©2010 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute – United States v. Vinton, No. 07-3125, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 2450 (D.C. Cir. Decided February 5, 2010)
On September 9, 2009, at about 9:00p.m., a U.S. Park Police officer was on patrol in Southeast D.C. He observed a Nissan Maxima speeding and also believed that the windows were tinted in excess of D.C. statute. As the officer prepared to conduct a traffic stop, he observed a law enforcement “blue line” sticker on the car.
He activated his lights and the driver, Vinton, pulled over. Vinton lowered all of his windows as the officer approached. The officer asked Vinton if he worked in law enforcement, and he replied “personal security.” The officer observed knife with a five and a half inch sheath on the back seat within reaching distance of Vinton. The officer asked Vinton what the knife was for; he replied that he used it when he went fishing with his grandfather. However, the officer observed no other fishing equipment in the car. The officer removed the knife from the car and put it out of reach on Vinton’s roof and asked if there were any other weapons in the car. Vinton replied that there was not. The tint meter confirmed that Vinton’s windows were tinted in violation of D.C. statute.
The officer returned to his police vehicle to write a citation. Shortly thereafter, a Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officer drove up and the Park Police officer asked him for back-up. He explained the presence of the knife to the MPD officer.
The officer then returned to Vinton and told him that he was going to search his car for weapons. The officer again asked if there were any other weapons in the car and Vinton replied there was not. The officer asked about weapons again and Vinton replied “not that I know of.” The officer had Vinton exit his car and he handcuffed him, while telling him he was not under arrest.
The officer then searched the passenger compartment for weapons. He found two cans of mace in the front armrest, a “butterfly knife” under the front passenger-side floor mat, a bag of Styrofoam earplugs, and a locked briefcase that was on the backseat. The officer asked Vinton about the earplugs and he replied that he used them to sleep. Vinton also said that he did not know what was in the briefcase because it did not belong to him.
Vinton then called an investigator and a supervisor for advice on how to proceed. After a period of time, the officer arrested Vinton for “possession of a prohibited weapon” under D.C. statute. The officer then pried open the locked briefcase and searched it incident to arrest. The briefcase contained three bags of ecstasy, three pistol magazines, a fighting knife, and a loaded .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol.
Vinton was indicted on federal weapons and drug offenses. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence in District Court, which was denied. He was later convicted by a jury and sentenced to prison. He appealed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Vinton had four arguments under the Fourth Amendment, which are the main focus of this article, and one issue under the Fifth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment issues were as follows:
Whether the officer violated the Fourth Amendment in conducting the limited search of Vinton’s vehicle for weapons?
Whether the officer had probable cause to arrest Vinton for the weapons charge that led to the search incident to arrest?
If there was probable cause to arrest based on the butterfly knife, whether the officer exceeded the permissible duration of a Terry stop so as to render the knife, which provided probable cause, fruit of an unreasonable detention?
Whether the officer was justified under Arizona v. Gant to search the briefcase incident to arrest?
Vinton also alleged that the officer violated his Fifth Amendment rights under Miranda v. Arizona when he questioned him during the incident without notifying him of his rights.
Did the officer violate the Fourth Amendment in conducting
the limited search of Vinton’s vehicle for weapons?
It is well established that during a traffic stop, an officer can order the driver out of his car and conduct a limited search of the passenger compartment for weapons if the officer has reasonable suspicion that the driver is dangerous and may gain immediate control of weapons inside the car.i Thus, based on the totality of the circumstances, the court had to decide if the officer had a reasonable belief that Vinton was dangerous and may gain immediate control of weapons inside the car.
