to suppress the drugs, the gun, the ammunition, and the money, arguing that his arrest was not supported by probable cause and the evidence resulting from the search incident to that arrest was recovered through an unlawful search. The government opposes.[8]

         Following the hearing on Defendant's motion, the parties asked for, and received, time to further brief the issues.[9]


         The Fourth Amendment, made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961), states that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. The effect of the Fourth Amendment is that warrantless searches and seizures are presumed unreasonable and law enforcement officers must usually obtain a judicial warrant before searching a person or a person's property for evidence of criminal wrongdoing. See Riley v. California, 134 S.Ct. 2473, 2482 (2014); see also Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 370 (2003) (explaining that probable cause protects “citizens from rash and unreasonable interferences with privacy and from unfounded charges of crime, ” while giving “fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community's protection”) (citation omitted); see also United States v. Wills, 316 F.Supp.3d 437, 444 (D.D.C. 2018).

         However, a warrantless arrest of an individual in a public place for a felony, or a misdemeanor committed in the officer's presence, is consistent with the Fourth Amendment if the arrest is supported by probable cause. United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411, 421-24 (1976). If there is probable cause for an arrest, the arresting officer can conduct a full search of the arrestee's person. United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 224-25 (1973) (“It is well settled that a search incident to a lawful arrest is a traditional exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment.”); see also United States v. Short, 570 F.2d 1051, 1054-56 (D.C. Cir. 1978) (noting that “what the officer carried on was the kind of full search that depends on the justification of an arrest”).

         Where a warrantless arrest is not supported by probable cause, the evidence resulting from a search incident to that arrest is subject to suppression. Though the text of the Fourth Amendment does not explicitly provide for the suppression of evidence, the “exclusionary rule” has developed to give force to the prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. See Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229, 236 (2011). The exclusionary rule bars the prosecution from introducing evidence obtained through a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 231; see also Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 485 (1963) (“The exclusionary rule has traditionally barred from trial physical, tangible materials obtained either during or as a direct result of an unlawful invasion.”). Its purpose is to “compel respect for the constitutional guaranty” by deterring future Fourth ...

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