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State v. Stephens

Superior Court of Delaware

February 25, 2019


          CRA#S18-09-0121 - 0127

          Stephanie A. Tsantes, Esquire Office of Defense Services

          Derek G. Gay, Esquire Department of Justice


         Dear Counsel:

         Pending before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Suppress. For the following reasons, the Motion is GRANTED.

         I. FACTS

         Defendant Robin Stephens has been charged by the State of Delaware ("State") in a seven count indictment with, inter alia, criminal impersonation and drug dealing. The charges originated from a traffic stop by Delaware State Police officers who are a part of the Governor's Task Force. The stop occurred in the early morning hours of August 14, 2018, on a country road outside of Millsboro, Delaware.

         Defendant was riding in a vehicle operated by Francisco Sandoval. While patrolling in an unmarked police vehicle Corporal Leonard DeMato of the Delaware State Police observed Mr. Sandoval fail to stop at a stop sign as he traveled westbound on Mount Joy Road, through its intersection, and turned south on to Hollyville Road. Corporal DeMato followed Mr. Sandoval and, shortly after leaving the intersection, activated his lights to signal Mr. Sandoval to stop. Mr. Sandoval complied. Corporal DeMato first notified fellow officers Detective Wallace and Detection Ralston of the stop, then approached Mr. Sandoval's vehicle on the passenger side. Corporal DeMato asked Mr. Sandoval for his license, registration and insurance card and, while Mr. Sandoval was retrieving his papers, Corporal DeMato asked the occupants of the vehicle, which included Defendant and a rearseated female occupant, what their business abroad was that morning. Defendant responded they were traveling to aid a friend who was stranded. According to Corporal DeMato, Defendant appeared "incredibly nervous", as evidenced by Defendant's rapid breathing and repeated attempts to show the officer his cell phone text messages while also talking to someone on the phone. It appeared that Defendant was trying to substantiate his claim that a friend was stranded by showing Corporal DeMato text messages. Corporal DeMato also testified Defendant had a "...complete unwillingness to make eye contact...".

         Corporal DeMato then asked both passengers for identification and each responded that they had none. He asked Defendant his name and, according to Corporal DeMato, Defendant's level of nervousness "visibly escalated", but he identified himself as Dion Stephens. Corporal DeMato then asked Defendant his birth date. After a pause, Defendant answered, "1978", then paused again before adding "12-16". Corporal DeMato thought and testified at the suppression hearing that the way Defendant answered the question about his birth date was unusual and suspicious. Corporal DeMato then asked Defendant his Social Security number and Defendant said he did not know it. Corporal DeMato asked him for the last four digits of his Social Security number and Defendant repeated the same answer.

         While Corporal DeMato did not know it at the time, Defendant gave a false name and date of birth.

         After Defendant failed to provide his Social Security number, Corporal DeMato asked Defendant to step out of the vehicle. Defendant complied. Corporal DeMato made the decision to handcuff Defendant and, after a short period in which Defendant had difficulty understanding what Corporal DeMato wanted him to do, Defendant turned away from Corporal DeMato who then applied the handcuffs. Corporal DeMato took this step because of the "...unusually high level of nervous behavior", and because DeMato suspected Defendant had fabricated answers to his questions.

         Then things got really interesting. Corporal DeMato walked Defendant towards his police vehicle, intending to search him prior to placing hin inside the vehicle, "...for an arrest for criminal impersonation...". In the process, he saw Defendant clutching something in his right hand. Corporal DeMato tried to pry Defendant's fingers apart and, while doing so, Defendant broke loose from control and ran to a nearby field. Corporal DeMato took up the chase, tackled Defendant in short order, and took him back to his vehicle.

         Detective Wallace searched in the field and located a ball cap which had fallen from Defendant's head. Near the cap Detective Wallace found two plastic baggies which, it was ultimately determined, contained cocaine.

         But the events of the evening were not yet finished. While Corporal DeMato and Detective Wallace were occupied by the Defendant, Detective Ralston approached the operator of the vehicle Mr. Sandoval, and told Mr. Sandoval he was being detained for investigation. Detective Ralston asked Mr. Sandoval if he was in possession of anything illegal. Mr. Sandoval eventually admitted he had two baggies of heroin. Detective Ralston found three bags of what was determined to be heroin in Mr. Sandoval's pants pocket. A search of the vehicle produced a glass smoking pipe found in the trunk, and another plastic bag with white powder[1] found on the floor in the front passenger area where Defendant had been sitting.

         Defendant filed a Motion to Suppress the evidence found in the field as being the end result of an unlawful detention. An evidentiary hearing was held on February 19, 2019, at which Corporal DeMato was the only witness. The facts as I described them come from his testimony which was succinct and credible or his affidavit of probable cause.[2]

         Defense counsel conceded at the hearing that the only evidence for which suppression was sought was the drugs found in the field. For the reasons expressed in this letter, I am of the opinion that Corporal DeMato did not have a reasonable suspicion to detain Defendant when he handcuffed him, and he did not at that time have probable cause to arrest him for criminal impersonation or any other charge. As a result I am granting the Motion to Suppress solely as to the drugs found in the field.


         A. Burden of Proof

         On a Motion to Suppress the Defendant bears the burden to prove by a preponderance of evidence that the challenged search or seizure violated Fourth Amendment principles.[3] However, once the Defendant has established a basis for his motion, i.e., the search or seizure was conducted without a warrant, the burden shifts to the State to show by a preponderance of evidence the search or seizure was reasonable.[4]

         B. Uncontrovertcd ...

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