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United States v. Phillips

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

April 12, 2019




         Defendant Steven Wayne Phillips (“Phillips”) is charged with Possession of a Firearm not Registered in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 5861(d). (Doc. 1.) He has moved to suppress evidence under the Fourth Amendment. (Doc. 21.)

         On February 26, 2019, Judge Watters referred Phillips' motion to the undersigned, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Fed. R. Crim. P. Rule 59(a), for the purposes of conducting a hearing and issuing appropriate findings and recommendations. (Doc. 26.)

         Phillips asserts that the evidence obtained as a result of a traffic stop should be suppressed because: (1) the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to prolong the traffic stop to allow for a canine sniff; (2) whatever suspicions the officer had about the pill bottles found in Phillips' vehicle were negated when Phillips passed his field sobriety tests; and (3) the prolongation of the stop after field sobriety tests were completed violated the Fourth Amendment.

         The Court held an evidentiary hearing on March 25, 2019, and the parties presented evidence on the motion. Having considered the parties' arguments and submissions, the Court RECOMMENDS that Phillips' Motion to Suppress be DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Court heard testimony from Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Kristy Kees. The following facts are taken from the hearing testimony, and the exhibits attached to Phillips' brief, which were admitted into evidence at the hearing.[1]

         On September 19, 2017, at approximately 10:20 p.m., Trooper Kees pulled Phillips over because his license plate was expired. Phillips told Trooper Kees that he was driving to Hardin for work. He stated he worked for Ed's Salvage and Recycling. Phillips provided Trooper Kees with his insurance card and driver's license. Phillips explained that he did not have the registration for the vehicle because he had purchased it from Ed's Salvage and was waiting to get the title.

         Because Phillips could not provide any paperwork on the sale of the vehicle, Trooper Kees asked him if she could open the driver's side door to check the VIN. While Trooper Kees was looking at the VIN she noticed there were three prescription medication bottles in the pocket of the driver's side door. Phillips told her that one of the bottles belonged to his boss's wife, Kim, and the others came from salvaged vehicles. Two of the bottles contained pills. The first had a prescription label identifying it as Cyclobenzaprine, but the patient's name on the label was blacked out. The second bottle contained pills, but had no prescription information. The third bottle was empty.

         Trooper Kees testified that she noticed Phillips' eyes were bloodshot, he mumbled when he spoke, and he appeared gaunt. Based on these observations, combined with the pills she found in the vehicle, Trooper Kees suspected Phillips was possibly driving under the influence. Approximately 7 minutes into the stop, Trooper Kees ran Phillips' information through dispatch and requested a check for prior drug offenses. Dispatch responded that Phillips' license was valid. The records check was positive for drug history.

         Thereafter, Trooper Joshua French arrived on scene as backup. Trooper Kees showed him the pill bottles and relayed her suspicions that Phillips may be under the influence. She noted, however, that she did not witness any driving behaviors indicating impairment, and she did not smell anything on Phillips.

         Trooper French identified the pills in the unmarked second bottle as Adderall. This occurred approximately 13 minutes after Trooper Kees had stopped Phillips.

         Trooper Kees decided to conduct field sobriety tests, and asked Phillips to exit his vehicle. Phillips passed all of the field sobriety tests. Phillips then offered to call Kim to have her talk to the troopers about the pills found in his vehicle. Approximately 30 minutes into the stop, Trooper French spoke with Kim. Kim told Trooper French the Cyclobenzaprine was hers, but not the Adderall.

         While Trooper French spoke with Kim, Trooper Kees asked Phillips for consent to search the vehicle. He declined to give consent. After Trooper French ended the call with Kim, he advised Phillips that because he denied consent to search the vehicle, the troopers would call a canine unit and apply for a search warrant. Trooper French also ...

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