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State v. Frost

Superior Court of Delaware

March 13, 2019

MATTHEW D. FROST, Defendant.

          Submitted: February 28, 2019

         Defendant's Motion to Suppress. Granted.

          Lindsay A. Taylor, Esquire

          Stephanie H. Blaisdell, Esquire

          Lindsay A. Taylor, Esquire of the Department of Justice, Dover, Delaware; attorney for the State of Delaware.

          Stephanie H. Blaisdell, Esquire of the Office of the Public Defender, Dover, Delaware; attorney for the Defendant.


          WITHAM, R.J.


         Before this Court is Defendant Matthew Frost's ("Defendant" or "Frost") Motion to Suppress. The Defendant moves to suppress all evidence collected subsequent to a traffic stop conducted by the Delaware State Police.

         After carefully considering the merits of Frost's motion, the State's response in opposition, and oral arguments made by the parties at the suppression hearing, it appears to the Court that:


         1. On October 11, 2018, at approximately 1:00 p.m., Delaware State Police Officer First Class Holl (hereinafter "Tfc. Holl") and Corporal Goertz (hereinafter "Cpl. Goertz"), conducted a traffic stop on Route 1, Exit 98. Tfc. Holl had observed the Defendant's vehicle failing to signal before exiting Route 1.

         2. Tfc. Holl and Cpl. Goertz both approached the Defendant's vehicle and noted that he was the sole occupant of the vehicle. Tfc. Holl initiated the interaction through the Defendant's passenger side window and Cpl. Goertz stood watch on the driver's side. Tfc. Holl testified that the Defendant moved frantically within the vehicle, including frantically operating his cellular telephone, and exhibited extreme nervousness, much more than a typical motorist stopped for a traffic violation.[1]

         3. Tfc. Holl asked the Defendant for the standard documentation required of all Delaware drivers: license, registration, and proof of insurance. The Defendant immediately produced his license and registration, but was unable to produce any valid proof of insurance via the "GEICO" application on his cellular telephone.[2]

         4. While the Defendant attempted to produce his proof of insurance, Tfc. Holl asked the Defendant from where he was traveling and the Defendant stated "North Smyrna" and that he had given "Ashley" a ride home. When pressed for Ashley's last name, the Defendant could not answer, but stated that she was a friend of "Nick's."[3]These vague answers sounded to Tfc. Holl as if the Defendant was creating a story, and those, coupled with his frantic movements, raised his suspicions.

         5.At some point during the interaction, Tfc. Holl testified that he observed, in plain view on the passenger car-seat, a small metal blade approximately an inch long by approximately a quarter of an inch wide.[4] Tfc. Holl testified that based on his training and experience, [5] this blade specifically, was commonly utilized by heroin users to scrape heroin residue from used heroin packaging.[6]

         6. The Defendant was still unable to produce his insurance information after approximately 30 seconds, and Tfc. Holl asked him to step out of the vehicle. The Defendant failed to immediately comply, but remained in the vehicle, and asked if he was being detained. Tfc. Holl said yes and approximately 40 seconds later, the Defendant finally complied and stepped out of the vehicle.

         7. Outside of the vehicle, the Defendant was further questioned and disclosed possession of a knife on his person. Tfc. Holl searched the Defendant for additional weapons and discovered approximately $200.00. It was at this point, for the first time, that Tfc. Holl informed the Defendant that he and Cpl. Goertz were going to further search the vehicle because "drug paraphernalia" had been found.[7]

         8. Tfc. Holl then inquired if Ashley had left the blade in the car. The Defendant asserted while she had left nothing in the car, she had previously went to "Connections."[8] Tfc. Holl further inquired if the Defendant had anything else was in the vehicle that he should know about and stated "if it is just [the blade], I'm going to chalk it up to 'Ashley.'"[9] The Defendant then disclosed possession of marijuana and marijuana drug paraphernalia.[10]

         9. A subsequent search of the vehicle revealed marijuana, 5.9 grams of heroin, and drug paraphernalia.[11]

         10. The Defendant was arrested and charged with multiple drug offenses including: (1)1 count of Drug Dealing, a felony, in violation of16 Del. C. § 4752(1); (2)1 count of Aggravated Possession, a felony, in violation of 16 Del. C. § 4752(3); (3) 1 count of Possession of Drug Paraphernalia, a misdemeanor, in violation of 16 Del. C. § 4771(a); and (4) 1 count of Possession of Marijuana, a misdemeanor, in violation of 16 Del. C. § 4764(a).

         11. The Defendant timely filed this motion to suppress on February 6, 2019 and moved to suppress all evidence seized as a result of the vehicle search. The State's response, in opposition, was timely filed on February 20, 2019. The Court heard the parties' arguments and testimony from Tfc. Holl at the suppression hearing held on February 28, 2019 and reserved its decision.


