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United States v. Collins

January 29, 2010

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MEGAN COLLINS, DEFENDANT.



ORDER RE DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO SUPPRESS EVIDENCE

INTRODUCTION

On October 5, 2009, the court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion to suppress evidence filed in the above-entitled action on behalf of defendant Megan Collins.*fn1 Colleen Villarreal, Certified Law Student, appeared on behalf of the United States, Caitlin Howard and Grant Zehnder, Certified Law Students, of the Federal Defender's Office appeared on behalf of defendant Collins.

FACTS

The defendant is charged in this misdemeanor action with possession of morphine at the Tracy Defense Depot on April 14, 2009, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 844(a). The charge stems from the search of the defendant's vehicle just after she arrived at the Main Gate of Tracy Defense Depot(hereinafter "Depot"). The facts surrounding the incident are substantially undisputed.*fn2

On the day in question defendant Collins, accompanied by her passenger Michael Bennett, was driving her vehicle to the Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) which is located very near the Depot.

Ms. Collins mistakenly drove past DVI and made a turn that caused her to approach the Main Gate of the Depot. At the gate, Collins asked Department of Defense (DOD) Officer Jerry Form-by whether she was at the entrance to DVI. Form-by told she was not and asked if Ms. Collins would like directions to DVI, which he could provide. When Collins indicated that she would appreciate directions, Form-by instructed her to pull into a parking area inside the gate so he could provide them to her. Officer Form-by also asked for the driver's licenses of both Ms. Collins and Mr. Bennett, and had his dispatch run a CLETS check on both.*fn3 When the CLETS check was run, it was reported to Form-by that the passenger, Mr. Bennett, had an outstanding arrest warrant for drug possession and assault.

Officer Form-by then contacted DOD Sgt. Derrick Marriana for assistance, advising him of Bennett's outstanding warrant. Form-by arrested Bennett, handcuffed him and placed him in the back of Sgt. Marriana's vehicle. Sgt. Marriana then approached defendant Collins, stating that he would need to search her vehicle and that she should exit her vehicle.*fn4 Defendant Collins cooperated by doing so. During his search of the interior of the vehicle, Sgt. Marriana opened the defendant's purse which had been left on the front seat of the car. Inside the purse he found an Excedrin pill bottle which he opened.

Sgt. Marriana viewed Excedrin tablets inside the bottle along with three other pills that appeared to him to be prescription medication. When confronted by Sgt. Marriana with this discovery, defendant Collins admitted that the tablets were morphine, that she did not have a prescription for them and that she had taken them from her mother who had a prescription.*fn5

Thereafter, defendant Collins was handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car. She was told that she was going to be cited for unlawful possession of prescription medication. After she was searched by a female officer inside the Depot security station, she was cited and released.

The defendant moves to suppress all evidence seized, including her statements to the officers, on the grounds that: (1) the stop of her vehicle was not based on reasonable suspicion and was therefore unlawful; (2) the search of her car and purse was unreasonable because she was not seeking to enter the Depot but rather looking for DVI; (3) the search was not justified as incident to Bennett's arrest; and (3) her statement to the officers was obtained in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

In opposing the motion to suppress initially the government took the positions that: (1) the initial stop of the vehicle at the Depot's main gate was a reasonable checkpoint stop; (2) once the defendant drove her vehicle onto the Depot, whatever her purpose, she impliedly consented to a search of the vehicle; and (3) the search of defendant's vehicle, and the purse within, was a reasonable search justified as being incident to Bennett's arrest.

ANALYSIS

At the outset, the court rejects the government's argument that the search of the defendant's vehicle, and her purse located therein, was justified as a search incident to the arrest of her passenger, Mr. Bennett. As established by the officers' testimony at the evidentiary hearing, Bennett had been handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car before Sgt. Marriana began to search defendant's vehicle. Bennett was clearly not within reaching distance of the car at the time of its search. Moreover, there was no reason to believe that evidence relevant to the crimes for which Bennett was arrested would be found in defendant Collins' vehicle.*fn6 Thus, the search of the vehicle was clearly not justified as a search incident to Bennett's arrest. Arizona v. Gant,__U.S.__, 129 S.Ct. 1710, 1719 (2009) United States v. Ruckles, 586 F.3d 713, 715, 717-18 (9th Cir. 2009). Moreover, in light of Sgt. Marriana's credible testimony that he informed defendant Collins that he would need to search her car and that she should exit the vehicle, this was obviously not a consent search.

On the other hand, the court rejects the defense contention that the stop of Collins' vehicle at the Depot's Main Gate was not based on reasonable suspicion and was therefore unlawful. Once the vehicle driven by defendant Collins approached the Main Gate of the Depot it was on military base property and could be stopped by DOD officers without cause. See United States v. Hawkins, 249 F.3d 867, 875 (9th Cir. 2001) ("The Government's interest in maintaining national security and promoting public safety on base roadways outweighed the brief and limited intrusion resulting from stopping Hawkins at the Peacekeeper gate."); United States v. Green, 293 F.3d 855, 861 (5th Cir.) ("The conduct of the ...


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