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United States v. Cephas

United States District Court, D. Delaware

February 3, 2014



LEONARD P. STARK, District Judge.

On July 23, 2013, a federal grand jury returned a one-count indictment against Vaughan Cephas ("Defendant"), charging him with possession of explosive materials after having been convicted of a crime punishable by a term of imprisonment exceeding one year, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 842(i) and 844(a). (D.I. 3) The charges stem from a warrantless search of Defendant's vehicle on July 4, 2013. After Defendant moved to suppress (D.I. 18) approximately 22 Fused FX Simulator Explosives that were seized, as well as statements he made to law enforcement officers, [1] the Court conducted an evidentiary hearing (see D.I. 32 ("Tr.")) and then received post-hearing briefing (see D.I. 31, 33, 34).[2] The Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3231 and now DENIES the motion.


Pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 12(d), the following constitutes this Court's essential findings of fact.

1. On July 4, 2013, at approximately 10:00 p.m., Wilmington Police Department ("WPD") Officer Jesus Caez ("Caez") received a distress call from another WPD patrol unit requesting that he respond to the rear parking lot of the William Hicks Anderson Community Center, near North Madison Street, in Wilmington, Delaware. (Tr. at 5-7).[3] The other WPD unit expressed a belief it was taking mortar fire from unknown individuals. (Id. at 7) That is, individuals appeared to be igniting and launching illegal fireworks in the area. (See id.) Consequently, Caez reported to the scene and began conducting surveillance around 10:15 p.m. (ld. at 9)

2. Officer Caez, who had a flashlight, observed that the area was lit by large floodlights. (Id.) Officer Caez noticed a teal green Buick LeSabre parked in the parking lot of the Anderson building. (ld. at 7) He saw that the Buick's front windshield was not tinted, although the side and rear windows were tinted. (ld.; see also D.l. 18 at 1) No one was inside the automobile. (See Tr. at 16)

3. Officer Caez approached the automobile and could see through the untinted front windshield into the vehicle, in which he noticed boxes of fireworks. (Id. at 11-12) Looking through the front untinted windshield, Officer Caez saw a large quantity of fireworks stacked on top of one another to a height above the front seat headrests in the vehicle's back seating area. (Id. at 8) Officer Caez also shined his flash light through the driver's side door window, the driver's side rear window, and the back windshield and, as a result, was able to view the fireworks up close. (Id. at 9) Caez testified: "I looked in through the windshield and I saw large boxes of fireworks, so at that point I took my flashlight and I lit up inside the vehicle and I [saw] a large quantity of fireworks stacked in the rear seat area. They were stacked above the headrest." (Id. at 8-9) With the aid of his flashlight, Officer Caez could see fireworks through each of the vehicle's windows. (Tr. at 9) Officer Caez additionally noticed a silver, tubular, mortar style firework, with a wick, packaged in a clear sandwich bag, sticking out from under the driver seat inside the automobile. (Id. at 25)

4. Although most of the fireworks were in boxes, Officer Caez knew the boxes contained fireworks as a result of the labels, his prior patrol experiences on Independence Day (a day on which possession and use of fireworks is not uncommon), and from seeing fireworks before. (Id. at 12) Officer Caez also observed some type of explosive packaged in a clear sandwich-type bag and sticking out from under the driver's seat, meaning he saw through the windows and directly observed at least one actual firework or explosive device. (Id. at 24-25)

5. Another officer moved the Buick to permit inspection by the evidence detection unit. (Id. at 21) While the evidence detection unit searched the vehicle and took photographs of its contents (several of which were admitted into evidence at the hearing), Officer Caez transported Defendant to a police station. (Id. at 11, 21, 23-24) The evidence obtained from the Buick included explosives and fireworks. (See D.I. 31 at 1)

6. Officer Caez was familiar with Defendant before July 4, 2013 and had seen Defendant driving this particular Buick LeSabre, so he associated the vehicle with Cephas. (Tr. at 20) No evidence was introduced as to how and when Cephas was arrested, when he made statements to law enforcement, or what those statements may have been.


When a defendant challenges the legality of a warrantless search and seizure, the burden is on the government to demonstrate, by a preponderance of the evidence, that it acted lawfully and consistent with a defendant's constitutional rights. See United States v. Johnson, 63 F.3d 242, 245 (3d Cir. 1995); United States v. Ritter, 416 F.3d 256, 261 (3d Cir. 2005). "[T]he government bears the burden of proving that a search was reasonable where, as here, that search was conducted absent a warrant." United States v. Headen, 264 Fed.Appx. 244, 246 (3d Cir. 2008).

"[S]earches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by a judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment - subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions." Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 338 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted); United States v. Hartwell. 436 F.3d 174, 177 (3d Cir. 2006). One such exception is the automobile exception, which allows law enforcement to search an automobile without a warrant if"probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband." Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940 (1996); see United States v. Burton, 288 F.3d 91, 100 (3d Cir. 2002). The automobile exception may be applied in the absence of exigent circumstances, see Maryland v. Dyson, 527 U.S. 465, 466-67 (1999) (stating ready mobility of automobiles permits their search based only on probable cause), and applies whenever a vehicle is "readily capable" or "being used on the highways" and "is found stationary in a place not regularly used for residential purposes, " California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 392 (1985).

Probable cause exists when the totality of the circumstances reasonably demonstrate that evidence of criminality is contained in the vehicle. See Dyson, 527 U.S. at 467. Law enforcement needs to have an "articulable and particularized" suspicion of criminal activity to justify a ...

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