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United States v. O'Connell

United States District Court, D. Maine

June 6, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
CHARLES O'CONNELL, Defendant.

          ORDER ON MOTION TO SUPPRESS

          George Z. Singal United States District Judge

         Before the Court is Defendant Charles O'Connell's Motion to Suppress (ECF No. 28). The Court held an evidentiary hearing on this Motion on May 16, 2019. Having considered the evidence presented at the hearing, as well as the arguments advanced by counsel, the Court DENIES the Motion for the reasons explained below.

         I. FACTUAL FINDINGS

         On November 1, 2018, Maine State Trooper Jason Wing worked a drug interdiction detail on I-95 in conjunction with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency (“MDEA”). That day, shortly after 4 P.M., MDEA Agent Scott Corey contacted Wing by radio regarding a special interest vehicle. Agent Corey told Wing that he had seen a vehicle that he recognized “as having prior contacts with drug trafficking” coming through the Hampton tolls. Corey gave Wing the vehicle's plate number and said it was registered to Kevin Fecteau. Wing eventually located the vehicle, a Chevrolet truck, based on its license plate and began to follow it northbound.

         Wing trailed the truck and observed its operation in the middle lane amidst moderate to heavy traffic. Over a couple miles, Wing saw the truck cross the lane dividers at least once and jerk from side-to-side within the lane multiple times, including once where the truck moved from the right lane dividers all the way to the left side of the lane. Based on his training and experience, Wing considered these movements indicative of impaired or distracted driving. Wing also noted that the truck remained in the middle lane without actively passing other cars as required by Maine law. Believing he had seen two traffic violations-impaired or distracted driving and a middle lane violation-Trooper Wing decided to stop the truck. Before doing so, he requested backup from Trooper Adam Schmidt whom he knew had a drug detection dog. Wing routinely calls for assistance when stopping special interest vehicles. Such stops can be dangerous and, as a result, Schmidt understood Wing's request to be related to both safety and a potential drug sniff.

         After contacting Schmidt, Wing merged into the middle lane behind the truck and initiated a traffic stop. Wing approached the vehicle and began to speak with the driver. In attempting to ascertain whether the driver was impaired, Wing asked the driver where he was coming from and going to and scrutinized his body movements. The driver said he was coming from Seabrook, New Hampshire, and returning to Biddeford, Maine. Wing observed that the driver was breathing heavily and evading his gaze to an abnormal degree, which he considered signs of illegal activity. The driver denied being impaired but admitted that he had been distracted by trying to make a phone call. During this exchange, Wing noted that the driver's phone rang repeatedly. Wing also requested and received license and registration. These documents identified the driver as Defendant Charles O'Connell and confirmed MDEA's report that Kevin Fecteau owned the truck. The third-party registration enhanced Wing's suspicion of a criminal drug enterprise because, in his experience, drug traffickers often utilize third-party vehicles.

         Eventually, Wing asked O'Connell to exit the truck so he could continue to evaluate whether O'Connell was impaired. Though O'Connell complied and exhibited no signs of impairment, he had already admitted to being distracted and the middle lane violation remained unsettled. Wing then conducted a pat-down for weapons, talked with O'Connell briefly, and returned to his cruiser to run records checks. As he performed those checks, Wing called Agent Corey, asked if he was familiar with O'Connell, and requested that he research a “no access allowed” report disclosed by one of the checks. Corey stated that he would review the report and Wing exited his cruiser to speak with Trooper Schmidt who had just arrived.

         Wing relayed what he had learned to Schmidt for about forty seconds and then they separated. Wing returned to his cruiser and continued his records checks-including probation and bail-and Schmidt approached O'Connell, who had remained outside the truck, to ensure officer safety.[1] During Wing and Schmidt's conversation, Agent Corey had been attempting to contact Wing over the radio. Approximately twenty seconds after Wing re-entered his cruiser, Corey reached out again and told Wing that the “no access allowed” report was a drug intel report from March 2018 stating that O'Connell was dealing heroin out of his apartment. Upon hearing this, Wing exited his cruiser, waited a moment for Schmidt to step away from O'Connell, and the two conferred about whether O'Connell's stated travel itinerary was consistent with his sighting at the Hampton tolls. The Troopers then re-engaged O'Connell to clarify where he was coming from.[2] By the end of that inquiry, just over nine minutes had passed since the initial stop.

         Following the travel questions, Schmidt mentioned that he had a drug detection dog. O'Connell's eyes began to water in response, which Schmidt interpreted as a sign that O'Connell was engaged in criminal activity that he wanted to conceal.[3] Schmidt informed O'Connell that he would be conducting a drug sniff and asked if there were drugs in the truck. O'Connell replied in the negative. Schmidt asked O'Connell how his “habit” had been, and O'Connell responded that it had been “fine.” This added to Schmidt's suspicions of drug-related activity because, in his experience, non-drug users usually deny any kind of habit. With Wing and O'Connell standing off to the side, Schmidt conducted the sniff. About fourteen minutes into the stop, the dog alerted to the presence of narcotics in the truck. An ensuing vehicle search revealed a cellophane wrapper with off-white residue that Schmidt believed to be drugs. Wing then searched O'Connell and, after asking him to remove his boots, found a plastic bag of powder later confirmed to be fentanyl. Eventually, Wing arrested O'Connell and transported him to the station.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Defendant seeks suppression of all seized evidence based on two alleged violations of his Fourth Amendment rights: (1) Wing lacked reasonable suspicion to pull him over; and (2) the officers unreasonably prolonged the stop. The Court addresses these arguments in turn.

         A. Initiation of the Stop

         Defendant's first argument is easily dispatched as Wing had enough evidence to initiate the traffic stop. “A traffic stop constitutes a seizure of ‘everyone in the vehicle' for purposes of the Fourth Amendment and thus must be supported by reasonable suspicion that a traffic violation has occurred.” United States v. Chaney, 584 F.3d 20, 24 (1st Cir. 2009). Reasonable suspicion exists where, based on the totality of the circumstances, an officer has “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting legal wrongdoing.” United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273 (2002) (internal citations and quotations omitted). Here, over the course of just a few miles and in moderate traffic, Wing observed Defendant's truck crossing the lane dividers, jerking back and forth in the lane, and, at least once, swerving all the way across the lane. These observations provided him with a “particularized and objective basis” to believe that Defendant was driving while impaired.[4] Arvizu, 534 U.S. at 277; see State v. Porter, 960 A.2d 321, 323-324 (Me. 2008) (finding reasonable suspicion of impaired driving under Maine law where, over a quarter mile, officer saw the defendant's vehicle cross center line, move across the lane to touch the fog line, and then move back and touch the center line). Thus, the Court declines to suppress any evidence on the ground that the stop was unlawful at its inception.

         B. ...


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