Suspecting that a particular Chevy Tahoe might be involved in a methamphetamine-trafficking ring, DEA agents radioed the Lexington (Kentucky) Police, telling them that they "didn't know who was in the vehicle, didn't know anything about any weapons but basically the group was involved in meth." Officer Adam Ray, who responded, found the Tahoe and observed the driver, Marcus Adkins, fail to use a turn signal. He also suspected the tint on the windows was too dark.
So he pulled the car over. Ray noticed the passenger, Courtney Noble, was "extremely nervous." Ray administered a field sobriety test on Adkins, which he passed. Ray asked for permission to search the car, which Adkins gave -- but before he searched the car, Ray patted down both Adkins and Noble.
Turns out, Noble had meth and a loaded gun in his possession. This, in turn, led the DEA to a motel room where Dana Brooks was surrounded by meth-selling paraphernalia.
The Sixth Circuit reversed the trial court's denial of the motion to suppress, starting at the frisk. The court wanted to know: Why conduct a stop and frisk of Noble? She was just the passenger. A Terry stop has to be based on a belief that a suspect is armed and dangerous. The Sixth Circuit gave little credence to the government's arguments that the passenger's nervousness or the information Ray received about meth could form the basis of a Terry frisk.
First of all, nervousness has little to do with indicating whether someone is armed and dangerous. Second, drugs and guns might go together, but just because Noble was in a car connected to drug trafficking "is not an automatic green light for frisking that person." And while Ray might have been able to frisk Noble had he known either of them -- i.e., been aware of their criminal histories -- but he didn't. Both passenger and driver were compliant, and neither gave Ray any reason to believe they were armed. So, ultimately, there was no reason at all for Ray to frisk Adkins or Noble, the Sixth Circuit found.
After the trial court denied Noble's motion to suppress, Noble -- like many defendants in her position -- pleaded guilty. Finding that Ray lacked the suspicion necessary to conduct a pat-down search of Noble, the Sixth Circuit vacated her conviction. Makes sense.
What about Adkins and Brooks? Fourth Amendment rights are personal rights, and yet Adkins and Brooks latched onto Noble's motion to suppress. The government should have immediately challenged their standing to dismiss to the motion, but the government didn't for reasons the court couldn't discern. While finding this perplexing, the Sixth Circuit said that it had no choice but to rule in their favor, too, as the government waived its challenge (which they probably would have won) by not bringing it up on appeal. As a result, their convictions also got vacated.
Pretextual stops like these -- where undercover officers try to have uniformed officers pull a car over just so they can search it -- are apparently commonplace, the court noted. Hopefully less so after this.
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- United States v. Noble (FindLaw's Cases & Codes)
- Independent Dog Sniff Evidence Not Fruit of the Poisonous Tree (FindLaw's U.S. Sixth Circuit Blog)
- Here We Go Again: Warrantless GPS Tracking an Unreasonable Search? (FindLaw's U.S. Sixth Circuit Blog)
- Warrantless Search of Vehicle Nabs Missouri Drug Trafficker (FindLaw's U.S. Eighth Circuit Blog)