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United States v. Williams

United States District Court, D. Kansas

March 18, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
ROBERT S. WILLIAMS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          HOLLY L. TEETER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Robert S. Williams is charged with felony drug and firearm crimes. He moves to suppress the evidence found in his vehicle after a traffic stop. Doc. 21. Because the stop was valid at its inception, the officers' use of felony stop procedures was reasonable under the circumstances, and the search was supported by probable cause, there was no violation of Mr. Williams's Fourth Amendment rights and there is no basis to suppress the evidence. Therefore, the Court denies the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Mr. Williams was indicted for violations of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) (possession with the intent to distribute ecstasy), 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A) (possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense), and 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) (possession of a firearm by a prohibited person). These charges stem from evidence discovered during a search of his vehicle, a white GMC Denali, following a traffic stop in Topeka, Kansas, on May 17, 2018.

         Five days earlier, on May 12, 2018, a violent homicide was committed with a firearm in Topeka, Kansas. The Topeka Police Department (“TPD”) considered Justin McCoy a possible suspect. Mr. McCoy was also known to the FBI from a multi-agency investigation involving houses known to be involved in narcotics trafficking, with a house at 2312 SE Pennsylvania Avenue in Topeka as the hub. Mr. McCoy and his brother were known to frequent that house. FBI agents associated Mr. Williams's vehicle with that house because they had seen it there in April 2018. They first saw his vehicle at a house on SE Indiana Avenue known to be associated with drug trafficking and believed to be connected with the house on SE Pennsylvania. FBI agents observed Mr. Williams enter the house on SE Indiana and come out a short time later with something in his hands. He then drove to the SE Pennsylvania address and entered that house.

         On May 17, 2018, FBI Task Force Officer (“TFO”) Salmon and FBI Special Agent Ian Knooihuizen were surveilling the Paradise Plaza apartment complex because Mr. McCoy's girlfriend lived there, and he was known to frequent there. Shortly after 9:00 p.m., they saw Mr. Williams's Denali leaving the apartment complex. They radioed the TPD and recommended that officers follow the vehicle because it was a vehicle that could be associated with Mr. McCoy and they knew that TPD considered him a possible homicide suspect.

         Shortly thereafter, Officers Barry Nelson and Brady Qualls located the Denali and followed it, watching for a traffic violation. They observed Mr. Williams signal as he began to change lanes and determined that he had committed a traffic infraction by failing to activate his turn signal at least 100 feet prior to starting the maneuver, in violation of K.S.A. § 8-1548.

         In preparing to make a traffic stop for the violation, Officer Nelson radioed that they were going to execute a “felony car stop.” Felony car stops are used when an officer believes that an individual inside the vehicle may attempt to escape or cause potential harm to the officers or the public. In executing a felony car stop or “high-risk car stop, ” officers do not approach the stopped vehicle but instead remain at their cars in a position of cover, with their weapons drawn, and order the occupants to show their hands, exit the stopped vehicle, and walk toward the officers.

         When Officers Nelson and Qualls made the stop, they could see one passenger and believed there was another passenger in the backseat. It was difficult to see because it was nighttime and the windows of the Denali were tinted. The officers exited their vehicle and took positions behind the front doors, with their guns drawn. Additional patrol cars arrived as backup. Officer Nelson ordered the driver (Mr. Williams), to put his hands out of the window, exit the car, and walk back to where the officers were standing. Officer Nelson saw that the left front pocket of his shorts was “turned out” as if something had been hurriedly taken out of it. Officer Qualls handcuffed Mr. Williams, noticing the smell of raw marijuana on him. He placed Mr. Williams in the backseat of a patrol car. Officer Nelson then ordered the passenger, Tara Wharton, [2] to exit and walk back toward him. An officer handcuffed Ms. Wharton and placed her in the backseat of a different patrol car. Officer Nelson called out for any other passengers to exit. When no one responded, several officers approached the Denali, with their weapons drawn and in the “low ready” position, to verify that there were no other passengers in the vehicle. They did not find any other passengers.

         While standing outside the driver's door of the Denali, Officer Anthony Palumbo shined his flashlight into the vehicle and saw a knife on the front seat. A short time later, he saw a jar under the seat and announced to Officer McEntire, who was outside the passenger door, that there was dope in it. When he removed the jar, he saw that it contained marijuana and pills that were ultimately determined to be Ecstasy. Back at the patrol cars, Ms. Wharton told an officer that she had marijuana in her pants that Mr. Williams told her to hide when they were stopped. When an officer told her that a safe had been found in the Denali, she said that there were two guns in the safe and that both belonged to her. Ms. Wharton identified which of her keys would unlock the safe. When officers opened the safe, they found one gun, ammunition, and cash. Ms. Wharton stated that her other gun was at her house. Officers also found a digital scale and cocaine in the Denali.

         Mr. Williams brings this motion to suppress all of the evidence found in the search, as well as any statements made or evidence gathered, during his allegedly illegal detention.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Mr. Williams advances four arguments. First, he argues that law enforcement violated his Fourth Amendment rights because the traffic stop was not justified at its inception. Second, he contends that even if the stop was justified, the officers' use of felony stop procedures converted the traffic stop into an arrest that was not supported by probable cause. Third, he argues that officers lacked probable cause to search the vehicle. Doc. 21 at 12. Fourth, and finally, he argues that Ms. Wharton's consent for the search of the safe found in the vehicle was not voluntary-and thus, not effective-and therefore, the handgun and other contents must be suppressed. Id. at 14. For the reasons stated below, the Court rejects each of these claims.

         A. The Initial Stop Was Valid.

         It is settled law that “a traffic stop is valid under the Fourth Amendment if the stop is based on an observed traffic violation or if the police officer has reasonable articulable suspicion that a traffic or equipment violation has occurred or is occurring.” United States v. Botero-Ospina, 71 F.3d 783, 787 (10th Cir. 1995) (quoting Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 661 (1979)).

         Here, Officers Nelson and Qualls observed Mr. Williams make a lane change without signaling at least 100 feet before the move, in violation of K.S.A. § 8-1548. That statute states in relevant part:

(a) No. person shall turn a vehicle or move right or left upon a roadway unless and until such movement can be made with reasonable safety, nor without giving an appropriate ...

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