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United States v. Sears

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 10, 2019



          WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Iman Sears's Motion to Suppress. ECF No. 23. On October 24, 2019, the Court held oral argument and conducted an evidentiary hearing during which Detective Stephen Dellavalle testified. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On the evening of September 29, 2018, Detectives Dellavalle and Rivera, experienced officers with the Newark Police Department, conducted proactive patrol in an unmarked Ford Crown Victoria, in the City of Newark as part of a caravan. The detectives wore plain clothes except for vests embossed with the word “Police.”

         At 11:40 p.m., Detective Dellavalle drove east in the westbound lane of Evergreen Avenue from Ross Street toward 839 Frelinghuysen Avenue, a public housing complex listed as Sears's home address. Def.'s Mot. Ex. D, ECF No. 23-4. Detective Dellavalle described the location as “one of the highest crime areas in the City of Newark.” While driving, Detective Dellavalle “observed a male wearing all black, except for a white T-shirt, walking away from 839 Frelinghuysen Avenue towards Evergreen Avenue.”[1]

         Detective Dellavalle's view of the courtyard in front of 839 Frelinghuysen Avenue was partially obstructed. Three vehicles were parked on the north side of Evergreen Avenue as the detectives drove by 839 Frelinghuysen Avenue, parallel to the sidewalk. See Govt. Ex. 3. One of these vehicles was a white van, parked where the walkway to 839 Frelinghuysen Avenue meets Evergreen Avenue. Directly west of the walkway is a light pole. Id. The courtyard in front of 839 Frelinghuysen Avenue contains various trees with full foliage, a park bench surrounded by a wall on three sides, various shrubs about four feet high, and a barred fence. Although Detective Dellavalle's view from his Crown Victoria was partially blocked or obscured by these obstacles, he testified that he could “generally see the walkway pretty well.”

         Detective Dellavalle observed Defendant Sears about 25 feet away from his lowered driver's side window, and, because of obstructions, was only able to observe the walkway to 839 Frelinghuysen Avenue for several seconds as he drove east on Evergreen. Sears walked away from the building, down the walkway towards Evergreen Avenue. Detective Dellavalle testified that upon seeing the detectives' vehicle, Sears stopped, turned around, allegedly “ma[d]e a quick adjustment towards his waistband and continued walking towards the building, ” and looked back over his shoulder. The detectives' impression was that Sears observed their vehicle and was “immediately startled.” Govt. Ex. 1. Surveillance video does not show that Sears was immediately startled. Instead, the video shows that Sears turned around and walked towards the building.

         Dellavalle described Sears's motion towards his waist as “very, very subtle . . . you can't see a dramatic motion; however, you can see a subtle adjustment in the video [Govt. Ex. 3]. Very subtle.” Detective Dellavalle testified that he saw Sears reach towards his waistband when Sears was facing away from him, as his vehicle passed between the light pole and white van parked in front of the walkway, which Dellavalle estimated are about five to six feet apart. See Govt. Ex. 3 at 23:42:57-60. Detective Dellavalle stated that, “From behind [Sears], you could just see him. From his arm by his side, to go to his waist real quick and back out.” The surveillance video is inconclusive as to whether Sears made a motion towards his waistline. Rather, the video footage shows clearly that when Defendant turned and started back towards 839 Frelinghuysen Avenue, Sears lit and smoked a cigarette. Govt. Ex. 3 at 23:43:04-08. Detective Dellavalle did not testify about this on direct examination.

         Dellavalle stated that these factors indicated that Sears was nervous, but he also testified that he was too far away to observe whether Sears was sweating or shaking. Detective Dellavalle testified that Sears's stopping and turning around drew his suspicion because “if someone is doing something illegal and they see the police, they're going to stop and go the other direction” and that “people that carry guns will adjust [their waistbands] if they try to conceal it.”

         Detective Dellavalle testified that Sears's alleged stopping when he saw the detectives' vehicle, turning around, making a quick adjustment to his waist, and looking over his shoulder, led the detectives to confront Sears. When the detectives parked and exited their vehicle east of the parked white van, they immediately “started running after [Sears] and . . . yelled, ‘Police, stop, '” wearing vests embossed with the word “police.” Dellavalle testified that Sears saw them, and “sped up” towards the door of 839 Frelinghuysen Avenue. Sears did not respond to detectives' commands to stop immediately, but instead “kept walking towards the door.” The incident report states that prior to speaking to the officers, “once at the entrance [of 839 Frelinghuysen Avenue], Sears grabbed the door handle, but was unable to gain entry.” The surveillance footage does not show that Sears ever grasped the door handle or that he was unable to gain entry. When the detectives reached Sears, he stopped, turned towards them and said, “I ain't doing shit. Leave me the fuck alone.” See Govt. Ex. 1. When Dellavalle illuminated Sears's waistline with the flashlight, “[Sears] turned the right side of his body out and . . . bladed it away from me a little bit.”

         When the detectives got closer to Sears, he fled. Detective Rivera tackled Sears “a couple feet away.” Detective Dellavalle recalled that it was a “very quick” chase. Sears resisted arrest and, with the help of other responding officers, Detective Rivera was able to subdue him. A search was conducted, and a handgun was found down his right pants leg. Heroin and crack cocaine were also found on his person. Sears was treated with broken ribs and a collapsed lung. Surveillance video from two cameras at 839 Frelinghuysen Avenue showing the encounter, Government Exhibits 3 and 4, was obtained on October 1, 2018. Govt. Ex 2. On April 1, 2019, Sears was charged in an indictment with violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), 21 U.S.C. § 841, and 18 U.S.C. § 924(c).


         Sears moves to suppress the gun and drug evidence as fruits of an unlawful search and seizure. “As a general rule, the burden of proof is on the defendant who seeks to suppress evidence.” United States v. Johnson, 63 F.3d 242, 245 (3d Cir. 1995). Once the defendant establishes a basis for his motion, the “burden shifts to the government to show that the search or seizure was reasonable.” Id. The government must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that “each individual act constituting a search or seizure under the Fourth Amendment was reasonable.” United States v. Ritter, 416 F.3d 256, 261 (3d Cir. 2005).

         The Fourth Amendment protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. Police encounters that do not involve coercion or detention do not implicate the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Brown, 765 F.3d 278, 288 (3d Cir. 2014) (citing United States v. Williams, 413 F.3d 3347, 352 (3d Cir. 2005) (officers do not violate the Fourth Amendment “merely by approaching individuals on the street or in other public places”)). “[A]n officer may, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, conduct a brief, investigatory stop when the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.” Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 123 (2000). Defendant argues that he was seized when detectives initially ordered him to stop and began running towards him. Def.'s Mot. at 8. There are two issues ...

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