The court then examined the facts of this case in light of court precedent. First, and very significant, is the fact that the officer observed a knife with a five and a half inch sheath in plain view within arm’s reach of Vinton. The court noted that, in Michigan v. Longii, the United States Supreme Court held that the observation of a large knife in the interior of a vehicle during a traffic stop justified a limited search of the passenger compartment to ensure there were no other weapons in areas that Long would generally have immediate control. Similarly, the D.C. Court of Appeals, in the United States v. Christianiii, held that an officer’s observation of a dagger in the passenger compartment gave the officer sufficient indication that Christian was armed and dangerous to justify a search for of a vehicle for weapons. Thus, in Vinton, the court similarly held that the sheathed knife, which was capable of inflicting serious bodily harm, did provide the officer with a sufficient basis to search the vehicle for other weapons, even after the officer removed the knife from the car and handcuffed Vinton. The court reasoned that this was because the officer may very well have to return Vinton his knife and release him in the car, thereby giving him access again to this weapon, and any other weapon inside.
Second, the court noted that, although Vinton claimed the knife was only used for fishing, the officer was not required to automatically accept this explanation. In fact, they noted that even a lawfully possessed knife could be used as a dangerous weapon.iv Additionally, Vinton’s display of the law enforcement “blue line” sticker, when he was not actually affiliated with a law enforcement agency, tended to increase the skepticism of his explanation about the knife.
Lastly, Vinton argued that the officer did not have a subjective (personal) belief that Vinton was “dangerous.” The court rejected this argument because the Fourth Amendment analysis is “objective,” based on facts, rather than “subjective,” or based on personal feelings of the officer. Therefore, based on the totality of the circumstances, the court held that the officer…
…had a reasonable belief, based on specific and articulable facts, that Vinton was armed and dangerous…Thus, he properly searched the passenger compartment of Vinton’s car for additional weapons. [internal citations omitted]
Did the officer have probable cause to arrest Vinton
for the weapons charge that ultimately led to the search incident to arrest?
This issue is one of specific District of Columbia criminal statute, which we will not analyze. There was, however, an important legal principal worth noting. Specifically, the officer arrested Vinton for violating the D.C. “possession of a prohibited weapon” (PPW) statute for his possession of the concealed butterfly knife. The court held that the officer did not have probable cause to arrest Vinton for this offense because all of the elements of that crime were not met. The important legal principal is, as the court noted from the United States Supreme Court case of Devenpeck v. Alfordv, that
the Fourth Amendment inquiry is objective so an officer’s subjective reason for making the arrest need not be the criminal offense as to which the known facts provide probable cause.vi
Thus, even if an officer mistakenly arrests a person for the wrong offense, as long as probable cause exists for some other valid, arrestable offense, the arrest may be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. In Vinton, the court held that the officer actually had probable cause to arrest Vinton for a violation of the D.C. statute related to “carrying a dangerous weapon” (CDW). Therefore, the arrest was supported by probable cause.
Did the officer exceed the permissible duration of a Terry stop so as to render the knife,
which provided probable cause, fruit of an unreasonable detention?
Vinton argued that, even if the butterfly knife provided probable cause for his arrest, this probable cause was discovered only after the officer exceeded the permissible scope of his stop. He cites Terry v. Ohio, which stated:
A search which is reasonable at its inception may violate the Fourth Amendment by virtue of its intolerable intensity and scope.vii
The court then stated that, to determine if an investigative detention (Terry stop) is of too long a during, the court should…
…examine whether the police diligently pursued a means of investigation that was likely to confirm or dispel their suspicions quickly.viii
Vinton argued that, in his case, police detained him for approximately forty-five minutes after his vehicle was searched. While the court noted that Vinton did not properly appeal this issue, they still stated that the officer obtained probable cause for his arrest as soon as he found the hidden butterfly knife. Thus, the additional forty-five minutes before Vinton was officially arrested was “a conscientious vindication of Vinton’s rights, not a violation of them.”ix In other words, once the officer obtained probable cause to arrest Vinton, the additional time used was not an issue. In fact, they stated that this additional time was intended to ensure Vinton was not needlessly arrested.
Was the officer was justified under Arizona v. Gant to search the briefcase incident to arrest?