         12.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."[12] At a suppression hearing, the trial judge sits as the trier of fact, and determines the credibility of witnesses.[13]


         13. The Defendant moves to suppress all evidence collected by Tfc. Holl, characterizing the evidence as fruit of the poisonous tree.[14] The Defendant argues that ¶c. Holl had not developed a reasonable, articulable suspicion to justify ordering the Defendant out of the vehicle that extended the traffic stop. The Defendant asserts that this extension was an illegal seizure because he was detained beyond the time that would be required to address the traffic violation.[15]

         14. The State, in opposition, argues that Tfc. Holl, based on the totality of the circumstances, had not only a reasonable, articulable suspicion to extend the traffic stop, but developed probable cause to search the Defendant's vehicle.[16] The State contends that while the Defendant was lawfully questioned pursuant to 11 Del. C § 1902, his conduct, coupled with Tfc. Holl's observation of drug paraphernalia in plain view, established probable cause to extend the Defendant's detention pursuant to Loper v. State, to conduct a search of the Defendant's vehicle.[17] Furthermore, the State argued, for the first time at the suppression hearing, that the seized evidence should not be suppressed because it would have been inevitably discovered during an inventory search, since the Defendant would have been prohibited from driving because he failed to produce proof of insurance.


         15. An individual's right to be free from unlawful governmental searches and seizures in Delaware is secured by two independent sources. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures...."[18] Likewise, Article I, Section 6 of the Delaware Constitution guarantees that "[t]he people shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers and possessions, from unreasonable searches and seizures...."[19] Searches and seizures are presumptively unreasonable, unless they are authorized by warrants or fall under a recognized exception to the warrant requirement.[20]

         16. When a violation of a defendant's right to be free from illegal searches and seizures has been demonstrated, the exclusionary rule is the remedy.[21] As such, evidence recovered illegally must be excluded, in the absence of an independent source for or situation allowing for inevitably discovery.[22]

         A. The Initial Traffic Stop was Lawful

         17. The Court will first focus on the legality of the initial traffic stop. Based on the record, the Court finds that Tfc. Holl had probable cause to conduct a traffic stop concerning the Defendant's vehicle.

         18. A traffic stop is regarded as "a seizure of a vehicle and its occupants by the State," and is only reasonable if supported by reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity or probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.[23]

         19. Here, Tfc. Holl testified at the suppression hearing that he observed the Defendant fail to use a turn signal when he exited Route 1 onto Exit 98. This was undisputed by the Defendant. Tfc. HolFs testimony constitutes "specific and articulable facts which taken together with rational inferences from those facts reasonably warrant the intrusion."[24] Therefore, the Court finds that the State has met its burden of demonstrating that Tfc. Holl had probable cause to conduct the traffic stop because he observed the traffic violation.

         B. The Scope of the Traffic Stop was Exceeded without Probable Cause

         i. The traffic stop was initially extended lawfully due to the Defendant's inability to produce proof of insurance.

         20. In order to be lawful, an officer may detain the individual only as long as necessary to effectuate the purpose of the traffic stop.[25] Police may request the occupants of the car to provide identification, [26] and to exit the vehicle.[27] But, "any investigation of the vehicle or its occupants beyond that required to complete the purpose of the traffic stop must be supported by independent facts sufficient to justify the additional intrusion."[28] To justify further detention for questioning on matters unrelated to the initial stop, the officer must have reasonable suspicion that the driver or his passenger has committed, is committing, or is about to commit some other crime.[29] "Reasonable suspicion" is more than an ill-defined hunch; rather, under the totality of the circumstances, the detaining officers must have a "particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity."[30]

         21. A suspect's nervous behavior and/or odd assertions that he did not know the name of his passenger may or may not, in some situations, provide the officer with reasonable suspicion justifying further limited questioning of the suspect and his passenger.[31] But these facts, standing alone, cannot justify the detention of extended duration and the more intrusive measures like a pat-down search or an officer's use of handcuffs.[32] More "tangible, objectively articulable indicators of criminality, such as driving with a suspended license, failure to provide proof of ownership of the vehicle, or the palpable odor of alcohol, drugs, or air freshener (often used to mask the smell of marijuana and cocaine)" in conjunction with nervousness, may support a finding of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.[33] Here, the Court finds that failure to provide a law enforcement officer with proof of insurance, is a tangible, objectively articulable indicator.

         22. The State, in opposition, argues that this case is more akin to Loper v. State, rather than Caldwell v. State. The Court disagrees.

         23. In Loper, our Supreme Court held that generally speaking, a person already lawfully detained as a result of a valid traffic stop is not seized a second time when ordered to leave his car because his mobility is already validly limited.[34] The Loper court relied on Pennsylvania v. Mimms, [35] where, after weighing the interest of the driver's personal liberty against the safety of the police officer, the United States Supreme Court held that "once a motor vehicle has been lawfully detained for a traffic violation, the police officer may order the driver to get out of the vehicle without violating the Fourth Amendment's proscription of unreasonable search and seizure."[36]

         24. For this Court's purposes in determining whether the traffic stop was unreasonably extended, the pertinent facts in Loper, on which our Supreme Court relied on in determining whether the "delay" was de minimus or not, were: (1) the defendant was initially stopped for speeding, which he conceded was a valid traffic stop; (2) that the detention was delayed due ...

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