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United States v. Stephens

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

October 23, 2019



          Elizabeth K. Dillon United States District Judge

         This matter is before the court on defendant Merle Brook Stephens' motion to suppress. Incident to Stephens' arrest on December 7, 2018, law enforcement officers conducted a search of two bags Stephens had with him and discovered cash, a firearm, and methamphetamine. Stephens now moves to suppress the evidence obtained during that search.[1] (Mot. to Suppress, Dkt. No. 40; Pro Se Mot. to Suppress, Dkt. No. 79.) The court held a hearing on Stephens' motion and provided the parties additional time to file supplemental briefs. Having reviewed the evidence from the hearing and the parties' briefs, the court will deny Stephens' motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Prior to Stephens' arrest, a cooperating defendant in another criminal case informed law enforcement officers that Stephens supplied her with methamphetamine to distribute. (Hr'g Tr. 15, Dkt. No. 78.) The cooperating defendant contacted Stephens and provided his location-a motel in Mt. Jackson, Virginia-to law enforcement officers. (Id.) She further advised officers that Stephens “possibly” had methamphetamine “in a bag.” (Id. at 20.) Based on that information, officers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) set up surveillance at the motel and ultimately took Stephens into custody. (Id. at 19, 40-41.) Although the officers were surveilling Stephens for his possible involvement in drug trafficking, the basis of the arrest was a state arrest warrant “for child support.” (Id. at 55-56.)

         Investigator Springer with the Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office testified that when he arrived at the motel, he observed Stephens “secured in handcuffs behind his back while sitting” on the back of a pickup truck. (Id. at 20.) One of the bags at issue sat next to Stephens in the back of the truck, and another sat on the ground beside the truck. (See Id. at 23-24 (noting the second bag was between the truck and an SUV that was parked in the parking space immediately next to the truck).) The parties dispute whether one or both of the bags were locked, but the testimony at the hearing indicated that only the bag located on the ground next to the truck was locked. (Id. at 25- 26.)

         Investigator Springer testified that when he arrived, he advised Stephens of his Miranda rights. (Id. at 22.) He then searched the unlocked bag located in the back of the truck. That bag contained a firearm, magazines for the firearm that were loaded with ammunition, money, and personal items. (Id. at 24-25.) The second bag, originally located on the ground next to the truck, was then moved into the bed of the pickup truck. Investigator Springer testified that he used “keys that came off of Mr. Stephens' person” to unlock and search the second bag, in which he found “a large amount of narcotics.” (Id.) Among other things, the bag contained methamphetamine, marijuana, prescription pills, and money.

         Since his arrest, Stephens has been charged in a three-count indictment with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, use of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime, and possession of a firearm by a prohibited person. (Dkt. Nos. 13, 60.)


         Stephens moves to suppress the evidence found through the search of the bags conducted during his arrest. He advances three arguments in his motion: (1) that there was no lawful arrest; (2) that even if the arrest was lawful, the search exceeded the scope of a permissible search incident to a lawful arrest as defined in Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009); and (3) that the inevitable discovery doctrine should not apply. Because the evidence is subject to the inevitable discovery doctrine, the court will deny the motion to suppress.

         A. Stephens' Arrest Was Lawful

         Stephens first argues that he was arrested unlawfully at the motel because the warrant for his arrest for failure to pay child support was never properly served on him. He notes that the “normal process for serving a warrant include[s] giving a copy of the warrant to the defendant and making a return to the issuing court.” (Mem. in Supp. 3, Dkt. No. 71.) Accordingly, Stephens argues that cases analyzing the “search incident to arrest” exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment are inapposite here.

         To be sure, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 4, which sets the procedure for executing and returning an arrest warrant, requires that if an officer does not possess the warrant at the time of the arrest, the officer “must show the original or a duplicate original warrant to the defendant as soon as possible.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 4(c)(3)(A). However, this court has previously stated that an officer arresting a defendant pursuant to an arrest warrant need not possess the warrant at the time of the arrest. Jackson v. Lewis, No. 7:02CV01238, 2004 WL 4957041, at *1 (W.D. Va. Apr. 5, 2004). Moreover, “[a]n arrest is not unlawful due to the mere failure of an arresting officer to serve an arrestee with a copy of the arrest warrant.” Bickley v. U.S. Dept. of Treasury, No. 7:99-CV- 00347, 2000 WL637345, at *6 (W.D. Va. Jan. 19, 2000) (citing United States v. Turcotte, 558 F.2d 893, 896 (8th Cir. 1977)).

         Special Agent Bockmann of the ATF testified that the basis of Stephens' arrest was the Shenandoah County arrest warrant for failure to pay child support. The subsequent failure of officers to serve Stephens with a copy of the warrant does not make the arrest unlawful.

         B. Search ...

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