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United States v. Feliz

September 28, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dora L. Irizarry, United States District Judge


Defendant William Feliz is charged with distributing and conspiring to distribute over one kilogram of heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). He seeks to suppress all of the evidence recovered from his vehicle when the police stopped him after he changed lanes without signaling. Defendant does not deny the traffic violation. Instead, he contends that the police searched his vehicle without probable cause, thereby violating his rights under the Fourth Amendment. The government opposes the motion, arguing that the police had probable cause to search the vehicle based on its narcotics investigation and surveillance of defendant leading up to the search. Additionally, the government contends that the search fell within the plain view exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement.*fn1

For the reasons set forth more fully below, defendant's motion is denied in its entirety.


I. The Motion to Suppress

In support of its motion, defendant submitted: (1) the citation for the traffic violation, (Def.'s Ex. A); (2) the investigation report of the Philadelphia Police Department, (Def.'s Ex. B); (3) the November 14, 2007 Preliminary Hearing Transcript of Officers Farrell and Iezzi's testimonies before the Municipal Court of Philadelphia, (Def.'s Ex. C); and (4) a Declaration from defendant. In opposition, the government submitted documents relating to its investigation of the narcotics conspiracy, including the wiretap applications, agent affidavits, and court orders dated June 5, 15, and 22, 2007.

After reviewing the submissions, the court found that a suppression hearing was necessary. Specifically, these submissions raised the following factual disputes relating to the plain view exception: (1) whether the police officers were able to see through the tinted windows of defendant's vehicle during the traffic stop; (2) whether a black bag completely covered the narcotics; and (3) whether the police uncovered the narcotics by entering the vehicle. Furthermore, the submissions did not set forth the government's investigation of defendant immediately prior to his arrest, and therefore, the court was unable to determine whether the investigation established probable cause for the July 11, 2007 search.

II. The Suppression Hearing

To resolve the discrepancies in the evidence and to determine the extent of the government's investigation of defendant leading up to the July 11, 2007 arrest, the court held a suppression hearing on September 10, 2009.*fn2 Officers Thomas Farrell, Joseph Rapone, and Graziano Iezzi of the Philadelphia Police Department testified as did Special Agent Luis Infante of the Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA"). Defendant did not testify. The court found the testimonies of Rapone, Iezzi, and Infante to be entirely credible.

Although Farrell's testimony conflicted with his prior testimony in state court and with Rapone's testimony on a few minor details, the court found most of his testimony credible. Those inconsistencies are explainable and immaterial, and therefore, they do not alter the court's decision. The arrest occurred over two years ago. Rapone testified that he has made hundreds of arrests since then. (Tr. at 67.) Furthermore, the stop and search occurred "very fast": Rapone and Farrell pulled defendant over "within a few seconds." (Tr. at 76-77.) It took another "few seconds" for the officers to get out of their squad car and approach defendant's vehicle. (Tr. at 76-77.) Once they arrived at the vehicle, approximately ten to fifteen seconds passed before Rapone noticed the narcotics. (Tr. at 77.) Defendant has not challenged any of these assertions. Under these circumstances, the court is not surprised that there are a few minor inconsistencies between the officers' recollections.

Rapone, Farrell, and Iezzi gave the same account of the key facts: (1) on July 10, 2007, the DEA asked Rapone and Farrell to assist with a narcotics-related surveillance of defendant; (2) Rapone and Farrell assisted with the surveillance; (3) defendant changed lanes without signaling in violation of a traffic law; (4) during the ensuing traffic stop, Rapone and Farrell, using their flashlights, looked through the rear tinted windows and saw narcotics on the floor behind the passenger seat; and (5) they observed the narcotics before either of them opened a door of the vehicle or entered the vehicle. Accordingly, unless otherwise indicated, the court credits the statements that are set forth below.

A. Farrell's Testimony

On the evening of July 10, 2007, Officers Farrell and Rapone, who were then members of the Philadelphia Highway Patrol, were on duty from 6:00 P.M. to 2:00 A.M. on July 11, 2007. (Tr. at 12.) Farrell testified that, at approximately 11:00 P.M., Iezzi, on behalf of the DEA, requested assistance with "taking down" a Lincoln Town Car that was possibly transporting narcotics. (Tr. at 12-13, 22-23.) According to Farrell, Iezzi explained that the DEA had been surveilling the vehicle, and Iezzi instructed him to stop the vehicle only if it committed a traffic violation. (Tr. at 13-14, 23-24.) Iezzi provided a dedicated radio for the task. (Tr. at 45.) Subsequently, Iezzi informed Farrell that the vehicle was traveling north on Interstate 95. (Tr. at 15.)

Farrell and Rapone saw the vehicle travelling on Interstate 95 between 12:45 A.M. and 12:50 A.M. on July 11, 2007 and followed it. (Tr. at 15, 24.) Farrell observed that the vehicle was traveling at approximately 45 to 50 miles per hour, which was under the posted speed limit. (Tr. at 15, 25.) After following the vehicle for approximately half a mile, Farrell observed the vehicle change lanes without signaling. (Tr. at 15, 26.) Farrell and Rapone then pulled the vehicle over for violating Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code § 3334(a), changing lanes without signaling. (Id .)

Farrell approached the vehicle from the driver side while Rapone approached from the passenger side. (Tr. at 16, 26.) Farrell asked defendant to lower his windows, and defendant lowered both of the front windows. (Tr. at 16, 26-27.) The rear windows remained shut. (Tr. at 16.) All of the windows were slightly tinted, and Farrell was able to see through the windows while shining his flashlight. (Tr. at 17.) The interior lights of the car were also lit. (Id .)

Farrell informed defendant that he had failed to signal before changing lanes. (Id .) He then asked defendant for his license, registration, and insurance. (Id .) Farrell testified that "[he] didn't view [defendant] as a threat to [his] safety," and "there was nothing that [defendant] was doing which in any way indicated that he might be armed or dangerous[.]" (Tr. at 29.)

While Farrell was inspecting the documents, he heard Rapone ask defendant if there was any contraband in the vehicle that they needed to know about. (Tr. at 17) Defendant replied, "Somebody left something in the back seat, I don't know what it is." (Id .) Farrell then shined his flashlight through the rear window on the driver side. (Tr. at 18.) He saw a pair of knee-length shorts with sewn-in pockets on the floor behind the passenger seat. (Tr. at 18-19.) The shorts were on top of a briefcase. (Tr. at 38.) The shorts were folded in half with the sewn-in pockets visible. (Tr. 19-20.) The "glassy" reflection of the light on the sewn-in pockets indicated to Farrell that the pockets contained packages of narcotics. (Tr. at 20, 37.) Farrell reached this conclusion based on his extensive experience with drug-related activity, including about 300 narcotics arrests. (Tr. at 20-21.)

The government introduced a photograph of a pair of black shorts with many sewn-in pockets on the exterior. (Tr. at 18, 20.) Farrell identified it as the shorts he observed in defendant's vehicle, and the court admitted the picture as Government's Exhibit 1. (Tr. at 20.) The photograph corroborates Farrell's description of the shorts-in particular, the packages of narcotics within the sewn-in pockets are partially visible through the fabric, and they give off a glossy white reflection. (Gov't Ex. 1.)

Farrell testified that Rapone also saw the shorts. (Tr. at 21.) Farrell asked defendant about the shorts, inquiring whether it was the item that defendant claimed that someone had left in his vehicle. Defendant confirmed that it was. (Id .) Then Farrell arrested defendant. (Tr. at 21.) When the DEA arrived at the ...

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