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United States v. Simpkins

United States District Court, D. Maine

January 9, 2019



          Nancy Torresen, United States District Judge

         Defendant Robert Simpkins is charged with possession of oxycodone with the intent to distribute in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), and conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute oxycodone in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846. Before me is the Defendant's motion to suppress statements that he made and evidence that was seized during a roadside search of his vehicle on April 28, 2018. (ECF No. 36.) I held a hearing on the Defendant's motion on December 3, 2018, and the parties submitted supplemental evidence and written summations on December 10, 2018. For the reasons set out below, I DENY the motion to suppress.

         FINDINGS OF FACT[1]

         In March of 2018, the Maine State Police (“MSP”) conducted a traffic stop on a vehicle and discovered that the operator was in possession of a distributable amount of oxycodone and suboxone strips. The operator began cooperating with the MSP in an attempt to receive more favorable treatment on his pending criminal charges. As part of that cooperation, the cooperating defendant (“CD”), told officers that he had purchased the drugs from “Rob, ” who lived in Rhode Island. The CD provided officers with “Rob's” cellular telephone number, a description of his residence, and the make, model, and color of his vehicle. Through independent research, officers determined that the phone number was associated with Robert Simpkins, and they found an address for Simpkins. Using Google Earth, the police found a picture of Simpkins' residence that not only matched the description of the residence provided by the CD but also showed a vehicle that matched the CD's information. When presented with a photograph of Robert Simpkins that the police obtained from the Rhode Island Division of Motor Vehicles, the CD confirmed that it was a picture of “Rob.” The CD admitted that he had purchased drugs from Simpkins on approximately 25-30 occasions, and he showed police officers his text messages with Simpkins, which are consistent with drug sales.[2] Although most of those sales occurred in Rhode Island, Simpkins occasionally traveled to Maine.

         Officers decided to have the CD arrange for Simpkins to travel to Maine. In a recorded call made on April 4, 2018, the CD told Simpkins that he was having trouble with his vehicle and was unable to make the trip to Rhode Island. Gov't Exs. 3, 3-T. In a second, unrecorded call, Simpkins agreed to travel to Maine on April 28, 2018. On April 28, 2018, the CD confirmed that Simpkins was coming and asked Simpkins to let him know the price of the drugs before Simpkins left. Gov't Exs. 4, 4-T. Simpkins sent the CD a text that read: “heading out about 2…. 3850 if it ain't short.” Gov't Ex. 5.

         Based on the exchanges between the CD and Simpkins, agents with the DEA task force in Rhode Island started surveillance of Simpkins' home. Over a 45 minute period, DEA Task Force Officer (“TFO”) Martin Hames observed Simpkins load his vehicle with items, including a box, a plastic bag, and a pillow. Simpkins locked his vehicle between trips from the house to the car and scanned the area in a manner consistent with someone checking to see if he was being watched. Simpkins left his residence shortly before 2:00 p.m., and officers observed him stop in a nearby neighborhood. Another vehicle arrived, and Simpkins exited his own vehicle and entered the passenger seat of the other vehicle. The second vehicle drove a short distance before it made a U-turn and returned to where Simpkins' vehicle was parked. Simpkins went back to his vehicle and began driving north.

         MSP officers were waiting for Simpkins to arrive in Maine. When he did, he was stopped by three MSP officers, each driving a separate marked cruiser. The officers ordered Simpkins out of his vehicle at gunpoint, yelled at him to get on his knees, and handcuffed him.[3] Once Simpkins was handcuffed, an officer asked, “do you have anything on you?” Simpkins replied that he had a pocketknife but was otherwise unarmed. During a patdown search, MSP Sergeant Tom Pappas noticed an item and asked “what's that?” Simpkins replied, “just a little bit of fentanyl.” MSP Officer Jodell Wilkinson deployed her drug-detection dog first outside of the vehicle and then inside. The dog, which was trained to detect cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, did not alert to the scent of drugs during either sweep. Following the dog sniff, a team of officers began a hand search of Simpkins' car. Officers discovered an envelope in the vehicle that contained 11 Suboxone strips. Over an hour into the search, Officer Wilkinson found a smell-resistant bag inside of a lamp in the vehicle's trunk. The bag contained 200 oxycodone pills, 5 grams of cocaine, 28 methadone pills, 15 Viagra pills, 20 amphetamine pills, and 6 Suboxone strips.

