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State v. Medina

Superior Court of Delaware

January 7, 2020


          Submitted: October 21, 2019

         Upon Defendants John Medina's and Grace Umoffia's Motions to Suppress: DENIED.

          Jordan A. Braunsberg, Deputy Attorney General

          John S. Malik, Esquire

          Eugene J. Maurer, Jr., Esquire

          Elise K. Wolpert, Esquire

          Abigail M. LeGrow, Judge.

         This 7th day of January, 2020, upon consideration of the Motions to Suppress[1]filed on behalf of Defendants John Medina and Grace Umoffia, the record in this case, and the applicable legal authorities, it appears to the Court that:


         Defendants John Medina and Grace Umoffia each were indicted on two counts of Identity Theft, five counts of Forgery Second Degree, two counts of Theft Over $1500, Attempted Theft, and three counts of Conspiracy Second Degree.[2] The charges arise from evidence discovered during a traffic stop in which Medina was the driver and Umoffia was the front seat passenger.[3]

         The traffic stop at issue occurred on October 25, 2018 at approximately 9:00 p.m. Patrolman First Class Andrew Vari ("PFC Vari") of the Newark Police Department was on routine patrol in a marked police vehicle in Newark, Delaware. While in the vicinity of East Main Street, PFC Vari observed a gray Toyota Yaris with a New Jersey license plate exiting a parking space onto the street without its headlights illuminated. PFC Vari followed the vehicle because of the headlight issue.[4] The vehicle moved into a left turn lane and entered an intersection while the traffic light was red. The vehicle ultimately stopped in the intersection until the light turned green, and then completed the left turn still without its headlights illuminated. PFC Vari initiated the traffic stop, and the vehicle pulled to the side of the road along Academy Street.

         PFC Vari observed what he believed to be two adult occupants in the vehicle, later identified as Defendant John Medina, the driver, and Defendant Grace Umoffia, the passenger. When asked for identification, Medina handed PFC Vari a degraded photocopy of an enlarged United Kingdom driver's license on an 8V2 x 11 sheet of paper. The license identified the driver as Idris Frawn El-Bey from London, England. PFC Vari was not convinced Medina was the person in the photograph, as it only slightly resembled him. Medina was unable to produce a more legitimate form of identification. In response to PFC Vari's questioning, Medina told PFC Vari he was from the United Kingdom and in the United States for business. Medina also stated his sister rented the car from LaGuardia Airport. He advised PFC Vari he and Umoffia had driven to Wilmington from The Bronx to visit Umoffia's friends or family, and they stopped at California Pizza Kitchen and Roots for dinner. Medina was unable to tell PFC Vari where California Pizza Kitchen was located. PFC Vari then asked for Umoffia's identification, and she provided a New York driver's license.[5] At that point, PFC Vari returned to his vehicle.

         PFC Vari began trying to confirm the driver's identity. He ran the name Idris Frawn El-Bey and the respective date of birth through DELJIS, which yielded no results. PFC Vari also ran multiple NCIC search variations, none of which proved successful. At some point after returning to his car and during the NCIC database search, he contacted Corporal Adam Stevens ("Cpl. Stevens"), a K9 officer, via cell phone to assist with the traffic stop. PFC Vari contacted Cpl. Stevens because of his law enforcement and drug investigation experience. Cpl. Stevens was nearby and agreed to assist.

         Cpl. Stevens arrived within a few minutes and pulled his vehicle behind PFC Vari's vehicle. PFC Vari updated Cpl. Stevens and asked him to speak with Medina and Umoffia. PFC Vari continued attempting to verify the driver's identity while Cpl. Stevens approached the vehicle and spoke with its occupants. Cpl. Stevens asked Medina to exit the vehicle so he could speak with him separately from Umoffia to identify any inconsistencies in their stories. Medina told Cpl. Stevens about his family history with the military, but Cpl. Stevens found Medina's answers to be hesitant and unusual. Medina told Cpl. Stevens the rental car agreement was in his sister's name, and Medina did not identify Umoffia as his sister. Cpl. Stevens testified that, in his experience, persons transporting currency, weapons, drugs, or other contraband often use rental vehicles because a rental vehicle cannot be seized for asset forfeiture if it is stopped by the police and drugs are found, .

         Cpl. Stevens also spoke with Umoffia and asked about her family in the area. Umoffia responded that she did not have family, but rather a friend, in Wilmington. Medina's and Umoffia's responses regarding how long they had known each other differed wildly. At some point during the conversation, Cpl. Stevens asked if there were any "guns, drugs, dead bodies, that sort of thing" in the vehicle. Cpl. Stevens testified this is a standard question he always asks because some people are honest in their response and he also can gauge their reaction to the question. Cpl. Stevens returned to PFC Vari's police vehicle and told him there were inconsistencies in the occupants' stories, including where they had eaten, the amount of time they had known each other, and Umoffia calling Medina something other than "Idris El-Bey."

