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United States v. Edwards

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

February 14, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
THOMAS GENE EDWARDS, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          SUSAN P. WATTERS United States District Judge

         On June 3, 2016, Deputy David Christensen of the McKenzic County South Dakota Sheriffs Office, stopped a truck driven by Defendant Thomas Gene Edwards. A pat-down search revealed drug paraphernalia and a subsequent search of the truck revealed guns and methamphetamine hidden in the truck. Edwards moves to suppress the incriminating evidence. (Doc. 26). Edwards argues that Christensen unreasonably prolonged the traffic stop and conducted an improper pat-down search. This Court held a hearing on February 14, 2017. At the hearing, the Court heard from Deputy Christensen and Fairview Police Officer Liza Harmon. After considering the parties' arguments and briefing, the Court DENIES the motion.

         1. Background

         On the evening of June 3, 2016, Deputy Christensen pulled over a green pickup for driving on Highway 200 without its rear registration lamps illuminated. (Doc. 30-2 at 1). The driver of the truck identified himself as Edwards. He told Deputy Christensen that he had borrowed the truck. (Id.). The passenger, later identified as Autumn Mist Guerrero, told Deputy Christensen that Edwards was driving her home. Deputy Christensen obtained Edwards' driver's licence, but Guerrero did not have any identification. Instead, she gave Deputy Christensen her married name, Autumn Vonnerheide, and date of birth. (Id.)

         During these initial introductions, Deputy Christensen noticed that Guerrero was attempting to position her torso in between him and some bags located on the floorboard of the passenger seat. (Id.). Based on his training and experience, this behavior made Deputy Christensen suspect a gun was in the vehicle. (Id.) He radioed for assistance and requested that Fairview Police Department Officer Liza Harmon assist him. (Id.).

         Deputy Christensen went back to his patrol car and ran Edwards' name through the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC), which indicated that Edwards had a restraining order out of Montana for a female. (Id.) NCIC also listed an officer caution warning regarding Edwards, indicating that he had exhibited violent tendencies. NCIC produced no information when Deputy Christensen input the name and date of birth Guerrero had provided. (Id.). Deputy Christensen testified that he believed she had provided him with a false name. This raised his concerns with respect to Edwards' restraining order because Deputy Christensen could not determine if Guerro was related to the restraining order and was in danger.

         Given the information he had learned about Edwards and his inability to verify Guerrero's identity, Deputy Christensen decided to interview the two separately to make sure that Guerrero was not the female associated with the restraining order against Edwards. (Id.). He told Edwards this and asked Edwards to get out of the truck, (Id.) He brought Edwards to the front of his patrol car and asked him if there were any illegal items in the truck. Edwards told him no. When Deputy Christensen asked for consent to search the truck, Edwards refused and told him that he had just gotten the truck and whatever illegal items it contained were not his. (Id.). He asked Edwards about the restraining order. While he was talking with Edwards, Officer Harmon arrived on the scene to assist. (Id.).

         Deputy Christensen asked Officer Harmon to attempt to identify the passenger. Officer Harmon testified that Guerrero told her that she gave Deputy Christensen her married name, but that her license might list her maiden name. Guerrero also told Officer Harmon that she had an expired license out of California and a Montana identification card. Officer Harmon told Deputy Christensen, who asked her to run the new name through NCIC. Officer Harmon went to her patrol car and ran the name.

         While Officer Harmon was running Guerrero's name through NCIC, Deputy Christensen finished up his interview with Edwards. He asked Edwards to consent to a pat-down search before he turned his back on Edwards to interview Guerrero. Edwards complied. As he was patting Edwards' right pocket, Deputy Christensen felt a small cylindrical object. Edwards told him that it was some broken glass he had picked up off the ground. Deputy Christensen suspected that the object was a knife. According to his report, Deputy Christensen removed the object from Edwards pocket for officer safety and saw it was a broken meth pipe with burnt residue in it. From Deputy Christensen's dash cam video, however, it appears that Edwards removed the broken pipe from his pocket and simultaneously, Deputy Christensen saw the pipe, took it, and placed it on the patrol car.

         Deputy Christensen immediately placed Edwards into handcuffs. He asked Officer Harmon to detain Guerrero. He advised them of their Miranda rights and asked Guerrero if any other illegal items were in the truck. She ultimately told him that there was a handgun in the truck and illegal items in a purple bag. Guerrero also told them that Edwards made her fear for her and her children's lives. Deputy Christensen and Officer Harmon searched the truck and found methamphetaminc, baggies, scales, and cash. (Id. at 2).

         II. Discussion

         Edwards makes two arguments in support of his motion. First, Edwards argues that Deputy Christensen unreasonably prolonged the traffic stop. Second, Edwards argues that Deputy Christensen conducted an improper pat-down search. The Court will address the arguments separately.

         A. Whether the stop was justifiably extended.

         Edwards does not contest that Deputy Christensen had reasonable suspicion to stop the truck. Edwards argues that Deputy Christensen unreasonably prolonged the stop when he failed to simply ask Guerrero while she was in the truck if she was the female related to Edward's restraining order. (Doc. 27 at 8). By failing to ask this simple question and receive a simple answer, Edwards ...


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