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United States v. Nichols

United States District Court, D. Kansas

January 22, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
BRUCE MAYO NICHOLS, II 01, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Daniel D. Crabtree United States District Judge

         This matter comes before the court on defendant Bruce Mayo Nichols, II's Motion to Suppress (Doc. 17). In his motion, Mr. Nichols asserts that law enforcement officers violated his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. He asserts that Topeka Police officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights by unlawfully seizing him during a traffic stop and then, searching him and the truck he was driving. He also asserts that officers violated his Fifth Amendment rights by eliciting incriminating statements from him without first informing him of his Miranda[1] rights. Mr. Nichols's motion thus seeks to suppress any evidence derived from the unlawful seizure and searches. The motion also seeks to suppress evidence of any incriminating statements Mr. Nichols made before law enforcement officers informed him of his Miranda rights. The court took this motion under advisement after a hearing on November 17, 2017. For reasons explained below, the court now denies the request to suppress evidence derived from the seizure and searches, but grants the request to suppress evidence of incriminating statements.

         I. Background [2]

         In the late afternoon, on November 29, 2016, three members of the Topeka Police Department Bicycle Unit-Officer James Schneider, Officer Justin Long, and Sergeant Jayme Green-were stationed behind a hedgerow at the entrance to the strip mall at the corner of 17th and Washburn Streets in Topeka, Kansas. While positioned there, Officer Schneider saw the driver of a red Chevrolet pickup truck with a bed topper driving without a seatbelt. He also saw that the truck had expired registration. Tr. of Nov.17, 2017 Mot. Hr'g at 51 [hereinafter Tr. of Hr'g]. He informed Officer Long and Sergeant Green of his observation, and the officers initiated a traffic stop. Id. at 9-10. The three officers pedaled after the red truck and caught it as the truck parked. As Officer Long reached the driver's-side door, the driver-who they soon learned was Mr. Nichols, the defendant here-started to get out of the truck. Officer Schneider reached the passenger's-side door of the truck a moment or two later. And almost immediately, he came around the truck to assist Officer Long at the driver's-side door. Sergeant Green arrived as Officer Schneider walked around the truck to assist Officer Long.

         There was some confusion as the officers' interaction with Mr. Nichols began because Mr. Nichols already had started to leave the vehicle when Officer Long arrived. So Officer Long ordered him back in the vehicle. Officer Long's body camera captured a situation that was unclear for several moments. Ex. 1 (video identified on Ex. 1 as Long #1.mp4 at 00:30-00:39). It appeared that Mr. Nichols was unsure whether Officer Long wanted him to get back into the truck or remain outside it. Id. Officer Long testified that he viewed Mr. Nichols's conduct as non-compliant so he handcuffed him. Tr. of Hr'g at 16-17. Nine seconds passed between Officer Long's order for Mr. Nichols to get back into the truck and Officer Long handcuffing him.

         At that point, Mr. Nichols began asking why he was being handcuff. Officers Long and Schneider responded nearly simultaneously: “Because you don't want to listen, ”[3] and “Because you were getting out of your car when we wanted to talk to you.”[4] Ex. 1 (Long #1.mp4 at 00:39-00:46). Then they began to search Mr. Nichols. And they quickly determined he did not have identification on him. During this period, Mr. Nichols asked the officers to close the truck's door on the driver's side 10 times. They refused. While Officers Long and Schneider searched Mr. Nichols, two more officers from the bicycle unit-Officers Jones and Ralston- arrived. Five officers were now on-scene. When Officers Long and Schneider finished searching Mr. Nichols, Officer Long directed him to sit on the curb next to his truck.

         While Mr. Nichols sat on the curb, Officer Jones stood over him as Officer Schneider asked him his name. Later, after Mr. Nichols said and spelled his name several times, Officer Schneider finally recorded “Bruce Mayo Nichols, II.” While Officer Schneider was trying to get Mr. Nichols to supply his name, Sergeant Green picked up Mr. Nichols's keys[5] and opened a container attached to the keys. Ex. 1 (J. Green #2.mp4 at 02:30-03:05). Sergeant Green testified that the container smelled like marijuana. Tr. of Hr'g at 103-04. And he saw crumbs of green, leafy vegetation inside it. Id. Sergeant Green handed the container to Officer Long, and he testified that he smelled marijuana also. Tr. of Hr'g at 22.

