United States District Court, District of Columbia
ROSEMARY M. COLLYER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.” 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. 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.”).
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
the hearing on Defendant's motion, the parties asked for,
and received, time to further brief the issues.
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).
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”).
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 ...