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United States v. Murray

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division, Dayton

June 8, 2017




         Under a two count Indictment, Defendants Elstarheem Murray (“Elstarheem”) and Born Murray (“Born”) were charged with conspiracy to possess stolen mail and commit bank fraud as well as possession of stolen mail. (Doc. 12). Under Count 1, both Defendants are alleged to have engaged in a conspiracy to remove business checks from the United States mail, alter the business names on the checks, and attempt to present the checks to banking institutions in Dayton, Ohio, in order to fraudulently obtain cash in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 37 and 1349. Under Count 2, both Defendants are alleged to have knowingly possessed stolen United States mail taken or abstracted from letter boxes in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1708 and 2. This matter is set for trial on June 26, 2017.

         Now pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Suppress. (Docs. 21). Defendants argue that the allegedly stolen checks were discovered during an unconstitutional, pretextual traffic stop. In opposition, the Government argues that the law enforcement officers who conducted the traffic stop did not violate Defendants' rights under the Fourth Amendment.

         On March 21, 2017, the Court held a hearing on the Motion to Suppress. (Doc. 26.) After the hearing, Defendants submitted post-hearing memoranda (Docs. 29-30), in response to which the Government filed a memorandum in opposition (Doc. 31). Defendants each filed a reply (Docs. 33-34) to the Government's memorandum. The Court has reviewed the parties' briefing and the Motion is ripe for review. For the reasons stated below, the Court DENIES the Motion to Suppress.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         On November 29, 2016, law enforcement officers working with the Miami Valley Bulk Smuggling Task Force (“Task Force”) observed Elstarheem and Born get into a car and leave a motel on Miller Lane in Dayton, Ohio. Task Force agents followed the car and observed Elstarheem, who was driving, execute an illegal lane change. Based on this violation, the Task Force agents called Ohio State Patrol Trooper Joseph Weeks (“Weeks”) via radio and requested that he initiate a traffic stop. Both the Task Force agents and Weeks admit that the purpose of the traffic stop was to conduct an investigation into possible criminal activity.

         After stopping Defendants' car on Interstate 75, Weeks conducted NCIC and LEADS records checks on both Defendants. The records checks revealed that Elstarheem had a conviction involving narcotics and was not licensed to drive, and that Born had a conviction for check fraud. Defendants told Weeks that they were seeking medical attention for Born. Weeks did not issue a traffic citation and allowed Defendants to continue traveling after Born, who was licensed, agreed to drive.

         Shortly after this traffic stop, Task Force agents observed Defendants again at the same motel on Miller Lane. Defendants placed luggage into two different cars and then left the motel together in one of the cars. The other car left the motel traveling in the opposite direction. Task Force agents followed Defendants' car and observed it make a right turn on red without coming to a complete stop. The agents radioed Weeks to conduct another traffic stop, which he did. Again, both the Task Force agents and Weeks admit that the purpose of the traffic stop was to conduct a criminal investigation.

         When Weeks reached the car, he asked Born, who was the driver, to come with him to his police cruiser. Weeks told Elstarheem to remain seated and to keep his hands on the dashboard. While Weeks walked with Born to the police cruiser, Elstarheem fled from the car. Weeks gave chase, told Elstarheem to stop, and warned him that he was armed with a Taser. Elstarheem heeded the command to stop and Weeks secured each of the Defendants in a police cruiser- after additional officers arrived to support him. Weeks then deployed Ryo, a canine trained in the detection of narcotics, to conduct an open-air sniff test around Defendants' car. Ryo alerted to the trunk of the vehicle indicating that he detected the smell of narcotics in that area. Based on Ryo's alert, Task Force Officers conducted a search of the trunk compartment and found an envelope containing 150 business checks. The Officers seized the checks, which are the primary evidence at issue in this Motion.


         The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the rights of individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures conducted by state actors. United States v. Ganias, 755 F.3d 125, 133 (6th Cir. 2014). A search occurs when the Government acquires information by either “physically intruding on persons, houses, papers, or effects” or otherwise invading an area in which the individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Id. (citing Florida v. Jardines, 133 S.Ct. 1409, 1414 (2013)). “A seizure occurs when the Government interferes in some meaningful way with the individual's possession of property.” Id. (citing United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 n.5 (2012)). The party seeking suppression of evidence obtained by a search has the burden of proving that the search was unlawful. United States v. Blakeney, 942 F.2d 1001, 1014 (6th Cir. 1991).

         A traffic stop involves a seizure in terms of the Fourth Amendment. Bendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249, 255 (2007). The Sixth Circuit applies a probable cause standard to traffic stops executed to investigate a civil infraction. United States v. Lyons, 687 F.3d 754, 763 (6th Cir. 2012). The Sixth Circuit defines probable cause as “reasonable grounds for belief, supported by less than prima facie proof but more than mere suspicion” and it has determined it exists when “there is a fair probability, given the totality of the circumstances, that” an offense has occurred or evidence will be found. United States v. Howard, 621 F.3d 43, 453 (6th Cir. 2010). The reasonableness of a traffic stop does not depend on the motivations of an officer and so long as an officer has probable cause to believe a traffic violation has occurred a resulting stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 812-13 (1996); United States v. Ferguson, 8 F.3d 385, 391 (6th Cir. 1993).

         The “collective knowledge” doctrine allows an officer to conduct a traffic stop pursuant to information obtained by a fellow officer. United States v. Lyons, 687 F.3d at 766-67. The Sixth Circuit has stated that the “collective knowledge” doctrine applies when an officer effectuates a stop at the direction of another officer who possesses the requisite knowledge to render the stop Constitutionally allowable. Id. at 767. The court utilizes a three factor test to determine if a stop is allowable under the “collective knowledge” doctrine and those factors are: (1) the officer taking action must act in objective reliance based on the information received, (2) the officer providing the information must have facts that support the probable cause required, and (3) the stop can be no more intrusive than would have been allowed had the requesting officer been the one to conduct it. Id.

         The Fourth Amendment allows officers to investigate crimes not related to the reason for a traffic stop so long as the investigation does not exceed the time reasonably required to issue a traffic citation. Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609, 1614-15 (2015). The Supreme Court has been clear in stating “[a]n officer, in other ...

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