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United States v. Puckett

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

June 24, 2016




         Madison N. Puckett (“Puckett”) was charged with possession of marijuana in violation of 36 C.F.R. § 2.35(b)(2) and littering in violation of 36 C.F.R. § 2.14(a)(1) while on the Blue Ridge Parkway. In court, Puckett attempted to plead guilty to both charges, but did not admit ownership or knowledge of the existence of the glass pipe and accompanying residue that formed the basis of her marijuana possession charge. I found that there was an insufficient factual basis upon which to accept her guilty plea and the case proceeded to trial on both charges. At the conclusion of the evidence, I took the case under advisement to further consider the legality of the search of Puckett’s vehicle and the sufficiency of the evidence to support the charges against her.

         Having reviewed the record and the relevant case law, I find that the search of Puckett’s vehicle that led to the discovery of the marijuana residue was improper under the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, the evidence obtained as a result of the search must be suppressed. I also find that there is insufficient evidence to convict Puckett of the littering charge. Accordingly, pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29(a), I find that the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction. Puckett’s charges will be dismissed in an accompanying order.


         On or about March 7, 2016 near Mile Marker 85 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Ranger Holter found Puckett’s vehicle lawfully parked in a parking space in the Peaks of Otter Lodge parking lot.[1] He noticed that the vehicle had a flat left-side tire, that the vehicle was sitting on its rim, and saw that a note had been left by a person named “Maddie.” The note stated that the vehicle’s tire was flat and that the occupants were unable to replace the tire.[2] The ranger noticed pieces of tire on the exterior of the vehicle and followed additional tire debris up the road. Along the Parkway and approximately a “mile and change” from the parking lot, the ranger located a stack of interior vehicle mats on the road shoulder. On the opposite side of the road from the mats and approximately three-quarters of a mile from the parking lot, the ranger located a soda can, a cigarette pack, and a fast food receipt clustered together along the roadway. The trail of rubber pieces ended at the stack of mats.

         When the ranger inspected the vehicle, he saw in plain view, sitting in the vehicle’s center console what he determined to be a marijuana pipe.[3] He also noticed that the vehicle’s registration and inspection sticker were expired and determined that there was no valid insurance coverage on the vehicle. The ranger then decided to tow the vehicle to an impound lot and conducted an inventory search before the vehicle was removed from the parking lot. During the search, Ranger Holter inspected the pipe and found what he believed to be marijuana residue based on his training and experience. He also found a straw that appeared to him to be modified for use in smoking marijuana, other narcotics, and rolling papers, none of which were in plain view from outside the vehicle.

         Several days later, Puckett contacted the impound lot to ask about her car. Puckett and Ranger Holter spoke by phone and eventually met in person to discuss the marijuana pipe and the litter. During one of their conversations, both Ranger Holter and Puckett recounted that Puckett “took responsibility” for the marijuana pipe and/or stated that it was “her responsibility.” Puckett testified that she did not know the pipe was in the vehicle while she was driving and that it belonged to her cousin. She stated that she was taking responsibility for the pipe because it was found in her car At trial, Puckett testified that she had been driving on the Parkway and had hit a raccoon and a lug nut, which caused her tire to go flat. She attempted to turn around to find the nearest parking area, but the vehicle became stuck in the soft ground on the side of the road. Puckett used her interior mats to get the car back onto the road and stated that she forgot to pick up the mats from the roadside. She testified she did not put anything onto the road except for the mats. She drove the car to the Peaks of Otter Lodge parking area and left a note indicating that her tire was flat, and that she intended to return the next day to retrieve the vehicle. She used the telephone in the Peaks of Otter hotel to call someone to pick her up. When she returned to the parking area the next day around 12:45 p.m., she realized that the vehicle had been towed.


         There are three issues to be resolved in this case: (1) whether the ranger had probable cause to search Puckett’s vehicle based on the presence of the marijuana pipe and whether he was permitted to search the vehicle without a warrant; (2) alternatively, whether the ranger’s decision to impound the vehicle and perform an inventory search was proper; and (3) whether there are sufficient facts to find Puckett guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of littering and possessing marijuana.

         Probable Cause

         “The Fourth Amendment generally requires police to secure a warrant before conducting a search.” Maryland v. Dyson, 527 U.S. 465, 466 (1999). However, “[i]f a car is readily mobile and probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband, the Fourth Amendment [] permits police to search the vehicle without more.” Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940 (1996). This exception is based on an automobile’s “ready mobility” and a reduced expectation of privacy in a vehicle, “owing to its pervasive regulation.” Id. The Supreme Court has clarified the so-called automobile exception since its first appearance in Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925). In Dyson, the Court “disavow[ed] the existence of any such separate requirement” of exigent circumstances to trigger the exception. U.S. v. Brookins, 345 F.3d 231, 237 (4th Cir. 2003) (citing Dyson, 527 U.S. at 467)). The exception applies when officers have probable cause to believe an automobile contains contraband and it is readily mobile. Dyson, 527 U.S. at 467. The fact that an officer had time to obtain a warrant in a particular case is not a relevant factor for consideration. See id. (finding that the warrantless search of an automobile was proper based on a reliable tip received at 11 a.m. that a car containing drugs was scheduled to return to an officer’s jurisdiction at 1 p.m.); Brookins 345 F.3d at 239 (reversing a district court’s determination that officers lacked probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle used in a recent crime when that vehicle was parked in a driveway and unoccupied). In Brookins, the Fourth Circuit found that the automobile exception applied to an unoccupied, parked vehicle because the exception required only that that vehicle be “readily mobile” and that officers have probable cause to search it.

         Here, the vehicle was not “readily mobile” and the ranger did not have probable cause to conduct a warrantless search based only upon his identification of what he believed to be a marijuana pipe. As to probable cause, the ranger testified that he could observe a marijuana pipe from his vantage point outside the vehicle, but that he could not see any residue at that time. It was only after the ranger conducted the search that he could confirm the existence of the marijuana residue (by sight and smell) that formed the basis of the possession charge. It is not a crime in Virginia or in the Code of Federal Regulations to simply possess a glass pipe such as the one found in Puckett’s car.[4] It is the presence of identifiable marijuana or its residue that is unlawful, not possession of the pipe itself. Simply seeing the pipe inside the vehicle, without more, does not provide the ranger with probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime will be located inside the vehicle. Thus, the ranger’s testimony that he could observe what he believed to be a marijuana pipe – without seeing or confirming the existence of marijuana or residue – cannot form the basis of probable cause to search Puckett’s vehicle. But see United States v. Morgan, 2009 WL 116034, at *5 (W.D. Va. Apr. 30, 2009) (proposing a finding that the discovery of unidentified methamphetamine “smoking devices” formed the basis of probable cause to continue the search of a purse that began as a screening for weapons during a traffic stop).

         Even if the ranger had probable cause to search based on the presence of the pipe, Puckett’s vehicle was not “readily mobile.” Both Puckett and the ranger testified that the vehicle’s tire was flat; indeed, that was the reason Puckett abandoned the car in the first place. The ranger testified that the car was sitting on its rim and that pieces of the damaged tire were found on the vehicle and the roadway. Puckett testified that the tire went flat after she struck two objects, and that in attempting to turn the vehicle around, she became stuck. She left a note indicating the vehicle was disabled, and that she would return to fix or retrieve it. Puckett’s vehicle, unlike the one in Brookins, was in no condition to be driven and was not readily mobile. Accordingly, the automobile exception did not apply to Puckett’s car and any search without a warrant was impermissible.

         Inventory ...

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