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United States v. Askew-Bell

April 2, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan B. Gottschall


This matter is before the court on a motion to suppress filed by the defendant, Ashley Colin Askew-Bell ("Askew-Bell"), on January 31, 2007. The government responded on February 14, 2007, and Askew-Bell filed her reply on February 21, 2007. The court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion on March 6, 2007. At the conclusion of that hearing, Askew-Bell requested the opportunity to file additional briefing. The court instructed both Askew-Bell and the government to file cross-briefs. Briefing was completed on March 19, 2007. The parties argued before the court on March 21, 2007. For the reasons set forth below, the motion to suppress is denied.


During the summer of 2006, three banks located within a mile of each other near the Howard Street border between Chicago and Evanston, Illinois, were robbed. On July 22, 2006, a Greater Bank located at the intersection of Howard and California streets, was robbed by an unidentified woman described by local authorities as a black female who wore sunglasses and a white top. Descriptions of the suspect also indicated that she was heavy-set and possibly pregnant. Suppression Hearing Transcript ("Tr.") 9. A photograph of the suspect taken by the bank's surveillance camera additionally revealed that she wore black pants and carried her purse high up underneath her arm. Gov't Ex. 1. After receiving a dispatch describing the suspect, Officer Ralph Mieszala, an Evanston police officer, went to the crime scene and was given a photocopy of a photograph of the suspect taken by the bank's surveillance camera.

On August 25, 2006, a Charter One Bank located on the Evanston side of Howard Street was robbed by an unidentified black heavy-set female. A day or two after the robbery, Officer Mieszala spoke with the detectives investigating the robbery. He reviewed footage of the bank's surveillance cameras, which had taken pictures of the bank robbery suspect. These were color photographs. They depicted a heavy-set black female wearing sunglasses similar to those worn by the suspect from the July 22nd robbery and carrying a similar purse.*fn1 Officer Mieszala took a photocopy of one of the images he viewed to keep with him on his clipboard. He kept this with the photocopy of a surveillance picture from the July 22 robbery. The bank robber had threatened the use of a gun during both robberies. Tr. 26.

On September 8, 2006, Officer Mieszala was on routine patrol in the area in which the robbed banks were located when he spotted Askew-Bell, a woman who matched the description of, and bore a strong resemblance to, the bank robbery suspect. Specifically, Askew-Bell, a black female who at the time was visibly pregnant, was seen wearing a white top, black pants, sunglasses similar to those worn by the suspect, and carrying a purse in the same manner as the suspect. At the suppression hearing, Officer Mieszala testified that Askew-Bell was a "dead ringer" for the suspect. Tr. 26.

Q: Did the person that you saw when you were driving eastbound resemble anyone that you had seen before?

Officer Mieszala: Yes. I mean, when I was driving and then, you know, I saw her, I mean, that was -- it was like I was looking at this photo --

Q: Who did that person look like?

Officer Mieszala: -- of the robbery from the Chicago bank on July 22, the one that --

Q: How close of a resemblance would you say it was?

Officer Mieszala: Very close. I mean, you know, as far as color of the clothing, the sunglasses, the way she carried her purse, I mean, it was like a slap in the face. It was like wow. There was no hesitation.

Tr. 24. Askew-Bell was walking westbound on Howard Street. After circling around the block a couple of times and re-checking the pictures he had with him, he got out of his car and approached Askew-Bell.

Officer Mieszala told Askew-Bell that she looked like someone the police were looking for and asked to see some identification. Officer Mieszala testified that he wanted to get her name so he could run it through the computer. Tr. 32, 90. Askew-Bell responded that she had no identification with her. Officer Mieszala testified that he thought it odd that she did not have identification. Tr. 29. Officer Mieszala then asked her for her name. She responded that it was "Bertha Sharp." When Officer Mieszala asked Askew-Bell to spell her name, she twice spelled it "S-H-R-P." She then corrected herself, spelling it "S-H-A-R-P." Officer Mieszala testified that at this point he believed Askew-Bell was giving him a false name. Tr. 30. He then asked her for her date of birth and address. After responding that she lived on Ridge and Chicago and that her date of birth was April 1, 1985, Askew-Bell stated that she had to go to the bathroom.

Officer Mieszala, who had not yet been able to run the name "Bertha Sharp" on the computer, told Askew-Bell that he would accompany her to the bathroom. The officer and Askew-Bell walked back to Dobson Plaza, a building Officer Mieszala had seen Askew-Bell exiting shortly before his encounter with her. As Askew-Bell was about to enter the bathroom, Officer Mieszala grabbed the purse from her shoulder and held it. Officer Mieszala testified he did this because he thought she might have a gun in her purse and because he was worried about her escaping through a window in the restroom.

Officer Mieszala: Well, we went in, turned the corner in the corridor, turned to the right, and she was going to go in, and then it just -- my thought was I probably shouldn't let her go in the bathroom, at least, you know, alone or something. If she's got a gun in the purse or something, I said, my first impression was she comes out and starts shooting old people in wheelchairs, that's not going to -- I was a little concerned, you know, that if I was dealing with the real suspect here, that could present problems. Plus I didn't know the layout of the Dobson Plaza, if that was an exterior wall where she could go out and -- I figured she's not telling me her true name, and if there is a window or something on an exterior wall that she could go out of, there is not way I could go in with her.

Tr. 32-33. Askew-Bell told Officer Mieszala that she needed the purse. Officer Mieszala responded that she did not need the purse to use the bathroom. Askew-Bell then stated that she needed a tampon from her purse. Officer Mieszala testified that he thought this was strange since Askew-Bell was visibly pregnant. He refused to give her the purse. Askew-Bell next said she needed some pills from the purse.

Officer Mieszala testified that at this point, he had become uncomfortable with the progression of events and did not think Askew-Bell should go into the bathroom alone. Tr. 35. He asked her to accompany him to the front of the building. Officer Mieszala testified he did this so he could get a female officer to search Askew-Bell and her purse. Id.

As Officer Mieszala and Askew-Bell were walking to the front of the Dobson Plaza, Askew-Bell turned and ran back into the plaza and out a side emergency exit. Officer Mieszala chased after her and called his dispatch to say a subject matching the description of a bank robber was fleeing from Dobson Plaza. Askew-Bell was apprehended by Officer Rust on the grass in front of Dobson Plaza. As Officer Rust was handcuffing Askew-Bell, Officer Mieszala dumped the contents of the handbag out on the grass beside her.

Inside the purse was Askew-Bell's school identification card, which bore her photograph and identified her as being Ashley Askew-Bell. Since the card did not contain a date of birth, Officer Mieszala opened up her wallet and saw part of a handwritten note stating "I have a ...

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