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United States v. Gibson

United States District Court, D. Nevada

March 6, 2017




         Before the court are Gibson's motion to suppress (ECF No. 15), the Government's response (ECF No. 23), and Gibson's reply (ECF No. 30). The court also considered Gibson's supplement (ECF No. 38) and the Government's supplement (ECF No. 39). For the reasons stated below, Gibson's motion should be granted.

         I. Background

         On October 29, 2016, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police (Metro) Officers Orton and Dannenberger stopped a green Ford F-l 50 with Wyoming license plates. (ECF No. 25) Officer Dannenberger was wearing a body camera, which recorded the most of the encounter.[1] Officer Dannenberger ran the truck's license plate number through their patrol car's mobile data terminal.[2] The system checked the license plate number against Wyoming Department of Motor Vehicles. According to the system, the license plate was expired and was registered to a Honda Accord. Officer Orton testified that in addition to the expired plates, she suspected that the license plates or the truck may have been stolen.

         Unknown to the officers at the time, the Wyoming Department of Motor Vehicles maintains a separate data base for trucks. Wyoming truck license plate numbers must be entered into the system in a different manner than other Wyoming plate numbers in order to return accurate information. Officer Dannenberger entered the F-150's license number in the standard fashion, which is why the plate was shown as expired and registered to a Honda Accord. Later on in the encounter, Metro dispatch ran the plate number correctly. This showed that the registration was current and that the number was associated with an F-150 truck.

         Officer Orton approached the driver, Joyce Frazier. Frazier could not locate her proof of insurance or registration for the truck. Officer Orton instructed Frazier to wave her paperwork outside the driver's side window, if she located it.

         Officer Dannenberger approached the passenger, Defendant Robert Lee Gibson. (ECF No. 25) Officer Dannenberger asked Gibson for identification, about his criminal history, and if there was a firearm in the car. (Id.) Gibson provided a voided Nevada driver's license as well as his social security card. (Id.) Gibson also informed the officer that he was on federal probation. (Id.)

         Officer Orton performed a records check on Frazier and Gibson. Officer Dannenberger stood several feet away from the patrol car facing the truck. (Id.) While the records check was being conducted, Frazier opened the driver side door and waved a piece of paper at the officers. (Id.) Officer Orton warned Frazier not to exit the vehicle. (Id.) Approximately three minutes elapsed between Officer Orton beginning her records check and Frazier being ordered to remain in the truck. (Id.)

         Frazier ignored Officer Orton's instructions and exited the truck. (Id.) Gibson immediately moved into the driver's seat, put the truck in reverse, and revved the engine. (Id.) Officer Dannenberger ran to the passenger side window, drew his weapon, and ordered Gibson to place his hands on the dash. (Id.) Gibson was then ordered out of the vehicle and placed under arrest. (Id.)

         Shortly thereafter, Metro Officers Lane and Randall arrived on scene to assist Officers Orton and Dannenberger. After assistance arrived, Officer Dannenberger decided to impound the truck and to conduct an inventory search. While Gibson was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car, Officer Lane asked Gibson a series of questions. Officer Lane characterized Gibon's responses as evasive and non-responsive. The last question was, "Is there anything in the truck we should know about?" Gibson did not respond to the question. Instead he looked away from Officer Lane and towards the F-150. When he saw Officers Dannenberger and Randall approaching the truck to begin their inventory search, he blurted out, "Everything in the truck is mine."

         Officer Lane did not Mirandize Gibson before this exchange and he did not ask any other officer if he or she had Mirandized Gibson.

         Officers Dannenberger and Randall conducted an inventory search of the truck. Officer Randall searched the driver's area, while Office Dannenberger searched the passenger's area. The officers first searched the front cab area. Officer Randal removed the truck's fuse box, while Officer Dannenberger looked through the glove compartment. Eventually, Officer Dannenber removed the glove compartment from the dashboard in order to search the cavity behind it.

         The officers moved from the front cab area to the rear cab area. Officer Dannenberger perform a cursory search of some clothing hanging on the rear cab door, then moved on to search an open tool bag. At the bottom of the bag, Officer Dannenberger discovered a zip lock bag containing .50 caliber handgun ammunition. Meanwhile, Officer Randall discovered a .50 caliber handgun in a holster under the driver's seat.

         Once Officer Randall discovered the handgun, the officers stopped the inventory search and called detectives from Metro's firearm team. At no time during the search did either officer write down the items they discovered. The officers did not relay the information to another officer to write down, nor did they use their body cameras to make an audio-visual record of the items they discovered. Officer Randall testified that it was his practice to simply memorize the items he found during inventory searches and record them on Metro's impound sheet at a later time. Officer Lane began to complete an impound sheet, but stopped once the handgun was discovered. According to Officer Lane, this sheet only documented items found in the truck bed. The incomplete sheet was later destroyed.

         A records check on the handgun revealed that it was stolen. Based on Gibson's statements, officers charged him with possession of a stolen handgun.

         On November 15, 2016, Gibson was indicted on one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. (ECF No. 1)

         II. Discussion

         1. Metro Officers May Have Had Reasonable Suspicion to Stop the F-150

         "For the duration of a traffic stop, ... a police officer effectively seizes everyone in the vehicle, the driver and all passengers." Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323, 327, 129 S.Ct. 781, 172 L.Ed.2d 694 (2009).

         "A police officer needs only reasonable suspicion in the context of investigative traffic stops." United States v. Miguel, 368 F.3d 1150, 1153 (9th Cir. 2004). "Reasonable suspicion is formed by specific, articulable facts which, together with objective and reasonable inferences, form the basis for suspecting that the particular person detained is engaged in criminal activity." United States v. Lopez-Soto, 205 F.3d 1101, 1105 (9th Cir. 2000).

         The Ninth Circuit has "distinguished between mistakes of fact and mistakes of law when an officer has initiated a traffic stop based on a mistaken belief." Miguel, 368 F.3d at 1153. "[I]f an officer makes a traffic stop based on a mistake of law, the stop violates the Fourth Amendment." United States v. Twilley, 222 F.3d 1092, 1096 (9th Cir. 2000). "A mere mistake of fact will not render a stop illegal, if the objective facts known to the officer gave rise to a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot." United States v. Mariscal, 285 F.3d 1127, 1131 (9th Cir. 2002). "[A]n officer's correct understanding of the law, together with a good-faith error regarding the facts, can establish reasonable suspicion." United States v. King, 244 F.3d 736, 739 (9th Cir. 2001).

         In Miguel, police officers' mistaken belief that a vehicle's registration was expired supported reasonable suspicion. 368 F.3d at 1154. Officers had stopped the defendant's vehicle for expired registration. Id. In coming to this conclusion, the officer relied on exclusively on information provided to them by their law enforcement computer. Id. The computer checked the license plate against Department of Motor Vehicle records. Id. These records indicated that the defendant's vehicle registration was expired. Id. In ...

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