A court order approving a wiretap of a suspected drug dealer resulted in the arrest of several others as well. One of those others appealed his conviction for trafficking of prescription drugs on the grounds the district court failed to suppress evidence that should not have been for the court’s consideration.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit disagreed, affirming the conviction of the defendant in U.S. v. Arnott and finding that much of the evidence in question involved answers offered up during non-custodial questioning. That is, the officer wasn’t required to read the defendant his Miranda rights because the defendant wasn’t technically under arrest.
Our Birmingham drug defense lawyers see this case as a good example of how so-called “consensual encounters” with police can be problematic for defendants who aren’t given a clear indication at the time of a stop whether the conversation is custodial or non-custodial. It can be hard to tell the difference, especially when you aren’t handcuffed or in the back of a cruiser, but still don’t feel free to go.
This case started in the fall of 2011, when a district court authorized a wireless cell phone tap of a man federal agents suspected of dealing drugs. Over a period of six weeks, officers reportedly noted numerous drug-related conversations between the dealer and his purported customers. The officers additionally observed a myriad of drug transactions – one of those involving the defendant in this case, who was the driver of a vehicle in which a passenger sought to purchase drugs from the man with the wiretap.
Officers first learned of the transaction when the passenger engaged in a conversation with the suspected dealer on the phone, and the pair agreed to a meeting place. A local officer working with the Drug Enforcement Administration witnessed the meeting and transaction.
The officer then trailed the vehicle of the suspected customer and pulled it over when he ran through a stop sign. The officer requested back-up and requested IDs from both driver and passenger. The defendant reportedly displayed an “extraordinary level of anxiety,” gave vague responses to the officer’s questions. During a weapons’ pat-down, the officer discovered a bag of oxycodone pills in his pocket.
When pressed further, the defendant revealed the presence of a large amount of marijuana in the back of the vehicle. At that point, the defendant was handcuffed. At no point prior was he read his Miranda Rights.
The defendant was charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute oxycodone and possession of oxycodone with intent to distribute.
The defendant sought to suppress the drugs seized and his incriminating statements on the grounds that his Miranda Rights were never read to him. The trial court denied this request, as the stop and the search were justified because police had probable cause to suspect the defendant had committed a drug-trafficking offense. Further, the court held the officers weren’t obligated to read the defendant his Miranda Rights before handcuffing him because any questioning that occurred prior to that was non-custodial.
A review of that ruling affirmed the decision. First, the court held the search was reasonable, given a justified apprehension of danger based on the evidence of drug involvement, the well-known connection between drug crimes and violence and the defendant’s apparent nervousness.
With regard to the defendant’s roadside statements, the appellate court pointed to the fact that so-called “Terry stops” (i.e., consensual encounters) do not require an individual to be read a Miranda Warning.
These lines of questioning aren’t necessarily unlimited, but officers are given broad latitude.
The term “consensual encounter” conjures up images of a friendly conversation. But the point for an officer is always going to be to cull information about what the person was doing and/or to get permission to do something else – such as conduct a search.
It is never in a defendant’s best interest to speak at any length with an officer – under arrest or not – without a defense attorney present.
State v. Teamer – Court Rules Vehicle Color Discrepancy is Not Grounds for Reasonable Suspicion
If an officer wants to initiate a traffic stop – one of the most common circumstances under which Alabamans are arrested for drug-related crimes – chances are, he or she will find a reason. However, our Birmingham drug crime defense lawyers know that reason must be legitimate and establish reasonable suspicion of a crime.
If the reason does not meet this threshold, any evidence gathered thereafter is inadmissible in court. For many cases, this means the case cannot move forward.
The Florida Supreme Court recently took on the issue of whether certain discrepancies between vehicle registration and the vehicle – namely, vehicle color – could be the basis for reasonable suspicion. The conclusion reached in State v. Teamer : No.
Therefore, the conviction of a man convicted of drug possession and trafficking likely will not stand.
According to court records, a sheriff’s deputy observed the driver operating a bright green vehicle. The deputy did not stop the vehicle at this point, but later in his shift, noted the same vehicle in the neighborhood. The deputy scanned the driver’s license plate through a state database, which is a customary practice while on patrol. When he did, he learned the vehicle was registered as being blue.
Based on this color inconsistency, the officer stopped the vehicle.
When the officer questioned the driver, he learned the car had been recently painted. As he spoke to the driver, he observed a strong odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle. Based on this, he conducted a search and found crack cocaine, marijuana, scales and more than $1,000 cash.
On this evidence, the defendants charged with trafficking in cocaine and possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia.
The defendant filed a motion to suppress on the grounds that vehicle color discrepancy was not reasonable grounds for a stop.
The deputy countered that he sometimes came across individuals who switched license plates on vehicles, and he would be unable to verify the VIN without first stopping the car. He knew, however, that the vehicle wasn’t reported stolen, and the driver hadn’t committed any traffic infractions. Further, he wasn’t aware of any swapped license plates in that particular area.
The trial court denied the motion to suppress on the grounds that inconsistency between the state vehicle color and the actual vehicle color was sufficient for a stop.
The defendant was subsequently convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. He appealed.
The appellate court held that a discrepancy could be legitimate grounds for reasonable suspicion, but that it must be weighed against the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. The court noted several cases in which vehicle color discrepancy was one of several contributing factors in reasonable suspicion. However, there were no cases in which it was the only factor. If that were so, the appellate court ruled, every person who changed the color of their vehicle would be subject to an investigatory stop solely on those grounds.
The Florida Supreme Court affirmed, holding that reasonable suspicion requires a belief supported by articulable facts that criminal activity has occurred. Changing one’s vehicle color is not a criminal action.
Although the case doesn’t directly apply to Alabama drivers, there is a likelihood that Alabama judges might look to the Florida Supreme Court’s findings for direction under similar circumstances.