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United States v. Morgan

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

September 10, 2013

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Shawn K. Morgan, Defendant-Appellee.

Submitted: June 11, 2013

Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Nebraska - Omaha

Before COLLOTON, GRUENDER, and BENTON, Circuit Judges.

COLLOTON, Circuit Judge.

A grand jury indicted Shawn K. Morgan for possession with intent to distribute five grams or more of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1). Morgan moved to suppress evidence that was seized from his person and his vehicle, and statements he made after law enforcement officers read Morgan his Miranda rights. The district court granted the motion, and the government appeals. We reverse the district court's order, and remand for further proceedings.


At approximately 12:45 a.m. on April 17, 2012, Officers Aram Normandin and Josh Downs of the Omaha Police Department were patrolling 24-hour businesses in response to robberies in the area. In their patrol car, the officers observed a vehicle with tinted windows parked at the far corner of a grocery store parking lot. Normandin testified that the occupants of the vehicle were "ducked down, " so he and Downs "decided to get out and see what was going on." As the officers approached the vehicle, the person in the driver's seat sat up and reached under his seat with both hands.

Normandin and Downs pointed their service weapons at the occupants of the parked vehicle and ordered them to show their hands. The driver, Morgan, initially kept his hands under his seat, but he complied with a second command to raise his hands. The officers then removed Morgan and the other two occupants from the vehicle. By that time, two more police officers had arrived at the scene.

The officers handcuffed all three occupants and seated them on a curb away from the car. Normandin testified that he was concerned that there was a weapon under Morgan's seat, so he immediately searched the vehicle. When he reached under the driver's seat of the vehicle, Normandin felt a lockbox that was large enough to conceal a handgun. Normandin said that he removed the lockbox from the car and asked Morgan, "What is this?" Morgan replied, "There's meth in there, and I'm a dealer."

Based on this response, the officers advised Morgan of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). Normandin opened the lockbox and found methamphetamine and a container with a white powdery substance. Morgan then told the officers that he was a drug dealer from Fremont, Nebraska, and that the methamphetamine in the lockbox was for a drug deal in Omaha. When Normandin asked Morgan what was the white powdery substance, Morgan replied that it was cocaine. After the substances in the lockbox field-tested positive for methamphetamine and cocaine, Normandin arrested Morgan. In addition to the drugs, the officers retrieved $1780 in cash.

The district court suppressed the physical evidence and Morgan's postwarning statements to law enforcement. The court concluded that the officers exceeded the permissible scope of an investigative stop under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), and that Morgan's unlawful arrest led directly to the seizure of the physical evidence and the making of the inculpatory statements. The government appeals. We consider the question of reasonable suspicion de novo and review findings of fact for clear error. Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 699 (1996).



A law enforcement officer may detain a person for investigation without probable cause to arrest when the officer "has a reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that criminal activity 'may be afoot.'" United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7 (1989) (quoting Terry, 392 U.S. at 30). "Whether the particular facts known to the officer amount to an objective and particularized basis for a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity is determined in light of the totality of the circumstances." United States v. Garcia, 23 F.3d 1331, 1334 (8th Cir. 1994). Once reasonable suspicion is established, law enforcement officers may conduct a protective search of a vehicle's interior, whether or not the occupants have been removed from the vehicle, because "if the suspect is not placed under arrest, he will be permitted to reenter his automobile, and he will then have access to any weapons inside." Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1052 (1983). While Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009), clarified the limits of an officer's authority to search a vehicle incident to arrest ...

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