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United States v. Detter

United States District Court, D. Kansas

March 14, 2019

COREY R. DETTER, Defendant.



         Before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Suppress (Doc. 26). Corey Detter asks the Court to exclude all evidence related to his January 4, 2018 arrest, arguing that the preceding traffic-stop and search violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The Court concludes that the stop, search, and arrest were lawful; therefore, Detter's Fourth Amendment rights were not violated. For those and the following reasons, the Court denies the Motion.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Early in the morning on January 4, 2018, Sergeant Bachar of the Great Bend Police Department received a call from Larry Marshall about an impounded truck that contained methamphetamine and a large amount of currency. Bachar had previously identified the truck's owner as Kari McBride, a known drug trafficker in Great Bend. Marshall informed Bachar that Detter and McBride had arrived at the impoundment lot in a white car driven by Sierra Flax. Detter inquired about the truck and then left with Flax and McBride. While on the phone with Marshall, Bachar identified a white car matching Marshall's description and began to follow it. Bachar called Corporal Shane Becker for assistance, and Becker also began following Flax's car. When Flax turned under a street light, Bachar noticed that her car's window-tint appeared darker than legally permissible. Bachar initiated a traffic stop for that violation.

         During the traffic stop, Bachar confirmed the identities of Flax, Detter, and McBride. Bachar relayed this information to dispatch and confirmed that Flax, Detter, and McBride had criminal records.[1] Becker then had his canine perform a narcotics sniff of the car, resulting in an alert to the presence of narcotics. At this point, Becker asked Detter to exit the car, Detter complied, and Becker searched him. During the search, Becker discovered a wad of counterfeit currency in Detter's pant pocket and a syringe in his boot. Becker then arrested Detter and escorted him to his police car. On the way to the police station, Detter voluntarily waived his Miranda rights and made several incriminating statements to Becker.

         Detter now moves to suppress all the evidence stemming from this incident, arguing that the traffic stop and subsequent search violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

         II. Legal Standard

         The Fourth Amendment states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated . . .”[2] Under the exclusionary rule, “evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment cannot be used in a criminal proceeding against the victim of the illegal search or seizure.”[3] If a search or seizure violates the Fourth Amendment, the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine prohibits the admission of any subsequently obtained evidence, including information, objects, or statements.[4]Searches must be authorized by a warrant unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies.[5]The government bears the burden to prove that a warrantless search or seizure was justified.[6]

         III. Analysis

         Detter argues that the Court should exclude all evidence related to his January 4, 2018 arrest because: (1) the traffic stop was unlawful; (2) the Terry frisk was unlawful; and (3) the eventual arrest lacked probable cause and was therefore unlawful. The Court will address each of these arguments in turn.

         A. The Traffic Stop was Lawful Because It was Based Upon a Reasonable Suspicion of a Window-Tint Violation

         Federal courts acknowledge three types of law enforcement encounters: voluntary encounters, investigative detentions, and arrests.[7] A traffic stop is treated as an investigative detention.[8] Investigative detentions are governed by the standards established in Terry v. Ohio.[9] In Terry, the Supreme Court held that an investigatory detention need only be supported by a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, rather than the higher standard of probable cause.[10]Reasonable suspicion for a Terry stop is subject to a two-part analysis. The stop is reasonable if it is (1) “justified at its inception, ” and (2) “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.”[11] A detention is justified at its inception if the “specific and articulable facts and rational inferences drawn from those facts give rise to a reasonable suspicion that an offense is being committed.”[12]

         An observed traffic violation provides the articulable facts necessary to give rise to a reasonable suspicion that a person has committed a crime.[13] As such, the resulting traffic stop is justified at inception.[14] Under Kansas law, the “total light transmission” of a car's windows “shall not be less than 35%.”[15] Multiple courts have held that an officer's belief that a car's windows are excessively tinted creates a reasonable suspicion sufficient to initiate a lawful traffic stop.[16]Furthermore, an officer's suspicion of a window tint violation need not be correct, it need only be reasonable.[17]

