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State v. Christopher

Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle

March 17, 2014

STATE OF DELAWARE,
v.
ALLEN CHRISTOPHER, Defendant.

ORDER

Calvin L. Scott, Jr. Judge

AND NOW, TO WIT, this 17th day of March, 2014, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED as follows:

Introduction

Before the Court is Defendant Allen Christopher's ("Defendant") Motion to Suppress. Defendant seeks to suppress evidence contained inside envelopes seized during a search of Defendant's backpack. Defendant challenges the search and seizure of the items inside the envelopes for violation of his rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 6 of the Delaware Constitution. The Court has reviewed the parties' submissions and held a suppression hearing. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is DENIED.

Findings of Fact

On September 4, 2013 at approximately 11:50 p.m., Corporal Johnson and Corporal Larney ("Cpl. Larney") arrived at a rest-stop on I-95 in response to a report that a passenger, who was later determined to be Defendant, threatened a bus driver with a firearm. Upon the officers' arrival, the driver explained that, after instructing Defendant to put his shoes on and sit properly, Defendant responded with racially offensive language. In addition, the driver stated that Defendant warned the driver to mind his business or there would be trouble while patting his side as if he had a firearm.

Defendant was inside the rest-stop and was escorted out to speak to police by the rest-stop's manager, who was carrying Defendant's backpack. One of the officers conducted a pat-down of defendant. In addition, the officers searched the bus and surrounding area, but did not find any weapons. Cpl. Larney explained the driver's allegations to Defendant and Defendant denied having a firearm. The manager handed Cpl. Larney the backpack. Cpl. Larney asked Defendant whether he could search the backpack and defendant agreed.

While searching the backpack, Cpl. Larney discovered clothes and three standard letter-sized white envelopes. One of the envelopes was partially ripped in the top corner, which enabled Cpl. Larney to see a credit card in plain view. When Cpl. Larney felt the envelope, he believed the rest of the items in the envelope to be more credit cards. Cpl. Larney then asked Defendant what the envelopes contained and Defendant stated that they contained "business documents." Cpl. Larney believed this response to be odd because the items did not feel like documents. Cpl. Larney repeated his question, Defendant appeared nervous. Without further ripping the envelope, Cpl. Larney then manipulated the contents with one or two fingers and discovered that the other items were multiple drivers' licenses. At no time did Defendant indicate that Cpl. Larney's was not permitted to search the envelopes.

Cpl. Larney then asked for Defendant's identification and Defendant provided a Pennsylvania driver's license. Although the license contained Defendant's photograph, certain characteristics led Cpl. Larney to believe the license was unofficial. Cpl. Larney then placed Defendant under arrest and handcuffed Defendant based on suspicion of a fraudulent ID card and menacing. Thereafter, Cpl. Larney opened all three envelopes which contained a total of 75 credit cards and 9 identification cards. At the suppression hearing, Cpl. Larney testified that when an individual is arrested and carrying a bag, he typically will inventory the contents of the bag.

Discussion

Defendant moves to suppress the evidence seized from the envelopes on the ground that they were outside of the scope of Defendant's consent to search his backpack. Defendant argues that, while he consented to the search of the backpack, the consent was limited to searching for a firearm, which would not have fit inside the envelopes. [1] Because the Court finds that the envelopes were searched as part of a valid search incident to arrest, the Court does not reach the issue of consent. Alternatively, the search of the envelopes would have been inevitably discovered through an inventory search.

When a defendant moves to suppress a search or seizure on U.S. and Delaware constitutional grounds, the burden is on the State to prove by a preponderance of evidence that the challenged search or seizure was conducted in accordance with the defendant's constitutional rights.[2] In the absence of exigent circumstances, a warrantless search is per se unreasonable unless a valid exception applies.[3] Exceptions to the warrant requirement include:

investigatory stops, warrantless arrests, searches incident to a valid arrest, seizures of items in plain view, searches and seizures justified by exigent circumstances, consent searches, searches of vehicles, inventory searches, administrative searches, and searches in which the special needs of law enforcement make the probable cause and warrant requirements impracticable.[4]

Under the search incident to arrest exception, "immediately upon arrest an officer may lawfully search the person of an arrestee; he may also search the area within the arrestee's immediate control."[5] The ...


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