         After discussion with PFC Vari, Cpl. Stevens decided to conduct a dog sniff of the vehicle based on the information acquired up to that point: a rental vehicle where no one on the rental agreement was present; inconsistences in the occupants' stories regarding where they were coming from and where they were going; the driver's hesitance in answering questions that should have been straightforward; the photocopied United Kingdom driver's license; and the inability to confirm Medina's identity. Medina, who already was outside the vehicle, did not consent to the dog sniff. For officer and passenger safety, Cpl. Stevens asked Umoffia to exit the vehicle during the dog sniff. Umoffia left her front passenger door open when she exited the vehicle.

         During the dog sniff, PFC Vari stood with Medina and Umoffia, effectively suspending his investigation into Medina's identity. Cpl. Stevens began an open-air sniff of the vehicle's exterior, which included making passes around the vehicle with Cpl. Steven's partner K9 Varg. Cpl. Stevens began by "detailing" for K9 Varg, which involves Stevens using his hand to direct K9 Varg to sniff areas of the vehicle where air can seep through and an odor may escape. Cpl. Stevens and K9 Varg conducted two passes of the vehicle in one direction and then changed directions on the third pass. Cpl. Stevens testified that it is standard practice to pass in both directions because of wind direction, temperature, humidity, structural variations, etc.; and that he typically looks for significant changes in behavior within four passes. Significant changes in behavior could include mouth movements, breathing changes, a slow-down in movement, etc. K9 Varg exhibited significant changes in behavior (an "indication") at the front passenger door and the front driver's window. K9 Varg ultimately barked and "alerted"[6] to the scent of narcotics at the front passenger seat. During the fifth pass, K9 Varg entered the vehicle through the open front passenger door.

         After K9 Varg alerted, Cpl. Stevens allowed K9 Varg back into the stopped vehicle where he scanned the inside and showed specific interest in the purse on the front passenger floorboard. Cpl. Stevens then conducted a hand search of the vehicle's interior. The purse contained $4, 800 in cash. He also found multiple folders containing business documents located in the rear passenger compartment of the vehicle, including invoices for hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of fine art, Delaware Superior Court documents, IRS documents, Prothonotary documents, and banking documents all with various names and addresses. Medina claimed the documents belonged to his sister. Cpl. Stevens did not find drugs during the search.

         After the dog sniff and the resulting search, PFC Vari contacted other experienced officers seeking assistance. PFC Vari called Detective Paul Lawrence, a DEA task force member, who ultimately was unable to assist. PFC Vari also contacted Sergeant Gregory D'Elia ("Sgt. D'Elia") seeking guidance about whether the evidence sparked terrorism-related concerns. Sgt. D'Elia testified that the name "El-Bey" commonly is used by sovereign citizens. Sgt. D'Elia contacted his supervisor at the FBI, James Markley, and asked him to have an analyst run the names through their databases to try to confirm Medina's identity. Sgt. D'Elia then proceeded to the traffic stop scene. The FBI database search ultimately yielded no results. PFC Vari additionally contacted Detective Anderson and Sergeant Michael Szep ("Sgt. Szep") to assist with the investigation.

         Eventually, Corporal Morgan Fountain ("Cpl. Fountain") was contacted and conducted an Accurint search for the registered owner of the vehicle. The search yielded a result for a Juan and/or John Medina and listed physical characteristics matching the driver. Searching that name in the New York State Police database yielded a photograph matching the driver. Sgt. Szep made the ultimate decision to take Medina and Umoffia to the station. The parties stipulated that approximately two hours passed between the time of the initial stop and when PFC Vari arrived back at the station.


         Defendants Medina and Umoffia move to suppress all evidence seized as a result of the traffic stop. Medina and Umoffia make similar arguments challenging various stages of the traffic stop and investigation as exceeding their rights under the United States and Delaware Constitutions. Those challenges generally fall into the following categories: (1) whether the officers measurably extended the traffic stop; (2) if the stop measurably was extended, whether the officers had reasonable articulable suspicion to do so; (3) whether the canine sniff was valid; (4) whether the resulting vehicle search and the scope of that search was valid; and (5) whether the use of the documents and contacting additional officers to assist in identifying Medina was lawful. After considering the parties' arguments, I conclude the traffic stop measurably was extended by the dog sniff, but the officers had reasonable articulable suspicion to do so. Moreover, the dog sniff and resulting search were valid and the officers had a basis to look at and use the documents to try to identify Medina. The Defendants' Motions to Suppress therefore are denied.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Generally, a defendant who moves to suppress evidence bears the burden of establishing the challenged search or seizure violated his Constitutional rights.[7]Where, as here, the basis for the motion is a warrantless search, the State bears the burden of providing the challenged search comported with the defendant's constitutional rights.[8]

         A. The initial traffic stop was justified at its inception.

         The United States Constitution's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures[.]"[9] A person is considered to be "seized" when, in view of the surrounding circumstances, a reasonable person would not feel free to leave.[10] In the context of traffic stops, "courts have held that a stop is lawful where the officer has reasonable suspicion that either the motorist or the vehicle are in violation of the law."[11] "A police officer who observes a traffic violation has probable cause to stop the vehicle and its driver."[12] Under the Fourth Amendment, a traffic stop constitutes a seizure of the vehicle as well as its occupants.[13]

         Here, it is undisputed that the initial traffic stop for the headlight violation constituted a seizure of Medina and Umoffia, but that seizure was proper because PFC Vari possessed probable cause to stop the vehicle on the basis of the traffic violation. Defendants do not contest the validity of the initial traffic stop. They do, however, argue the initial traffic stop measurably was extended when the officers began pursuing an unrelated drug investigation.