         Once Officer Long smelled the container, he walked over to Mr. Nichols and asked him: “Is there any weapons in the car I need to be concerned about? For my safety is there any weapons I need to know about?” Ex. 1 (Long #1.mp4 at 03:27-03:40). Mr. Nichols did not respond. Meanwhile, Sergeant Green started searching the truck. And Officer Long began to search as well. During their search of the truck, officers testified, they found two loaded guns, drugs, and drug paraphernalia. Tr. of Hr'g at 24.

         While Sergeant Green and Officer Long searched the truck, Officer Jones began asking Mr. Nichols more questions. First, he asked: “Bruce, it's just an expired tag, man. What is there to be upset about?” Then, he asked who the truck belonged to and whether Mr. Nichols was on probation or parole. Mr. Nichols responded that he was on probation, but he was going to go back. Officer Long then asked, “What do you think you're going back for?” When Mr. Nichols explained that he was around things he wasn't supposed to be, Officer Long resumed questioning: “Are you talking about firearms or are you talking about drugs?” Mr. Nichols responded that he was talking about guns. Ex. 1 (Jones #1.mp4 at 02:20-03:45). During these questions, Officer Ralston stood nearby. Officer Jones asked one more question and then walked back to the truck to tell Sergeant Green and Officer Long: “[Mr. Nichols] says there are two firearms in the vehicle.” Id. at 03:55-04:00.

         As Officer Jones walked back to Mr. Nichols, Mr. Nichols started talking about drugs in the truck. Officer Jones continued to prompt Mr. Nichols with clarifying questions. Id. at 04:00-06:11. Officer Jones continued that questioning for another two minutes. Id. Officers never informed Mr. Nichols of his Miranda rights during this interaction, which lasted almost 30 minutes.

         Mr. Nichols's motion now seeks to suppress all evidence derived from the officers' search of the truck and the container attached to his keys. He also seeks to suppress evidence of any incriminating statements that Mr. Nichols made before he was informed of his Miranda rights.

         II. Analysis

         Mr. Nichols asserts that the officers violated his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. The court addresses the officers' alleged transgressions below.

         A. Fourth Amendment

         The Fourth Amendment[6] forbids unreasonable searches and seizures. California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 390 (1985). If the defendant challenges the reasonableness of a search or seizure, the government bears the burden to prove the reasonableness of that search or seizure by a preponderance of the evidence. United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 177 (1974); United States v. Zubia-Melendez, 263 F.3d 1155, 1160 (10th Cir. 2001). If the court determines that a search or seizure violated the constitution, the exclusionary rule prohibits admission of the fruits of all evidence seized illegally. See Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 487-88 (1963).

         Mr. Nichols asserts that the court should suppress evidence of drugs found in the container on his keychain because it was an improper warrantless search. Doc. 18 at 6-10. Mr. Nichols also asserts that the court should suppress evidence of the drugs, drug paraphernalia, and guns found in the truck that Mr. Nichols was driving because the police officers lacked probable cause to arrest Mr. Nichols or search his vehicle. Id. at 10-16. The court concludes that officers had probable cause to arrest Mr. Nichols and this allowed them to search the container. The result of the search of the container gave them probable cause to search the truck.

         1. Probable Cause to Arrest

         Beginning with Mr. Nichols's seizure, probable cause justified that seizure. “An officer has probable cause to arrest if, under the totality of the circumstances, he learned of facts and circumstances through reasonably trustworthy information that would lead a reasonable person to believe that an offense has been or is being committed by the person arrested.” United States v. Munoz-Nava, 524 F.3d 1137, 1144 (10th Cir. 2008). Officers Long and Schneider stopped Mr. Nichols for failing to have valid registration and not wearing a seatbelt. In Kansas, failing to have valid registration is a misdemeanor offense, Kan. Stat. Ann. § 8-149, and law enforcement officers have discretion to arrest a driver for a misdemeanor offense, id. § 8-2104(b). Officer Schneider saw Mr. Nichols driving the car with an expired registration and thus had probable cause to believe that he had violated § 8-149. Officer Schneider relayed his observation to Officer Long before the stop, giving him probable cause to believe a violation had occurred as well. It was within their discretion to arrest Mr. Nichols.[7]

         2. Search Incident to Arrest

         When there is a valid arrest, law enforcement may search incident to that arrest. The Supreme Court has found that:

When an arrest is made, it is reasonable for the arresting officer to search the person arrested in order to remove any weapons that the latter might seek to use in order to resist arrest or effect escape. Otherwise, the officer's safety might well be endangered, and the arrest itself frustrated. In addition, it is entirely reasonable for the arresting officer to search for and seize any evidence on the arrestee's person in order to prevent its concealment or destruction. And the area ...

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