7th Circuit affirms denial of suppression of evidence from traffic stop

An Indiana man arrested during a traffic stop for possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance has not convinced the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals the officer that pulled him over conducted an illegal search.

In November 2018, the Drug Enforcement Agency was conducting surveillance on a suspected drug house in the vicinity of Indianapolis. Detective John Maples, a 15-year veteran of the Brownsburg Police Department and an officer for the United Drug Task Force, was assisting the DEA that day.

Maples was monitoring traffic when DEA agents at the surveillance site reported that a white Audi had just departed from the suspected drug house and was heading towards Rockville Road.

Surveillance units followed the Audi and watched it enter and leave a strip mall parking lot without stopping to park. The car then proceeded onto Rockville Road and Maples began to monitor it for possible traffic violations.

From his position in an LA Fitness parking lot on the north side of Rockville Road, Maples observed the Audi pass him at approximately 40 to 45 miles per hour, following the car in front of it by less than a car length. He decided to pull the driver of the Audi over for the infraction of following too closely, in violation of Ind. Code § 9-21-8-14.

As Maples approached the Audi on the driver’s side of the car, he noticed the driver, Christopher Radford, making “quick and furtive movements with his hands” in the right side of the driver’s seat. When Radford began to open the door, Maples pulled the door open from the outside and saw Radford reach for a cell phone.

As Radford exited the car, he reached for his belt area and continued making quick movements with his hands while holding his left arm close to his body. After Radford reached towards his beltline with his left hand, Maples commenced a pat-down search.

During the search, Maples saw a vacuum-sealed plastic bag in Radford’s left inner pocket that he believed contained heroin. With the assistance of another officer, Maples then handcuffed Radford and continued to search him, removing the bag from Radford’s pocket.

Maples learned that there was an outstanding warrant for Radford’s arrest minutes after he took Radford into custody based on charges for operating a vehicle after a lifetime suspension of his license. Radford was also listed as a habitual traffic violator and had a prior felony conviction related to narcotics.

The substance in the plastic baggie turned out to be fentanyl rather than heroin, and Radford was charged with possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance.

Radford moved to suppress the evidence obtained at the traffic stop, contending on the day he was stopped, he was driving under the speed limit, was operating his vehicle in a safe manner and did not commit any traffic violations. In an accompanying affidavit, Radford argued he never followed any vehicle by less than a car length.

Radford also argued the officer’s view would have been obstructed by businesses and a tree line given his claimed position in an LA Fitness parking lot on Rockville Road. He also pointed out that there were no traffic violations recorded during any part of Maples’ video of the incident.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana subsequently held a hearing and denied the motion to suppress. The court credited Radford’s claim that he was not aware that he was being stopped by a police officer and was surprised to find Maples at the door of his car.

In every other respect, the court adopted Maples’ version of the stop. It also found that the suspected heroin tested positive for fentanyl, a search of the vehicle turned up a gun in the driver’s side door, and Maples learned that there was an outstanding warrant for Radford on the charge of operating a vehicle as a lifetime habitual traffic violator.

Before the 7th Circuit, Radford argued the stop was not supported by probable cause because the government failed to satisfy its burden of proof and the court used an inappropriate and unreasonable methodology in reaching its credibility finding.

The appellate court wasn’t convinced.

“Because his license was suspended, any driving Radford did that day would have constituted a traffic infraction, even though Maples did not know that until after the stop was effected and the warrant check was completed,” Circuit Judge Ilana Rovner wrote. “In any case, the court did make appropriate findings of historical fact to support the ultimate conclusion that a reasonable officer would find that Radford committed the infraction of following too closely.”

Regarding the frisk, the 7th Circuit found the length and causes for it were legitimate.

“We conclude that the district court did not plainly err in crediting Maples’ testimony that he saw that package in plain view as he conducted a legitimate search for weapons, and that, because of his training and experience, he recognized that package as containing narcotics,” Rovner wrote. “We also note that, even if Radford had shown plain error in the district court’s conclusion that the pat-down search was legitimate and that the drugs came into plain view in the course of that search, this is not a case where we would exercise our discretion to correct any error.”

The case is United States of America v. Christopher Radford, 21-1715.

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