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United States of America v. Edward M. Watson

May 17, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stiehl, District Judge


Before the Court is defendant's motion to suppress (Doc. 15), to which the government filed a reply (Doc. 24). This Court held a hearing on this motion and took the matter under advisement. Defendant asserts that the Court should suppress as evidence items seized from and statements made by the defendant, because defendant's vehicle was illegally searched, and the statements made were a direct result of the illegal search.


Defendant was pulled over by Special Agent Nicholas Manns, FBI, and Illinois State Trooper Matt Renner, members of the Working Against Violent Elements (or "W.A.V.E.") detail, in East St. Louis, Illinois. The officers noticed that defendant was not wearing a seatbelt, and he cut through a parking lot, avoiding a traffic light. Defendant provided his license to officers, who discovered after checking his license, that he was driving with a suspended license. When officers asked defendant whether he had anything illegal in the car, he initially said no, but when asked again, he would not answer. The officers asked defendant to get out of the vehicle, handcuffed him, and escorted him to the rear of the vehicle. Without defendant's consent and without a warrant, the officers searched defendant's vehicle, found two firearms, ammunition, and a small amount of marijuana. The officers told defendant, and later reported, that the search was performed incident to defendant's arrest. After the search, and after officers informed defendant of his Miranda rights and had him sign a waiver, he provided a statement, which was videotaped in the patrol car of one of the officers. Because the defendant had a suspended license and no passengers were in the car, the officers decided to tow the vehicle, and an officer called a tow truck while the interview was taking place. After giving his statement, defendant convinced officers not to tow his car because he needed it to get to work. The officers obliged, cancelled the tow truck, did not take defendant into custody, issued traffic violations, and drove defendant and his vehicle to his grandmother's house with instructions that he could not drive the vehicle with a suspended license.


"[S]earches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment-subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions." Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967) (footnote omitted). In order for the Court to determine that evidence obtained or statements made pursuant to a warrantless search can be admitted, "the government must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the search fell within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement." United States v. Zahursky, 580 F.3d 515, 521 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing United States v. Basinski, 226 F.3d 829, 833 (7th Cir. 2000)). The preponderance of the evidence standard is understood as meaning "more likely than not, i.e., probable or likely rather than just possible." United States v. Breland, 356 F.3d 787, 795 (7th Cir. 2004) (internal quotations omitted).


A. Search Incident to Lawful Arrest

One exception to the warrant requirement is a search incident to a lawful arrest, which is excepted based on "interests in officer safety and evidence preservation that are typically implicated in arrest situations." Arizona v. Gant, 129 S. Ct. 1710, 1716 (2009) (citing United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 230-34 (1973); Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 763 (1969);Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383, 392 (1914)).

In Chimel, the Supreme Court further defined the search incident to arrest exception, holding that the search is limited to "the arrestee's person and the area 'within his immediate control' - construing that phrase to mean the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence." 395 U.S. at763.

In New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 460 (1981), the Supreme Court held that "when a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile" and any containers found within the passenger compartment. Finally, in Gant, the Supreme Court further refined its earlier decisions by holding that:

Police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. When these justifications are absent, a search of an arrestee's vehicle will be unreasonable unless police obtain a warrant or show that another exception to the warrant requirement applies.

Gant, 129 S. Ct. at 1723-24. The search incident to arrest exception is not applicable if there is "no possibility that an arrestee could reach into the area that law enforcement officers seek to search." Gant, 129 S. Ct. at 1716.

In Gant, officers knew, prior to his arrest, that defendant Gant had a suspended driver's license and that there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest for driving with a suspended license. Id. at 1715. After arresting two individuals at a residence in which drug activity was suspected, Gant pulled into the driveway, officers recognized him, arrested and handcuffed him after he stepped out of his vehicle. Id. The other arrestees were already handcuffed and locked in separate patrol cars, and upon arrival of backup officers, Gant was also placed in the back of a patrol car. Id. Once Gant was locked in the patrol car, officers searched his car and found a gun ...

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