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United States v. Solis

United States District Court, D. Kansas

June 14, 2019




         Before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Suppress (Doc. 19). Defendant Valentine E. Solis asks the Court to exclude all evidence related to his August 4, 2018 arrest, arguing that the preceding traffic stop and subsequent search violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The Court concludes that the stop, arrest, and search were lawful; therefore, Solis's Fourth Amendment rights were not violated. For those and the following reasons, the Court denies the Motion.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         On August 4, 2018, undercover Officer Clayton Van Daley was observing a suspected drug house at 1710 W. Walker St. in south Wichita. At approximately 2:00 pm, Van Daley radioed Wichita Police Department Officers Vincent Reel and Jonathan Estrada for backup, stating that “a Hispanic male wearing a tank top, walk[ed] out of 1710 West Walker with a black backpack” and entered a dark purple Dodge Charger parked on the street. The Charger pulled away from the home and Van Daley followed. In order to initiate a traffic stop without giving away the identity of his undercover police car, Van Daly requested that Estrada join him in following the Charger. After driving for a few minutes, the Charger changed lanes on McCormick Street without using a turn signal. In response to this traffic violation, Estrada turned on his lights and pulled over the Charger.

         The Charger turned into the parking lot of the Lost Sock Laundromat on the corner of McCormick and Seneca. It stopped in a parking space in front of a wall. Estrada stopped behind it, preventing any means of escape. At this point, neither Estrada nor Reel was aware of any information concerning the driver of the Charger, other than Van Daly's previous radio message. Only later did they discover that Solis was the driver of the Charger.

         Reel opened his car door to approach Solis and the Charger at the same time Solis opened the driver-side door of the Charger. Although it is not entirely clear from Reel's bodycam video, Solis began to exit the Charger before leaning back into the car and reaching for something. Upon exiting the police car, Reel was standing behind the right rear fender of the Charger and was able to see Solis's movements through the Charger's rear window. Believing that Solis posed a threat to their safety, Reel and Estrada drew their firearms and began shouting at Solis to exit the vehicle with his hands raised.

         Reel moved around the back of the Charger, continuing to point his firearm at Solis, who was sitting in the driver's seat. After being told multiple times to exit the vehicle with his hands up, Solis stepped out of the Charger but remained at a suspicious angle to the Officers, trying to conceal something in his right hand. The Officers continued to command Solis to reveal and raise both of his hands. Rather than obeying the Officers and clearly raising his hands, Solis began to turn around, continuing to conceal his right hand. He then knelt down and laid on the ground, at the Officers' command. During this process, Solis closed the car door, locked the car, and attempted to hide the Charger's keys under his chest. Then, while moving his hands behind his back, he threw a marijuana cigarette under the car. At this point, Solis was face-down on the ground with his hands behind his back and Reel cuffed him. Reel then retrieved the marijuana cigarette from under the car. Throughout the entire encounter, Estrada and Reel kept their guns drawn and pointed at Solis.

         During the detention and handcuffing of Solis, Reel alleges to have smelled a strong odor of marijuana emanating from the Charger. He communicated to Estrada that this smell gave them probable cause to search the Charger. After escorting Solis to the police car and restraining him in the back seat, Reel and Estrada unlocked the Charger and proceeded to search it. They discovered a black backpack containing raw marijuana, methamphetamine, and a firearm.

         Solis now moves to suppress all evidence stemming from this incident, arguing that the traffic stop, his arrest, and the subsequent search violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The Court held a hearing on Solis's motion on June 3, 2019.

         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 . . .”[1]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.”[2] 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.[3]Searches must be authorized by a warrant unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies.[4]The government bears the burden to prove that a warrantless search or seizure was justified.[5]

         The Fourth Amendment does not guarantee protection from all searches and seizures, but only those considered “unreasonable” under the law.[6] Warrantless searches and seizures are per se unreasonable, subject to the following six exceptions: (1) consent; (2) plain view; (3) Terry stop and frisk; (4) search incident to lawful arrest; (5) exigency; and (6) automobile.[7]

         III. Analysis

         Solis argues that the Court should exclude all evidence related to his August 4, 2018 arrest because: (1) the traffic stop was unlawful; (2) the arrest was unlawful; and (3) the warrantless search of the Charger was unlawful. At the hearing on June 3, 2019, the Government argued that the traffic stop was lawful because it was based on an observed traffic violation and that the arrest was lawful because of an officer safety exigency. The Government also presented three theories as to how the search of the Charger was lawful. The Court will address each of these arguments in turn.

         A. The Traffic Stop was Lawful because it was based on an Observed Traffic Violation.

         Estrada and Reel were not justified in pulling Solis over solely because Van Daly observed Solis previously exiting a suspected drug house. However, the Officers did observe a traffic violation while pursuing Solis. Regardless of whether or not the Officers intended to stop Solis to discover illegal substances, the law permits pretextual traffic stops and the Officers were justified in stopping Solis for the observed traffic violation.

         Federal courts acknowledge three types of law enforcement encounters: voluntary encounters, investigative detentions, and arrests.[8] A traffic stop is treated as an investigative detention.[9] Investigative detentions are governed by the standards established in Terry v. Ohio.[10]In Terry, the Supreme Court held that an investigatory detention need only be supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, rather than the higher standard of probable cause.[11]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.”[12] 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.”[13]

         An observed traffic violation provides the articulable facts necessary to give rise to a reasonable suspicion that a person has committed a crime.[14] As such, the resulting traffic stop is justified at inception.[15] Here, Estrada and Reel both observed Solis make an illegal lane change while driving east on McCormick Street and they initiated a traffic stop based on that observed traffic violation. The Court therefore concludes that Estrada and Reel justifiably stopped Solis's car.

         The Court also concludes that the traffic stop was related in scope to the circumstances that justified it in the first place. Estrada and Reel escorted the Charger into the laundromat parking lot, at which point they parked behind the Charger to block its exit. Reel then proceeded to exit the police car to effectuate the traffic stop. Those actions are reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place. Once Reel began to exit the police car, Solis's actions created the exigency-as discussed in greater detail ...

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