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United States v. Lawson

United States District Court, D. Kansas

July 14, 2017




         This matter came before the court on June 21, 2017, for an evidentiary hearing on the defendant's motions to suppress evidence (Dkts. 18, 19). The court took the motions under advisement at the conclusion of the hearing.

         I. Facts

         The court finds the following facts from the evidence presented. At around 10:45 p.m. on September 17, 2016, Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper James McCord was on duty traveling east bound on I-70 in Ellis County, Kansas. McCord saw a car traveling in the same direction a short distance ahead of him in the right-hand (non-passing) lane. McCord saw the car's passenger side cross over the right “fog line, ” the boundary marker for the right lane. As McCord continued to draw closer, he saw the car again drift toward the shoulder, with its passenger side tires traveling on top of the fog line.

         McCord believed the driver had violated K.S.A. § 8-1522(a), which requires that a vehicle “be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from such lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety.” As the trooper conceded at the hearing, a video recording of the incident from his patrol car does not clearly show a violation. That is due largely to the poor quality of the video as compared to what McCord could see in person. The court finds credible the officer's testimony that the car crossed over the line and subsequently straddled it. That testimony was partially corroborated by the video, which showed that at times the defendant's car was a significant distance from the center lane line and was on or near the right fog line. (It was also corroborated by defendant's statements captured on video, in which he indicated his weaving was due to a belief that the patrol car coming up behind him was a drunk driver.)

         McCord turned on his emergency lights and stopped the car, a Ford Fiesta, which was driven by defendant James Lawson. Lawson was the sole occupant. McCord approached, explained the reason for the stop, and asked for defendant's driver's license and proof of insurance. Defendant indicated the car had been rented by his daughter and produced a rental agreement in her name. He told the trooper he had an identification card and produced it. The card was from Wisconsin, although defendant said he now lived in Kentucky. The trooper asked defendant about his travel. In response to the trooper's questions, defendant said he was coming back from a couple of days in Las Vegas. McCord asked if he had a valid license; defendant said no. Defendant indicated his license had been suspended for failure to pay child support “in the nineties.” McCord informed defendant he might be arrested for driving on a suspended license. McCord returned to his patrol car to run a check on defendant's identification and license.

         The dispatcher informed McCord that defendant's Wisconsin driver's license had expired in 1988. McCord returned to the Fiesta, had defendant step out, and informed him he was being placed under arrest. McCord handcuffed defendant and placed him in the front seat of the patrol car. He told defendant the Fiesta would be towed and that he would have to inventory its contents. At the suppression hearing, McCord testified that the Kansas Highway Patrol has a policy of towing vehicles off the interstate in circumstances like these, where the driver is arrested, and the policy requires taking an inventory of the vehicle's contents. McCord proceeded to look through the car. In a laundry bag in the trunk, he found two packages of marijuana totaling about two pounds.

         McCord returned to the patrol car, told defendant he was also being arrested for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, and informed defendant of his rights pursuant to Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), including the right to remain silent and the right not to answer questions, which he could exercise at any time.[1] When asked if he understood these rights, defendant said, “Yeah.” McCord then asked defendant about his travel, noting a receipt from the car indicated he had been in Utah. Defendant confirmed he had been to Utah and said he went from there to Las Vegas. When McCord said, “Oh, you went to Vegas?” defendant responded, “Yep, that's all I'm saying.” McCord said “Okay” and stopped asking questions. After a delay of about ten seconds, defendant said, “I really … thought you were a drunk driver because you were coming up so fast.” In response, McCord said he saw defendant's car go over the fog line before he got close. Defendant asked if he could smoke a cigarette, since he was going to jail, but McCord said he couldn't allow it.

         McCord returned to defendant's car, taking photos of items in the trunk before retrieving them. Inside a small bag in the trunk, McCord found a zip lock bag containing what appeared to be methamphetamine. McCord put the bag in his patrol car, telling defendant as he did so, “You also got about a pound and a half of meth in there.” Defendant denied knowledge of it. McCord told him he was going to jail for that item as well, challenging defendant's lack of knowledge, saying the meth was right next to defendant's other stuff. Defendant again denied knowledge, indicating someone else had put the “weed” in the trunk and had not told him anything about methamphetamine. McCord told defendant he would likely be federally indicted on the meth. Defendant said “I know” and “all right.” McCord returned to defendant's car and searched through the passenger compartment, taking photos as he did so.

         When McCord returned to the patrol car, defendant volunteered that he didn't know the methamphetamine was there. McCord received a phone call from Doug Carr, a trooper assigned to the DEA task force. McCord recounted the incriminating circumstances of the stop over the phone in defendant's presence. In the course of that conversation, McCord said, “Naw, he doesn't want to talk, ” adding that defendant knew about the weed in the trunk but not the meth. When McCord mentioned during the call that defendant had not had a license since about 1987, defendant jokingly added that “Reagan was the last President.” After the call concluded, defendant again initiated conversation, asking McCord whether he had gotten his stuff out of the trunk, including his cigarettes. Defendant later asked McCord whether he could write down his daughter's contact information from his phone. After some additional conversation, McCord asked defendant if he wanted to help himself out. After defendant asked how, the two engaged in an extended conversation of the circumstances and what might happen, including the possibility of doing a controlled delivery. Defendant made a number of incriminating statements in response to questions from the trooper.

         Defendant's car was towed to Troop D Headquarters in Hays. McCord followed along behind with defendant. At the headquarters, defendant spoke with TFO Carr by telephone, with McCord present as well. Carr asked defendant if he had been informed of his Miranda rights. Defendant said he had. Carr then asked if defendant wanted to talk, and defendant said he did. Defendant spoke to Carr for about twenty minutes.

         II. Discussion

         1. Traffic stop.

         Defendant contends the initial traffic stop was unconstitutional. Dkt. 18 at 3. “Whether a traffic stop is valid under the Fourth Amendment turns on whether this particular officer had reasonable suspicion that this particular motorist violated any of the multitude of applicable traffic and equipment regulations of the jurisdiction.” United States v. Hunter, 663 F.3d 1136, 1142 (10th Cir. 2011) (citation and punctuation omitted). The court finds that the trooper had reasonable suspicion to believe defendant had violated K.S.A. ยง 8-1522(a) by crossing over the fog line of the highway. The court finds the officer's testimony credible that he saw the defendant's car cross over the fog line. The evidence showed there were no obstacles or other conditions that would have made it impracticable for defendant to maintain his lane. The evidence also ...

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