In 1981, in New York v. Belton, the United States Supreme Court held that, when police arrest an occupant of a motor vehicle, they may search passenger compartment, and containers within the passenger compartment, incident to the arrest.x However, in 2009, while Vinton’s appeal was pending, the United States Supreme Court decided Arizona v. Gantxi, which significantly changed the way police officers are allowed to apply the rule from New York v. Belton. In Arizona v. Gant, the Supreme Court held that
police may search a vehicle incident to the arrest of an occupant only in two circumstances: (1) when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search (the safety rationale); or (2) when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle (the evidentiary rationale).xii
During the limited search of Vinton’s car for weapons (a/k/a a “vehicle frisk”), the officer found the butterfly knife, and among other things, a locked briefcase. Vinton was ultimately arrested for charges related to the butterfly knife, and he was handcuffed. The locked briefcase was then pried open and searched incident to Vinton’s arrest. Since Vinton was handcuffed the search incident to his arrest cannot be justified under the safety rationale stated above from Gant. Thus, the court had to consider whether the evidentiary rationale from Gant was met during the search of briefcase.
The court then set out to decide what level of proof is required to justify a search under the evidentiary rationale from Gant.
The court state that:
Presumably, the “reasonable to believe” standard requires less than probable cause, because otherwise Gant’s evidentiary rationale would merely duplicate the “automobile exception” which the Court specifically identified as a distinct exception to the warrant requirement.xiii
In Vinton, the court then reasoned that, since the officer had already found two knives, two cans of mace, and ear plugs, it was reasonable for the officer to believe that additional weapons might be found in the briefcase. The court stated
because it was reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle, [the officer] had the right to search the passenger compartment of Vinton’s car and any containers therein, including the locked briefcase.xiv [internal quotations omitted]
Fifth Amendment Issue:
Were Vinton’s statements admitted in court in violation of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona?
Miranda warnings are required when a person is subjected to custodial questioning or interrogation. A person is in “custody” when they are under arrest or subjected to restraints normally associated with formal arrest. In Vinton, most of the statements that he argues should not be admitted were made when he was sitting in his car, before he was handcuffed and his car was searched. For example, while sitting in his car, prior to being handcuffed, Vinton told the officer he worked in personal security, the sheathed knife was used for fishing with his grandfather, he had no additional weapons in the car, and he “keeps that part of his trade at home.”xv
Regarding statements to police on traffic stops, the court quoted the United States Supreme Court, in Berkemer v. McCarty, when they stated:
Because ordinary traffic stops are non-coercive, persons temporarily detained pursuant to such stops are not “in custody” for the purposes of Miranda. However, if a motorist who has been detained pursuant to a traffic stop thereafter is subjected to treatment that renders him “in custody” for practical purposes, he will be entitled to the full panoply of protection prescribed by Miranda.xvi
In Vinton, the court held that the statements that were made before he was handcuffed certainly do not require that he be given Miranda warnings. The two statements that he made after his arrest were exculpatory in nature and, as such, it was harmless error for the court to admit those statements.
Therefore, the court affirmed the denial of Vinton’s motion to suppress and his conviction.
i United States v. Vinton, No. 07-3125, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 2450 (D.C. Cir. Decided February 5, 2010)(citing Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1049 (1983); Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21 (1968); Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 111 (1977))
ii 463 U.S 1032 (1983)
iii 187 F.3d 663 (D.C. Cir 1999)
iv Vinton at 10
v 543 U.S. 146 (2004)
vi Vinton at 13
vii Id. at 18 (quoting Terry, 392 U.S. at 18)
viii Id. at 18-19 (quoting United States v. Sharpe, 470 U.S. 675 (1985))
ix Id. at 19
x 453 U.S. 454 (1981)
xi 129 S.Ct. 1710 (2009)
xii Vinton at 20-21 (quoting Arizona v. Gant, 129 S.Ct. at 1719) (internal quotations omitted)
xiii Id. at 22-23 (citing Gant, 129 S.Ct. at 1721)
xiv Id. at 26
xv Id. at 27-28
xvi Id. at 26 (quoting Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 440 (1984))