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State v. Morris

Superior Court of Delaware, Kent

January 17, 2019

STATE OF DELAWARE,
v.
JOHN L. MORRIS, Defendant.

          Submitted: January 11, 2019

          Sean A. Motoyoshi, Esquire of the Department of Justice, Dover, Delaware; attorney for the State.

          Alexander W. Funk, Esquire of Curley Dodge Funk & Street, LLC, Dover, Delaware; attorney for Defendant.

          ORDER

          Honorable William L. Witham, Jr. Resident Judge

         INTRODUCTION

         Before this Court is Defendant John L. Morris' ("Morris") Motion to Suppress. Morris moves to suppress all statements and evidence collected pursuant to a traffic stop conducted by a Milford Police Department officer in Milford, Delaware. After carefully considering the merits of Morris' motion, the State's response in opposition, and oral arguments made at the suppression hearing, the Court finds that reasonable suspicion was present to conduct the traffic stop and subsequently, probable cause was demonstrated that justified a lawful arrest. However, the Court also finds that Miranda warnings were not properly given, and thus, a Constitutional right was violated as a result.

         Therefore, for the reasons set forth below, Morris' motion to suppress is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         At approximately 2:30 p.m. on April 21, 2018, Officer Cory Swan ("Officer Swan"), of the Milford Police Department, was on patrol when he observed a Maroon Buick, with heavily tinted windows, traveling northbound on Highway 113 in Milford, Delaware. After passing the Buick on its left, Officer Swan was unable to see the driver through the rolled up, tinted window, nor could he determine how many occupants were inside the vehicle due to the darkness of the tint. Officer Swan pulled over and conducted a DELJIS search of the Buick to verify whether it had a valid tint waiver. It did not. Officer Swan's DELJIS inquiry also revealed that the Buick was registered as a dark green Buick, rather than maroon. After Officer Swan caught up to the Buick, he activated the emergency equipment on his patrol vehicle, indicating for the Buick to pull over. The Buick complied, and pulled into a parking lot and lowered the driver's side window.[1]

         Upon approaching, Officer Swan smelled an "overwhelming" odor of marijuana coming from inside the Buick.[2] During his initial interaction with Morris, the driver and sole occupant of the Buick, Officer Swan asked questions normally associated with police officers conducting a traffic stop. Early into the interaction, Officer Swan observed Morris light a cigarette and repeatedly reach for his front pocket. This prompted Officer Swan to instruct Morris twice to keep his hands visible. Despite the instructions, Morris then reached for the glove compartment, resulting in Officer Swan ordering him out of the Buick. Morris again failed to comply and positioned his body to conceal his hands. Officer Swan again ordered Morris out of the vehicle, and he finally complied, with an assist from Officer Swan and was immediately hand-cuffed and placed under arrest.[3]

         After Morris was arrested, he stated that was nervous. When Officer Swan asked why he was nervous, Morris indicated that he had "a little bit of weed"[4] and that it was in the Buick. As Officer Swan searched Morris' person, a pill bottle fell out of his left pant leg and was found to contain a white, powdery substance. After Officer Swan confronted Morris regarding the powder, Morris admitted that he possessed "dope," as well as marijuana.[5] The search of Morris' person continued and yielded other drugs and weapons.[6] During the subsequent search of Morris' Buick, Officer Swan and other Milford Police officers discovered more drugs.[7]

         As a result, Morris was charged with multiple drug and weapons charges including:

(a) 2 counts of Drug Dealing in violation of 16 Del. C. § 4753(1)-(2);
(b) 2 counts of Aggravated Possession in violation of 16 Del. C. § 4752(3);
(c)2 counts of Possession of a Deadly Weapon during the Commission of a Felony in violation of 11 Del. C. § \AA1;
(d) 2 counts of Carrying a Concealed Deadly Weapon in violation of 11 Del. C. § 1442;
(e) 1 count of Possession of Drug Paraphernalia in violation of 16 Del. C. § 4771(a);
(f) 2 counts of Illegal Possession of a Controlled Substance in violation of 16 Del. C.§ 4763(a); and
(g)1 count of Operating a Vehicle with Improper Window Tinting in violation of 21 Del. C £4313.

         Morris filed this timely motion to suppress on August 27, 2018, moving to suppress statements made incident to his arrest and evidence seized as a result of his incriminating statements. The State's response in opposition was filed on September 17, 2018. A suppression hearing, including oral arguments, was held on January 11, 2019 and the Court reserved judgment.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When presented with a motion to suppress evidence or statements collected in a warrantless search, the State bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, "that the challenged police conduct comported with the rights guaranteed [to the defendant] by the United States Constitution, the Delaware Constitution and Delaware statutory law."[8] At a suppression hearing, the trial judge sits as the trier of fact, and determines the credibility of witnesses.[9]

         PARTIES CONTENTIONS

         Morris' motion moves to suppress all evidence and statements collected by Officer Swan at the traffic stop. First, Morris argues that Officer Swan had no reasonable suspicion to conduct the traffic stop.[10] Second, he contends that Officer Swan lacked probable cause to lawfully arrest him.[11] Finally, Morris asserts that Officer Swan's failure to Mirandize him violated his Fifth Amendment rights and can not be "relied upon for purposes of justifying the warrantless search of [ ] Morris' vehicle."[12]

         In opposition, the State counters that the lack of a tint waiver and the discrepancy regarding the Buick's color was sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion to conduct the traffic stop.[13] The State then argues that Officer Swan had the required probable cause to lawfully arrest Morris based on the detection of marijuana, coupled with Morris' conduct during the traffic stop.[14] Finally, regarding Morris' Miranda claim, the State, at the suppression hearing, conceded that Officer Swan failed to Mirandize Morris and thus, violated his Fifth Amendment rights. As a result, the State abandoned its opposition to suppression of Morris' statements made after he was arrested. However, the State maintains that Morris was in custody, for purposes of Miranda, only after he was ordered out of the Buick and hand-cuffed by Officer Swan. Officer Swan's initial questions, the State contends, were part of an "investigative detention" and thus, should survive suppression.

         DISCUSSION

         The Court first must determine whether Officer Swan had reasonable suspicion to conduct the traffic stop. Morris contends that Officer Swan's traffic stop was unsupported by reasonable suspicion because "[a] review of the [m]obile [v]ideo [Recording reflects that [Defendant] had not committed a traffic violation, or any other criminal offense, prior to being seized by [Officer Swan]."[15] However, at the suppression hearing, Morris abandoned that argument after the State introduced evidence documenting the events leading up to and during the traffic stop that clearly demonstrated the Buick's windows were tinted. The State also presented evidence that Morris did not have a tint waiver.

         Assuming arguendo, that Morris had not abandoned his argument, the Court would nevertheless find that Officer Swan had reasonable suspicion to conduct the traffic stop.[16]

         A. Officer Swan Had Reasonable Suspicion to Conduct Traffic Stop

         Pursuant to 21 Del. C.§ 2144(a), a police officer may "upon reasonable cause," stop a vehicle to investigate a possible equipment defect.[17] A police officer may also detain an individual if he or she has reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.[18]Reasonable suspicion exists when a police officer can "point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the intrusion."[19] This "must be evaluated in the context of the totality of the circumstances as viewed through the eyes of a reasonable, trained police officer in the same or similar circumstances, combining objective facts with such an officer's subjective interpretation of those facts."[20] Reasonable suspicion is "less demanding [ ] than probable cause and requires a showing considerably less than preponderance of the evidence ...."[21]

         i. The Buick's Window Tint Established Necessary Reasonable Suspicion that ...


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