         Approximately an hour after the stop and before officers found the bag with the opioids, DEA TFO Justin Huntley began a recorded interview with Simpkins in a police cruiser. After introducing himself and asking Simpkins' name, TFO Huntley read Simpkins his Miranda rights. Gov't Exs. 6B, 6B-T. TFO Huntley then informed Simpkins that he was being investigated for drug trafficking, and Simpkins repeatedly denied that he was trafficking drugs. From the cruiser, Simpkins could see the officers conducting the hand search of his vehicle. When he saw Officer Wilkinson open the lamp, Simpkins told TFO Huntley, “she found it all.” Simpkins was then formally arrested.


         The Defendant argues that the officers: (1) lacked probable cause to conduct a search of his vehicle; (2) were not justified in searching the vehicle incident to his arrest; and (3) subjected him to custodial interrogation without properly informing him of his Fifth Amendment rights.

         I. Probable Cause to Search

         I first consider the Defendant's argument that the officers lacked probable cause to search his vehicle in light of the CD's lack of credibility, the officers' failure to corroborate crucial pieces of information provided by the CD, and the dog's failure to alert. Police are usually required to secure a warrant before conducting a search. U.S. Const. amend. IV. Because of the mobility of vehicles, California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 390 (1985), and the “diminished expectation of privacy in automobiles, ” however, officers may search a vehicle without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime will be found. Byrd v. United States, 138 S.Ct. 1518, 1526 (2018) (citing California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565, 579 (1991)). “Probable cause only exists when the totality of the circumstances suggests that there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in the vehicle.” United States v. Gonsalves, 859 F.3d 95, 103 (1st Cir. 2017) (alteration, quotation marks, and citation omitted), cert. denied, 138 S.Ct. 367 (2017), and cert. denied, 138 S.Ct. 691 (2018).

         Where “the police act on information from a confidential informant, ‘law enforcement must provide some information from which a court can credit the informant's credibility.' ” Gonsalves, 859 F.3d at 103 (quoting United States v. White, 804 F.3d 132, 136 (1st Cir. 2015)). Factors relevant to an informant's credibility include “(1) the probable veracity and basis of knowledge of the informant; (2) whether an informant's statements reflect first-hand knowledge; (3) whether some or all of the informant's factual statements were corroborated wherever reasonable and practicable; and (4) whether a law enforcement officer assessed, from his professional standpoint, experience, and expertise, the probable significance of the informant's information.” Id. (quotation marks omitted). “Corroboration of even innocent activity reported in the tip may support a finding of probable cause.” United States v. Dixon, 787 F.3d 55, 59 (1st Cir. 2015) (alteration and quotation marks omitted)).

         In this case, the CD met with officers in person, and, although the CD had not previously worked with officers, the CD had knowledge of the Defendant's drug sales based on prior, regular purchases from the Defendant that were corroborated by text messages between the two. The officers corroborated much of the information the CD provided about “Rob.” Specifically, “Rob's” phone number was associated with the Defendant; the address associated with the phone number matched the CD's description of “Rob's” residence; and the color, make, and model of the Defendant's vehicle matched the CD's description. The CD also confirmed that the Department of Motor Vehicles picture of the Defendant was “Rob.” The phone calls and text messages recorded and observed by the agents were strong evidence that the Defendant was and had been supplying the CD with oxycodone and suboxone. The information provided by the CD was further bolstered by the officer's observations of the Defendant in Rhode Island before he left his house. The Defendant appeared to be checking his surroundings each time he brought items to his car, and each time he went back into his ...

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