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United States v. Springfield

United States District Court, D. Vermont

November 18, 2014




In February 2014, a Vermont State Police trooper stopped the vehicle in which defendant Terrell Springfield was traveling on Interstate 91 for driving in the left lane without passing another vehicle. Based on information gathered during and after the stop, police obtained a warrant to search the vehicle. The search yielded 1000 bags of heroin as well as other contraband. Springfield-a passenger-and the owner of the vehicle, Victoria Keithan, were subsequently indicted for conspiracy to distribute heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. ยงยง 841(a)(1) and 846.

Springfield filed a motion seeking to suppress the evidence gathered during the search on the grounds that the vehicle was unlawfully stopped and the officers had no legal basis to continue to investigate the vehicle or its occupants following the stop. (Doc. 34.) The court conducted a hearing on Springfield's motion on October 28, 2014. In his original motion to suppress, Springfield also requested a Franks hearing, alleging that the arresting officers made false statements in their search warrant affidavits. Springfield has since withdrawn that request, as well as the portion of his motion to suppress that relates to the search of his vehicle and his detention. (Doc. 48.) The sole remaining issue is the constitutionality of the traffic stop. (Id.)

I. Factual Background

The following facts are drawn from testimony and evidence admitted at the suppression hearing as well as police affidavits.

On February 25, 2014, at about 10:30 a.m., Trooper Dan Bennett of the Vermont State Police was parked in his cruiser in the median between the north- and southbound lanes of Interstate 91 just south of Exit 3, close to mile marker 11.2. His cruiser was facing the northbound lane. He testified that he was engaged in motor vehicle enforcement, and was not on the lookout for any particular vehicle.

Video footage from Bennett's cruiser camera was admitted into evidence at the suppression hearing. The first forty seconds of the video shows a split screen, with the top half showing the view from a camera mounted inside the cruiser and pointed towards Bennett, and the bottom half showing the view forward from the front of the cruiser.

In the video, three cars traveling northbound in the right lane pass by the cruiser at timecodes 0:07, 0:08, and 0:09, followed by a car in the left lane at 0:10, a dark-colored pickup truck in the right lane at 0:12, and a light-colored car in the left lane at 0:13. At 0:14, the black Ford Explorer in which defendant Terrell Springfield is traveling passes by in the left lane. Bennett turns his head to his left, or northward, and looks in that direction for about ten seconds. Bennett testified that during that time, he was watching the Explorer as it continued to travel in the passing lane without passing any vehicles. He testified that he stops vehicles one to two times per week for driving in the left lane without passing. He typically issues a warning rather than a ticket.

Twenty-four seconds into the video, a tractor-trailer marked with the insignia of Cabot Creamery passes by the cruiser in the right lane. Bennett pulls onto the left lane of the highway at 0:32, and shortly afterward switches off his internal camera so that only the view from the front of the cruiser can be seen. Springfield's Explorer is not visible in the video at this point, although the Cabot tractor-trailer can be seen ahead in the distance. Bennett passes the Cabot tractor-trailer at 1:01 and pulls into the right lane behind the Explorer at 1:36. Both vehicles come to a stop on the right shoulder of the highway at 1:55, next to mile marker 12.8. From the time that Bennett starts his cruiser until he pulls over the Explorer, no vehicles other than the Cabot tractor-trailer are visible on the northbound side of the highway. It is undisputed that the Explorer had already passed the tractor-trailer when Bennett first saw it, and that the Explorer remained ahead of the tractor-trailer and was in the right lane when Bennett pulled it over.

In his affidavit in support of the search warrant, Trooper Bennett stated that he stopped defendant's vehicle for driving in the left lane without passing:

I observed that [defendant's] vehicle was not passing any vehicles and that there were no vehicles in the primary lane for the vehicle to pass. I further observed the Explorer to continue traveling in the passing lane without having a vehicle to pass for approximately one mile. Placards indicating that vehicles must stay to the right, except when to pass, are posed throughout Interstate 91. This is a violation of Title 23 VSA Section 1004(a). (Doc. 34-1 at 2.)

After watching the video at the suppression hearing, Trooper Bennett stated that his affidavit was inaccurate and the Explorer was in the passing lane for "maybe half a mile."

Upon stopping the Explorer, which had Vermont license plates, Trooper Bennett approached the passenger side of the vehicle. He requested identification and informed Springfield and the driver of the vehicle, Jonathan Luna, that he had pulled them over for travelling in the passing lane.[1] Springfield's New York identification card and Luna's New York driver's license stated that both men were from New York City. (Id.) Both men are African American. (Doc. 47 at 7.)

While speaking to Springfield and Luna, Bennett observed a strong odor of burnt marijuana emanating from the vehicle. (Doc. 34-1 at 2.) He asked the occupants how much marijuana they had smoked. Springfield said that he had smoked marijuana prior to their trip. While speaking to Luna and Springfield, Bennett also observed several air fresheners, "blunt guts" and a plastic bag that appeared to contain a white substance under the front seat, and what appeared to be bits of marijuana in the rear passenger seat foot well.[2] ( Id. ) Bennett ordered Luna out of the Explorer and spoke to him in the front seat of the police cruiser. Luna stated that he had known Springfield for seven years, but did not know his real name. He told Bennett that the Explorer belonged to a friend of Springfield's and that Springfield had borrowed the vehicle so that Luna could visit family in New ...

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