The opinion of the court was delivered by: U. S. District Judge Honorable Edward J. Lodge
Pending before the Court in the above-entitled matter are the motions to suppress filed by Defendants Kailey Doan ("Doan") and Mathew Van Lith ("Van Lith"). Dkts. 13 and 14. An evidentiary hearing was held on November 7, 2011. The Court took the motions under advisement and now finds that the facts and legal arguments are adequately presented in the briefs and record.
Defendants move to suppress statements and evidence from an investigatory stop in a campground. Defendants argue Ranger Sabatini did not have a "reasonable suspicion" supported by articulable facts that criminal activity may have been afoot based on what the Ranger observed the defendants were doing in the car. Secondarily, Defendants argue there was no probably cause for a search of the vehicle.
On May 8, 2011, Doan and Van Lith were at a Bureau of Land Management ("BLM") campground in Idaho County, Idaho. This was the weekend of the Riggins Rodeo so the campground had lots of people camping. Approximately seven officers were doing a sweep through the campground area at around midnight. Ranger Sabatini testified that he observed two persons sitting in a car with the interior light on. Van Lith claims it was the light from his laptop computer that illuminated the interior not the dome light. Regardless of the source of the light in the car, Ranger Sabatini testified he stood next to the vehicle without the occupants noticing him. The Ranger first thought Van Lith was rolling a marijuana joint, but after observing the occupants he realized that Van Lith was not rolling a joint, but was manipulating some small plastic item in his hand.
Ranger Sabatini testified that based on his prior marijuana investigations and arrests, he was familiar with the practice of people taking a little bit of marijuana and twisting it into a corner of a baggie to save the marijuana for later use. Ranger Sabatini testified that he observed Van Lith manipulating a small piece of plastic which the Ranger believed to also contain marijuana although from observing outside the vehicle he could not see the marijuana. The Ranger did not see Van Lith tear it off from the rest of the baggie, but saw a small piece of plastic in his hand. Van Lith admitted he had the small end of the baggie in his hand but claims he was holding it between his fingers about shoulder high not lower as the Ranger testified.
After observing Van Lith with the small piece of plastic, Ranger Sabatini knocked on window, said "Police" and "hand me your marijuana." At this point, the Ranger said Van Lith put his hands up and then inside his coat and denied having any marijuana. Doan opened her purse and handed over a pipe with some marijuana in it and a prescription vial with some marijuana in it. It is undisputed that the Ranger had not seen these two items before he knocked on the window.
Van Lith denied he had any marijuana. It is contested whether Van Lith made a rapid movement to put his hand in his jacket after the officer knocked on the window. After Doan provided the marijuana and pipe to Ranger Sabatini, he called for another officer to come to the vehicle to search Van Lith and the vehicle. Van Lith confirmed in his testimony that he had sealed the corner of the baggie with the small amount of marijuana with the car's lighter and dropped the remainder of the baggie outside the driver door. The rest of the baggie was found outside the driver door of the vehicle and the small amount of marijuana (about the size of a pencil eraser) was found on the floor of the back seat behind the driver's seat (where Van Lith testified he had dropped it).
Doan and Van Lith were each charged with possession of marijuana, a Class A misdemeanor.
The law applicable to this case is not generally disputed by the parties. Rather Defendants argue under the applicable law there simply was not an articulable reasonable suspicion to justify the investigatory stop nor was there probable cause for the search of the vehicle. The Court respectfully disagrees.
1. Investigatory Stop "It is well settled that visual observation by a law enforcement officer situated in a place where he has a right to be is not a search within the meaning of the [F]ourth [A]mendment." United States v. Coplen, 541 F.2d 211, 214 (9th Cir. 1976). Ranger Sabatini's stealth observation of Doan and Van Lith by standing outside the vehicle in the BLM campground without announcing his presence was not an unlawful search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. However, by knocking on the window and ordering Doan and Van Lith to hand over the marijuana, Ranger Sabatini was initiating an investigatory stop as defined by Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30 (1968). "An investigatory stop or encounter does not violate the Fourth Amendment if the officers have 'reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that criminal activity may be afoot.'" United States v. Basher, 629 F.3d 1161, 1165 (9th Cir. 2011). The Court is to consider the totality of the circumstances in determining if the officer had a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped was involved in criminal activity. Id. Counsel for both sides agree that the standard for "reasonable suspicion" is a fairly minimal standard, but it must be based on specific and articulable facts. Any inferences from those facts must also be objectively reasonable.
In this case, the Court finds Ranger Sabatini articulated his reasonable suspicions regarding why he believed Van Lith was in possession of marijuana, albeit a very small amount. The officer testified that he is familiar with marijuana drug users saving small amounts of marijuana by tearing off a corner of a plastic baggie and he observed a small piece of plastic similar to a baggie in Van Lith's fingers. The weekend of the Riggins Rodeo brought lots of folks into Riggins and there was a lot of partying occurring in the crowded campground. The officer had written 6 to 8 other citations that day for unlawful conduct on BLM land. While the fact that the interior light was on in the vehicle around midnight is not by itself sufficient reasonable suspicion to justify an investigatory stop, after observing Van Lith and the small object the officer reasonably believed to be contraband from his undetected position outside the vehicle, the officer determined based on his background and training with illicit drug usage, that he had an articulable basis to conduct an investigatory stop as he reasonably believed Van Lith was in possession of a small amount of illegal drugs. The officer then knocked, announced his law enforcement status and requested the drugs be turned over.
Moreover, the reasonableness of the officer's articulable suspicions were corroborated when the small amount of marijuana dropped by Van Lith behind the seat was discovered in the corner of a piece of plastic baggie (that matched the rest of the baggie that was missing one corner outside the driver's door) ...