U.S. v. PALMER, No. 14-4736

Decided: April 21, 2016

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the ruling of the district court.

On October 15, 2013, Officer Ring of the Chesapeake police stopped Michael Jerome Palmer (“Palmer”) because the windows of his car were tinted too dark and because the inspection sticker on the front windshield of the car appeared fraudulent. After a database check, Ring learned that Palmer had a gang affiliation. Upon another search of the database LInX, Ring learned that Palmer had a criminal record that included arrests for drug charges and firearm possession. Ring returned to the car and decided to inspect the sticker that he suspected was fraudulent. Ring asked Palmer to exit the vehicle and leaned inside the driver’s side door to inspect the sticker. While reading the sticker, Ring smelled marijuana. Ring wanted to be sure that the car contained drugs, so he called an officer with a drug dog to search the vehicle. After the search, the officers discovered a plastic bag containing crack cocaine and a 40-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol wedged between the driver’s seat. Palmer was immediately arrested. The district court conducted an evidentiary hearing where Ring explained his actions and the evidence that had been presented. Palmer moved that the evidence be suppressed and the district court denied this motion, citing eight supporting factors. Palmer plead guilty to the indictment but appealed the suppression ruling to the Fourth Circuit. Palmer alleged that there was no objectively reasonable basis for the traffic stop, that Ring unreasonably expanded the scope of the stop after it began, and that Ring’s entry into the car was constitutionally impermissible under the Fourth Amendment.

The Court reviewed the district court’s ruling de novo with respect to reasonable suspicion and probable cause, but absent clear error, will not disturb factual findings made by a district court after an evidentiary hearing on suppression issues. As to Palmer’s arguments in favor of suppression, the Court utilized the two-prong standard from Terry v. Ohio to assess the constitutionality of the traffic stop. The Court reasoned that the first prong of Terry was satisfied because Ring was familiar with the limits on window tint under Virginia law and in his view, the car’s windows were too dark. The Court stated that there was nothing that indicated the district court erred in crediting Ring’s testimony on that issue. The Court further reasoned that the second prong of Terry was satisfied in this case. The court concluded that Ring’s actions prior to examining the sticker were permissible under Terry’s second prong because he did not unreasonably expand the scope of the traffic stop. The Court reasoned that the factors present at the stop demonstrated a connection to possible criminal activity, thus satisfying Terry’s second prong. Furthermore, the Court determined that Palmer did not have a legitimate expectation of privacy that was infringed by the search of his car. The Court also determined that the district court did not err in finding that Ring had a reasonable suspicion that the inspection sticker was fraudulent. The Court further found that the means of investigation was not unreasonable given the circumstances. Therefore, the Court determined that the second prong of Terry was satisfied and no constitutional violation occurred.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the district court.

Full Opinion

Michael W. Rabb

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