The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decided the issue of whether a drug-detection dog that alerted the police to the presence of drugs in a rented car, leading the police to search the Defendant-Appellants’ rented car, justified the police in opening an envelope containing counterfeit documents. The court of appeals held that no Fourth Amendment violation occurred.
In this case, the Defendant-Appellants Cedrick Stubblefield, Brandon Spigner, and Latorey Earvin were part of a conspiracy that created false driver’s licenses using the genuine identity information of others in order to cash counterfeit checks at Wal-Mart stores. On July 2009, Officer Michael Gerardi pulled over a speeding rental car near Cleveland, Ohio, that was driven by Earvin. Stubblefield and Spigner were passengers in the car. A patrolman assisted Gerardi during the traffic stop. While the patrolman explained the speeding ticket to Earvin, Gerardi deployed his drug-detection dog. The dog then alerted Gerardi to the presence of drugs and he then searched the car for drugs.
The police found over $700 in cash and a sealed envelope with a return address and name that did not match the names of any of the individuals in the car. The envelope contained ten false Texas driver’s licenses with either Stubblefield’s or Spigner’s picture; 20 Chase Bank checks payable to the names on the driver’s licenses; and maps and addresses of Wal-Mart stores located near Dayton and Columbus, Ohio. The police arrested the Defendant-Appellants and towed the car to the police station so that the police could continue their search away from the freeway. During the continued search, the police found another envelope containing nine more false Texas driver’s licenses and nineteen counterfeit checks that matched the names on the false driver’s licenses; two Internet printouts of maps of Wal-Mart stores located near Cleveland, Ohio; and a list of 30 names, social security numbers, Texas driver’s license numbers, and birth dates of actual Texas residents.
At the district court, all three pled guilty to two counts: conspiracy to utter counterfeited securities, to knowingly possess five or more false identification documents with intent to use them unlawfully and to commit aggravated identity theft. The district court denied their motion to suppress evidence from the search. Earvin and Spigner then appealed the district court’s denial of the suppression motion to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
The court of appeals addressed the issues of whether: (1) the traffic stop’s duration was unreasonably extended by deploying the drug detection dog; (2) the drug-detection dog’s reliability was not properly established; (3) the dog’s alert did not justify opening the envelope containing the first set of counterfeit documents; (4) those documents did not justify arresting Earvin; and (5) the towing and continued search of the car without a warrant was not justified.
First, the court of appeals held that the traffic stop seizure was not unreasonable because the stop was justified at its inception and the scope and duration of the stop was reasonably related to the circumstances that justified the stop initially. The court of appeals found that the drug-detection dog did not prolong the time necessary to complete the issuance of the traffic ticket because less than five minutes passed between Gerardi’s asking Earvin for identification and the patrolman issuing the ticket.
Second, the court of appeals upheld the district court’s findings regarding the training and reliability of a drug-detection dog because Gerardi, the dog handler, testified that the dog was certified as a drug detection dog and testified to the dog’s reliability in drug detection. Thus, the Sixth Circuit held that a dog’s training and reliability can be established by the testimony of the dog’s handler alone.
Third, the court of appeals dismissed the defendant-appellant’s argument that the drug-detection dog’s alert did not justify opening the envelope containing the first set of counterfeit documents. Sixth Circuit precedent has held that an alert by a properly trained and reliable drug-detection dog “is sufficient to establish probable cause for the presence of a controlled substance.” If the police have probable cause to search a lawfully stopped vehicle for contraband, then the police have probable cause to search every part of the vehicle and all containers found therein in which the object of the search could be hidden. Therefore, the drug-detection dog’s alert gave the officers probable cause to search the car and any containers capable of hiding drugs. Further, during the resulting search, Gerardi discovered over $700 in currency in the center console and a legal-size envelope in luggage in the backseat that contained a Texas address with a return address and name that did not match the names of any individuals in the vehicle. Gerardi felt the envelope and believed it was too heavy for the affixed postage. Gerardi believed that the envelope could contain black-tar heroin, a form of heroin that Gerardi testified could be “rolled out flat and put in an envelope.” Thus, Gerardi had probable cause to search the envelope because he believed that it could contain drugs.
Fourth, the court of appeals held that the police had probable cause to arrest the defendant-appellants. The court explained that based on the facts in this case, a reasonable police officer would have been justified in concluding that all three men were likely involved in some type of fraudulent check cashing scheme. The passengers each had multiple false driver’s licenses and multiple checks made out to names on those licenses. The police found a large amount of cash in the car, and an officer could reasonably infer from its placement in the center console and its jumbled condition that it was the shared spoils of the three men’s joint criminal enterprise. Moreover, the maps and addresses of numerous Wal-Mart stores in a concentrated area suggested that the car was being used to transport the passengers to places where the Defendant-Appellants could cash the checks. Therefore, a reasonable officer would have had probable cause to arrest all three men.
Lastly, the court of appeals held that no warrant was needed to tow and continue the search of the car because the officers had probable cause to search the vehicle for more evidence of check-cashing fraud (because of the envelope) and drugs (because of the drug-detection dog’s alert).
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress evidence.
The case is U.S. v. Stubblefield, et al., No. 10-3587/3588/3589, dated June 19, 2012. To review the full decision, visit: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/12a0183p-06.pdf.