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United States v. Williams

United States District Court, D. Vermont

February 3, 2014



CHRISTINA REISS, Chief District Judge.

This matter came before the court on December 10, 2013 for an evidentiary hearing on Defendant Christopher Williams's motion to suppress. (Doc. 17.) The parties completed post-hearing briefing on January 9, 2014, at which point the court took the matter under advisement.

Defendant is charged in a one count indictment with knowingly and intentionally distributing heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). Defendant seeks suppression of all evidence discovered after police seized and searched his cell phones following a traffic stop of a vehicle in which Defendant was a passenger. Defendant argues that the evidence is the fruit of an unconstitutional traffic stop, and that even if the traffic stop, and his ensuing arrest were lawful, the warrantless search of his cell phones was not permissible under any exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement.

The government opposes the motion, contending that the vehicle was properly stopped for a motor vehicle violation, and, assuming arguendo that the traffic stop was unlawful, Defendant committed a distinct crime subsequent to the stop that justified his continued detention. The government further contends that Defendant consented to a subsequent search of his cell phones, with the advice of his counsel, thus purging the evidence of any potential taint.

Defendant also seeks to suppress inculpatory statements he made while in custody awaiting the execution of a search warrant, arguing that they were the result of custodial interrogation without the benefit of Miranda warnings. As the government does not intend to use the challenged statements against Defendant in its case-in-chief, this portion of Defendant's suppression motion is moot.

The government is represented by Assistant United States Attorney ("AUSA") Michael P. Drescher. Defendant is represented by Lisa B. Shelkrot, Esq.

I. Findings of Fact.

On the afternoon of February 7, 2013, Vermont State Police ("VSP") Trooper Michael Studin was travelling northbound on Interstate 91("I-91") in Vermont when he stopped a motorist for an alleged violation of 23 V.S.A. § 1038, which requires that vehicles remain entirely in a single lane "as nearly as practicable." In the location of the traffic stop, 1-91 is a two-laned highway which is separated from two lanes of southbound traffic by a large median. There was light traffic on the day in question and the weather and pavement were clear.

Trooper Studin was driving in the passing lane when he approached a vehicle with out-of-state plates which he recognized as a rental car by the placard in its rear window and because the make and model of the vehicle were typical for a rental car. He observed the vehicle "coming close to the dotted center line, " (Tr. 12/10/13 ("Tr.") at 8), and maneuvered his cruiser behind the vehicle. Shortly thereafter, he purportedly observed the vehicle cross the passing lane demarcation and initiated a traffic stop on that basis. At the time, there was no other traffic with which the target vehicle could potentially collide.

The government introduced into evidence a screen shot of the alleged violation taken from the cruiser's dashboard video camera which depicts the target vehicle's left, driver's side wheels touching the passing lane demarcation.[1] Trooper Studin conceded that merely touching a line is not a motor vehicle violation. (Tr. at 32.) Although he testified that the target vehicle "weaved out of the lane and then proceeded to travel back into the same lane, " (Tr. at 11), the cruiser's camera depicts no erratic driving by the vehicle prior to the stop.[2]

After effecting the stop, Trooper Studin exited his cruiser, approached the passenger side of the vehicle, and observed that the vehicle was occupied by two males. Defendant was the passenger and was seated in the front of the vehicle with the driver, Trooper Studin asked the driver for his identification and asked to whom the vehicle was registered. The driver provided a New York driver's license and advised the vehicle was rented by his passenger's girlfriend. During this initial exchange, Trooper Studin noticed "an overwhelming odor of burnt marijuana coming from the car" and observed "flakes of marijuana" on the Defendant's clothing and on the floor. (Tr. at 12.) Trooper Studin asked whether they had been smoking marijuana in the car, and the Defendant stated that they had "rolled a blunt" and smoked it as they were traveling north. Trooper Studin asked about the purpose of their trip. In response, Defendant explained that he was confined to a wheelchair and that they were traveling to Saint Albans, Vermont to retrieve a wheelchair for his use. Trooper Studin asked for identification from the Defendant, who denied having photo identification but stated that his name was "Christian Wilson." Trooper Studin then explained to the men that he stopped the vehicle because it had "drifted into the other lane." (Gov't Ex. 2 (cruiser videotape)). The driver explained that he was considering changing lanes but decided not to.

Following this exchange, Trooper Studin ordered the driver out of the vehicle. The driver consented to a search of his person and was then placed in the front seat of the cruiser. In response to questions, the driver advised that he and his passenger were from New York and reiterated that the purpose of the trip was a brief stop to pick up a wheelchair. The driver further advised that the marijuana belonged to Defendant. Trooper Studin then asked for the driver's consent to search the vehicle. The driver consented to the search, but stated that Trooper Studin should request the Defendant's consent as well because the Defendant's girlfriend had rented it.

VSP Sergeant Eric Albright arrived to assist with the traffic stop. After Trooper Studin advised him of the situation and provided a physical description of the two men, Sergeant Albright stated he had received an email describing an individual "from the New York City area that was traveling to the St. Albans area who was confined to a wheelchair." (Tr. at 23.) He retrieved the email, which provided a physical description that matched the passenger and identified the person as Christopher Williams. As a result of these facts, Trooper Studin determined that the passenger had provided a false name and was actually the Defendant.

At approximately 4:15 p.m., Trooper Studin went back to the vehicle and obtained Defendant's written consent for a search of the vehicle. Defendant signed the consent form as "Christian Wilson" and stated that the marijuana belonged to the driver. Trooper Studin helped Defendant to exit and instructed him to leave his cell phone in the vehicle. Thereafter, law enforcement searched the vehicle's interior and discovered three cell phones: two iPhones and a flip phone. Defendant claimed ownership of all three phones and did not consent to a search of them at that time.

After law enforcement completed its search of the vehicle, Trooper Studin confronted Defendant with the information obtained from the email and Defendant admitted his true identity. The driver was given a written warning for violating 23 V.S.A. § 1038. Defendant and the driver were subsequently detained and transported to VSP's Brattleboro barracks.

At the barracks, Defendant was searched and law enforcement discovered marijuana on his person. Trooper Studin processed Defendant's cell phones and observed multiple incriminating text messages stored therein. Trooper Studin reported that he did not manipulate the cell phones in order to access the messages as they were "clearly visible on the screen.. without having to do anything to them." (Tr. at 27.) This was a result of a notification system built into the iPhones that automatically displays missed calls and text messages on the main screen even when the phone is password protected and locked. Trooper Studin testified that the iPhone screens should have been dark because they had not been in use for an extended period of time and he was unsure how the screens became illuminated such that the messages were visible. As for the flip phone, Trooper Studin opened the phone to determine whether it was on, at which point he observed additional messages. Trooper Studin did not take photographs of the text messages, but took notes and incorporated them into his report.

Law enforcement contacted Detective Matthew Plunkett with the Northern Vermont Drug Task Force who reported that he had conducted a controlled purchase of heroin from Defendant approximately nine months prior to the traffic stop as part of a federal investigation. Thereafter, a decision was made to charge Defendant for the prior sale of heroin. ...

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