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United States v. Williams

United States District Court, Third Circuit

January 23, 2014

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
SALADEN WILLIAMS, Defendant.

OPINION

FAITH S. HOCHBERG, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court upon the Motion of Defendant Williams seeking the suppression of evidence seized from his GMC Yukon subsequent to a traffic stop. The Court has reviewed the submissions of the parties, as well as having conducted a suppression hearing on May 16, 2013, which continued on September 11, 2013.

I. BACKGROUND

A vehicle operated by Saladen Williams was stopped by three New Jersey State Troopers for what the officers allege were two traffic violations, i.e., failure to observe the stop sign at the corner of Clinton Avenue and South 20th Street in Newark, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-144, and failure to activate a turn signal prior to making a right onto Ellis Avenue in Irvington, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-126. During the traffic stop, Trooper Sardanopoli allegedly observed a handgun in plain view on the passenger side floorboard of the vehicle. The Troopers then directed the occupants of the vehicle to exit the vehicle so they could retrieve the handgun. Defendant allegedly admitted that the handgun belonged to him and consented to a search of the vehicle. During the search of the vehicle, the Troopers discovered bags of cocaine in the center console.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On February 29, 2012, the Grand Jury returned a one-count Indictment against Defendant, charging him with being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. ยง 922(g)(1). On January 7, 2013, Defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence of the handgun, to which the Government responded on January 9, 2013.

The Court convened a hearing to address Defendant's motion on May 16, 2013 at which it heard the testimony of Trooper Sardanopoli and FBI Special Agent Sean Lynch and the Defendant. During the May 16 hearing, an issue arose about the exact contours on the Yukon's interiour configuration, and neither side had photographs of the actual car. The Defendant stated that Defendant's family still had possession of the Yukon that was the subject of the traffic stop. Following the conclusion of testimony, the Court adjourned the hearing and directed the parties to arrange to inspect and photograph the Yukon.

In June 2013, the Government was notified by counsel for Defendant that the Yukon had been repossessed and that therefore Defendant's family no longer had access to the vehicle. The photographs had not yet been taken by either side. On July 12, 2013, this Court ordered the parties to "conduct an investigation into the facts regarding the repossessed vehicle" and to attempt to locate the vehicle and photograph it if it was indeed located. On July 25, 2013, the Government notified the Court that it had located the vehicle and was working out a date with defense counsel on which they could jointly inspect and photograph the vehicle. The parties agreed on August 15, 2013 for inspection and photographs. However, on that morning, defense counsel was no longer available so the Government proceeded to inspect and photograph the vehicle.

On September 11, 2013, the Court continued the suppression hearing. At this hearing, Williams again testified, but this time only briefly. Additionally, the Court entered into evidence the photographs of the Yukon submitted by the Government, and ordered the parties to submit additional briefs regarding their positions. The defense submitted its letter brief on September 25, 2013 and the Government submitted its brief on October 9, 2013.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Rule 41(h) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure provides "[a] motion to suppress evidence may be made in the court of the district of trial as provided in Rule 12." Fed. R. Crim. P. 41(h). Rule 12 provides that suppression motions should be made prior to trial. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 12(b)(3)(c), (f). Whether to hold an evidentiary hearing on the admissibility of contested evidence "rests in the sound discretion of the district court." Padillas v. Stork-Gamco, Inc., 186 F.3d 412, 418 (3d Cir. 1999). As a general matter, an evidentiary hearing is required in circumstances in which a defendant advances a "colorable claim" that his or her constitutional rights have been violated. United States v. Brink, 39 F.3d 419 (3d Cir. 1994) (holding that the District Court erred in failing to hold an evidentiary hearing where the defendant stated "a colorable claim that the government violated his constitutional right to counsel by placing him in a cell with a known informant who may have been acting as a government agent"). A claim is "colorable" if it consists "of more than mere bald-faced allegations of misconduct." United States v. Voigt, 89 F.3d 1050, 1067 (3d Cir. 1996). Thus, to warrant an evidentiary hearing, a defendant's motion must contain "issues of fact material to the resolution of the defendant's constitutional claim." Id.

Ordinarily, the burden of proof in a suppression motion is on the defendant. See United States v. Lewis, 40 F.3d 1325, 1333 (1st Cir. 1994). Where the search being challenged was made without a warrant, as is the case here, the burden shifts to the Government to demonstrate that the warrantless search was conducted pursuant to one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement. See United States v. Herrold, 962 F.2d 1131, 1137 (3d Cir. 1992). The Government must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the challenged evidence is admissible. See United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 178 n.14 (1974) ("The controlling burden of proof at suppression hearings should impose no greater burden than proof by a preponderance of the evidence.").

IV. DISCUSSION

Defendant moves to suppress the handgun seized during the traffic stop for two reasons: 1) that the troopers lacked a proper basis to effect the traffic stop; and 2)that they also lacked a proper basis to search Defendant's vehicle. The Government argues that Defendant's motion should be denied because the Troopers observed Defendant committing two traffic violations, "each of which provided an independent reasonable suspicion ...


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