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United States v. Murchison

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

December 13, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
SAMUEL LEE MURCHISON, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION (DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO SUPPRESS EVIDENCE)

          HENRY E. HUDSON SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Defendant's Motion to Suppress evidence emanates from a traffic stop in the 900 block of St. Paul Street in Richmond, Virginia, on the evening of November 5, 2018. The 900 block of St. Paul Street is located in a development called Gilpin Court, and is known by the Richmond City Police as an area where violent crime and firearms are frequently encountered. The underlying traffic stop was occasioned by a defective tag light which only partially illuminated Defendant's license plate. The resulting encounter led to the seizure of a firearm and a quantity of cocaine from Defendant.

         This case is presently before the Court on Defendant's Motion to Suppress both items (ECF No. 12). He contends that Richmond City police officers had no justification to either stop his vehicle or pat him down for weapons. Both Defendant and the United States have filed memoranda supporting their respective positions, and the Court heard evidence and oral argument on November 21, 2019.

         The evidence revealed that Richmond Police Officers Patricia Bruington and Patrick Digirolamo observed Defendant's vehicle in the 900 block of St. Paul Street on the evening of November 5, 2018. Their attention was drawn to the vehicle because the license plate was not clearly visible from at least 50 feet behind the vehicle, as required by Virginia law. It was apparent to the officers that only one of the two tag lights was illuminated. The other appeared to be defective or not functioning. Both officers were wearing body cameras, which captured their actions that followed. When the officers alighted from the vehicle, Officer Digirolamo approached the driver's side of Defendant's vehicle, and Officer Bruington approached the passenger side. When Officer Digirolamo requested identification, Defendant complied. The officer then asked a number of follow-up questions-Defendant's address and whether there were any weapons or drugs in the car. Defendant denied the presence of any drugs or weapons in the car. Officer Digirolamo then asked if Defendant would permit the officers to quickly check his vehicle. Defendant declined, responding that it was not his car.

         Meanwhile, Officer Bruington shined her flashlight into Defendant's vehicle to ensure that there were no weapons. Her attention was drawn to what appeared to be something black and metallic protruding from Defendant's right pocket. She described it as a large bulge. (Hr'g Tr. at 10:12-11:4, ECF No. 18 (hereinafter "Tr.").) Officer Bruington asked Officer Digirolamo to ask Defendant what was in his right pants pocket. Defendant replied "keys and stuff." (Id. at 12:9-16.) Officer Digirolamo asked Defendant to remove the keys from his pocket, and Defendant complied. Officer Bruington testified that her flashlight still illuminated a metallic object in the pocket. (Id. at 12:24-13:4.) Both officers stated that during the encounter, Defendant was leaning in a position which appeared to be concealing his right pocket. (Id. at 14:4-9, 52:18-53:1.)

         When the officers asked Defendant to remove the other items in his pocket, he refused and claimed that they had pulled him over for no reason. Officer Digirolamo replied that the officers just wanted to know what was in the right pocket. Officer Bruington then concluded that they needed to conduct what they called a protective sweep, and Officer Digirolamo removed Defendant from the vehicle.

         Officer Digirolamo testified that Defendant's body movements were suggestive of concealment. (Id. at 52:1-5; 52:18-53:1.) He also noticed what appeared to be a bulge in Defendant's right pocket. He concurred that Defendant should be removed from the vehicle and patted down for the officers' protection. Officer Digirolamo then opened the driver's side door of the vehicle and assisted Defendant in stepping out. He testified that the decision to remove Defendant from the vehicle was based on the bulge in his right pocket coupled with what he described as a "blading" movement to conceal the right part of his body. (Id. at 53:12-21.)

         As Defendant alighted from the vehicle, both officers advised him that he was not in trouble, and that their sole objective was to ensure that there were no weapons. After Defendant was handcuffed, Officer Digirolamo testified that he placed his right hand along the side of Defendant's pants with an open palm. As he slid his hand down Defendant's pant leg, he felt something heavy and believed it to be a firearm. The officer pushed his hand up Defendant's pocket revealing the muzzle of a firearm.

         After determining that Defendant was a prior convicted felon, he was placed under arrest. Incident to arrest, Officer Bruington conducted a search of Defendant that revealed a cell phone and a baggie, which was later determined to contain crack cocaine.

         During the evidentiary hearing, portions of the body camera videos were placed into evidence. Both sides argued that the videos supported their position on the motion.

         Defendant's challenge begins with the initial stop of his vehicle. He argues that Virginia Code Ann. § 46.2-1013 governing rear tail lights does not apply to tag lights. In his view, the statute only requires the rear tail lights to illuminate license plates sufficiently to make them readable 50 feet from the vehicle. Consequently, Defendant contends that the officer had no reason to stop his vehicle.

         Officer Bruington stated that it was her understanding that all lights on a motor vehicle must be operable. In this case, she testified that with the right tag light out, she could not read the tag from 50 feet, as required by law. (Id. at 7:25-8:24.)

         Section 46.2-1013 of the Virginia Code reads as follows:

Every motor vehicle and every trailer or semitrailer being drawn at the end of one or more other vehicles shall carry at the rear two red lights plainly visible in clear weather from a distance of 500 feet to the rear of such vehicle. Such tail lights shall be constructed and so mounted in their relation to the rear license plate as to illuminate the license plate with a white light so that the same may be read from a distance of 50 feet to the rear of such vehicle. Alternatively, a separate white light shall be so mounted as to illuminate the rear license plate from a distance of 50 feet to the rear of ...

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