         B. The initial traffic stop measurably was extended.

         A traffic stop's permissible duration and execution necessarily is limited by the stop's initial purpose.[14] Any expanded inquiries into matters unrelated to the initial traffic stop only are valid if they do not measurably extend the stop's duration.[15] If a traffic stop goes beyond fulfilling its initial purpose and the stop measurably was extended, a second seizure has occurred that must be justified by independent facts equating to reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity.[16]

         There is no clear consensus regarding what actions or inactions "measurably extend" a traffic stop. In Rodriguez v U.S., the Supreme Court held that an officer "may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop[, ]" but "he may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop, absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual."[17] The Court determined actions such as "checking the driver's license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile's registration and proof of insurance" all are valid inquiries that "serve the same objective as enforcement of the traffic code[.]"[18]

         Defendants argue the initial traffic stop measurably was extended by PFC Vari calling Cpl. Stevens, Cpl. Stevens asking questions unrelated to the traffic violation, and the dog sniff of the vehicle.[19] For the reasons hereinafter stated, the Court finds that the initial traffic stop measurably was extended by the dog sniff, but that the officers had reasonable articulable suspicion to do so.

         1. PFC Vari's initial questioning and attempts to confirm Medina's identity through various databases did not measurably extend the traffic stop.

         A police officer may demand a seized person's name, identity, address, business abroad, and destination.[20] A police officer also may run the necessary background checks associated with conducting a traffic stop.[21] PFC Vari was within his authority to conduct the routine questioning associated with a traffic stop, including checking Medina's license and conducting checks through the various databases to confirm Medina's identity. The fact that this step took longer than it ordinarily might is explained by Medina's failure to provide an accurate name and/or valid identification. PFC Vari's efforts to confirm Medina's identity did not extend the stop beyond its initial purpose.

         2. PFC Vari's phone call to Cpl. Stevens did not measurably extend the traffic stop.

         Similarly, PFC Vari's phone call to Cpl. Stevens also did not measurably extend the initial traffic stop. Umoffia contends PFC Vari "almost immediately abandoned his traffic investigation" by calling Cpl. Stevens for assistance and waiting for him to arrive.[22] Umoffia argues PFC Vari called Cpl. Stevens "before he even finished running the occupants' names through the computer."[23] By calling Cpl. Stevens, Umoffia reasons, PFC Vari measurably extended the traffic stop, and the phone call constituted a separate seizure that must be supported by independent facts sufficient to justify the additional intrusion.[24] The State argues the stop was not extended measurably by the call to Cpl. Stevens because "calling another officer for assistance is not unrelated to an investigation focused on identifying Medina, given that there [were] two individuals in the car."[25]

         PFC Vari's phone call to Cpl. Stevens did not measurably extend the traffic stop. PFC Vari testified that Medina gave him an invalid identification, the photo on the identification only slightly resembled him, and he did not have a more reliable form of identification with him. PFC Vari called Cpl. Stevens for assistance because Cpl. Stevens had more experience as a police officer. Cpl. Stevens was nearby and arrived shortly after the call.[26] Therefore, PFC Vari's phone call to Cpl. Stevens did not measurably extend the stop or detour from its purpose, which necessarily included confirming Medina's identity.

         3. Cpl. Stevens' additional questioning did not measurably extend the traffic stop.

         Umoffia concedes it was lawful for Cpl. Stevens to ask follow up questions to confirm or dispel his suspicions.[27] Umoffia, however, argues Cpl. Stevens' question of whether there was anything illegal in the vehicle (such as human beings, guns, drugs, or dead bodies) was overly broad and not an acceptable part of routine traffic stop questioning. Umoffia contends this question "did not significantly prolong the stop, [but] 'for something to be measurable it need not be large ... .'"[28]

         "Although questions unrelated to the initial justification for the stop might not per se require reasonable suspicion or consent to further question, the Delaware Supreme Court has made clear that such inquiries must not measurably extend the duration of the stop."[29] In the context of this case, and particularly the nature of the officers' questioning and their inability to confirm Medina's identity, Cpl. Steven's question about contraband in the vehicle did not measurably extend the stop beyond its initial purpose. The Delaware Supreme Court reached a similar decision in Pierce v. State, finding "an officer's question about whether there was any contraband in the vehicle during a ...

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