         The Court concludes that Bachar stopped Flax's car based upon the reasonable suspicion that a traffic violation had occurred. When Flax turned under the street light, both that light and Bachar's headlights illuminated her car's windows, leading Bachar to believe that the windows were darker than legally permissible. Detter argues that since the eventual test revealed that the windows transmitted 34% of light and since the tint meter has a margin of error of 2%, the windows might have been within the legal limit. However, Detter's reasoning misconstrues the law. The law does not require reasonable suspicion to be subsequently confirmed as accurate; it merely requires the suspicion to be reasonable at its inception. Besides, Detter's reasoning equally weighs against him: the 2% variance implies that Flax's windows might have transmitted only 32% of light, even further below the 35% statutory limit. Although legally unnecessary, the fact that the test subsequently revealed that the windows transmitted 32-36% of light logically supports the conclusion that Bachar's suspicion was reasonable at inception. In any event, Bachar reasonably suspected that a traffic violation was occurring when he noticed that Flax's windows appeared to be darker than permissible.

         Finally, the traffic stop was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified it in the first place. During the process of investigating the window tint violation, Bachar discovered the identities of Detter, Flax, and McBride. After relaying that information to dispatch, the officers learned of the criminal records of the three suspects. The routine canine sniff of the car also alerted Bachar and Becker to the presence of narcotics. All of these events were done in a reasonable time period, and they sequentially stemmed from, and were well within the scope of, Bachar's lawful traffic stop.

         The Court concludes that Bachar stopped the car based upon the reasonable suspicion that a traffic violation was occurring. Therefore, the traffic stop did not violate Detter's Fourth Amendment rights.

         B. The Search of Detter was a Valid Search Incident to a Lawful Arrest

         The Government argues two theories as to why Becker's search of Detter was lawful. First, the Government argues that Becker conducted a lawful Terry frisk of Detter based on a reasonable suspicion that Detter was armed and dangerous. Next, the Government argues that the eventual arrest of Detter was based on probable cause and therefore lawful, and that the resulting search incident to that arrest was also lawful. The Court will consider both arguments in turn.

         1. The Terry Frisk was Not Justified by a Reasonable Suspicion that Detter was Armed and Dangerous

         During a traffic stop, an officer may order someone to exit a vehicle to conduct a “Terry frisk” if the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe the person is armed and dangerous. “Being armed does not ineluctably equate with dangerousness.”[18] Before law enforcement “places a hand on the person of a citizen in search of anything, he must have constitutionally adequate, reasonable grounds for doing so.”[19] Furthermore, “[in] the case of the self-protective search for weapons, he must be able to point to particular facts from which he reasonably inferred that the individual was armed and dangerous.”[20] A criminal history alone does not give rise to the reasonable suspicion that a person is armed and dangerous.[21] The purpose of a Terry frisk is not to discover evidence of a crime, but to allow the officer to proceed “without fear of violence.”[22]

         The Government argues that Becker had a reasonable suspicion that Detter was armed and dangerous. It argues that Detter's record of firearm possession, mixed with the mere suspicion of his involvement in drug trafficking, gave Becker enough facts to reasonably suspect that Detter was armed and dangerous in this instance. As a result, the Government argues, Becker was justified in conducting a Terry frisk of Detter to ensure he was unarmed.[23] The Court is not convinced by these arguments for the following reasons.

         The facts of this case differ from those of the cases cited by the parties. In Hammond, the defendant had multiple convictions of firearm possession as well as a record of involvement in a violent gang.[24] In Rice, the defendant had an extensive history of violent crimes as well as violent use of firearms.[25] Based on those facts, the Tenth Circuit in both Hammond and Rice held that the officers had reasonable suspicion that the defendants were armed and dangerous.[26]

         Unlike the defendants in Hammond and Rice, Detter had no prior record of using weapons violently. Nor did the officers have a specific reason to believe Detter would react violently in this situation. Furthermore, the officers had no special reason to believe that Detter was armed at the time of the traffic stop. Detter lacks a history of involvement in violent gangs and has never been convicted of a violent crime. A single instance of past firearm possession does not give rise to the reasonable ...

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