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United States v. Sheffield

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

August 12, 2016

United States of America, Appellee
Dante Sheffield, Appellant

          Argued May 20, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:11-cr-00213-1)

          William Francis Xavier Becker, appointed by the court, argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellant.

          Lauren R. Bates, Assistant U.S. Attorney, argued the cause for appellee. With her on the brief were Elizabeth Trosman and Elizabeth H. Danello, Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

          Before: Millett, Circuit Judge, and Ginsburg and Sentelle, Senior Circuit Judges.


          Millett Circuit Judge

         A jury convicted Dante Sheffield of unlawful possession of 100 grams or more of phencyclidine (PCP) with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a) and (b)(1)(B)(iv). Based in part on its application of a career-offender enhancement, the district court sentenced Sheffield to 230 months in prison.

         Sheffield challenges both his conviction and sentence, arguing that the district court erred in (i) denying his motion to suppress the PCP discovered during the search of a car in which he was a passenger, (ii) refusing to suppress statements he made following his arrest but before he received his Miranda warnings, (iii) admitting evidence of a decade-old drug conviction, (iv) denying his post-trial motion for independent testing of the drug evidence, and (v) applying the career-offender enhancement at sentencing. We affirm the judgment of conviction, but we reverse the district court's imposition of the career-offender enhancement, vacate Sheffield's sentence, and remand to the district court for resentencing.



         On the evening of June 8, 2011, Metropolitan Police Department Detectives Christopher Smith and Michael Iannacchione, along with two other officers, were driving in an unmarked police car through the 2300 block of 11th Street, N.W., in Washington, D.C. Detective Smith spotted Dante Sheffield, whom he and the other officers recognized from an earlier PCP investigation in the area. The officers then observed Sheffield and an unknown male enter a car with tinted windows. One of the officers told Detective Smith that "he wanted to at least make a contact just to see who the [un]identified * * * male was." Supp. App. 7. Before they did so, however, they witnessed the car "pull[] * * * slightly forward and ma[ke] a sharp left without using a turn signal into an alleyway[.]" Id. at 8. The officers followed closely behind the car, which then made a right turn out of the alley "without using its signal." Id. At that point, the officers initiated a traffic stop.

         All four officers approached the vehicle, two on each side of the car. After asking the occupants to roll down the windows because of the tinting, Detective Smith observed a woman, Brande Dudley, in the driver's seat, Sheffield in the passenger seat, and the unknown male, Anthony Grant, in the rear seat. Detective Smith later testified that he had detected a "faint" but "fresh" smell of marijuana on the passenger side. Supp. App. 10. In addition, Smith noticed "numerous air fresheners all [over] the vehicle, " "on the top, the bottom, the back, the front, all over the car." Id. After asking for Dudley's license, the officers asked the three occupants to get out of the vehicle.

         Officers then searched the inside of the vehicle. Upon unlocking and opening the armrest console, Detective Iannacchione was immediately met with "a strong chemical odor" and found an eight-ounce lemon juice bottle, "which through [their] investigation was consistent with that of storing and packaging of PCP in large quantities." Supp. App. 11-12. Detective Iannacchione opened the cap and noticed "a strong chemical [odor] consistent with that of PCP." Id. at 12. At that point, the officers placed all three individuals under arrest.

         Sheffield then asked Detective Smith "[w]hat are we getting arrested for?" Supp. App. 12. Smith responded that the arrest was for "[w]hat was in the car, " to which Sheffield responded "[e]verything is mine." Id. After another detective began speaking privately with Brande Dudley, Sheffield "became more irritated and started yelling toward their direction for her not to say nothing, that they didn't have a strong case, they got nothing on us, don't say anything." Hearing Tr. 15-16 (Sept. 16, 2011).

         When the officers searched Grant incident to his arrest, they found a plastic bag in his right sock containing approximately 0.75 grams of marijuana.



         The government indicted Sheffield on one count of unlawful possession with intent to distribute 100 grams or more of PCP, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) & (b)(1)(B)(iv). Before trial, Sheffield filed motions to suppress the physical evidence of the PCP and his statements made during his arrest.

         The district court denied Sheffield's motions to suppress. First, the court held that Dudley's two turns made without signaling gave the officers probable cause to believe she had committed a traffic violation. The court rejected Sheffield's argument that the traffic violations were mere pretext for a stop and search targeted at him because "the officers' subjective motivations do not render unconstitutional a search that is otherwise justified by objective circumstances." J.A. 70.

         Second, the district court held that the search of the vehicle was lawful, citing inter alia "the smell of marijuana and the unusual number of air fresheners in the car[.]" J.A. 74. The court further held that the officers' search of the locked armrest console was proper because there was a "'fair probability' that [the defendant] might have hidden additional drugs not necessary for his current consumption in areas out of plain sight, including the trunk of a car" or an armrest console. Id. at 75 (quoting United States v. Turner, 119 F.3d 18, 20 (D.C. Cir. 1997)).

         Third, with respect to Sheffield's statements that everything in the car "is mine" and that "they [don't] have a strong case, they've got nothing on us, " the district court ruled that Miranda warnings were not required for their admission. The court explained that the statements "were not made in response to a question posed by the officers, nor did the officers take any action to which defendant Sheffield's response was required or expected." J.A. 77.

         The district court separately granted the government's motion to admit a record documenting Sheffield's conviction in 2002 for possession with intent to distribute PCP, pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b).


         At trial, Detectives Smith, Iannacchione, and a third officer involved in the stop and arrest all testified to the circumstances of the traffic stop, the discovery of the PCP, and Sheffield's statements at the time of his arrest. In addition, the jury heard testimony from the law enforcement officials who transported, stored, and tested the PCP found in the car, including "two arresting officers, who observed and seized the lemon juice bottle at the scene of the traffic stop; three other officers who established the chain of custody of the lemon juice bottle, and detailed their handling, storage, and documentation of the evidence; and a DEA forensic chemist, who testified as to his testing of the PCP evidence." J.A. 132. The jury learned that photographs were taken of the lemon juice bottle and that the quantity and weight of the liquid was measured. Id. In addition, the jury heard that, because a DEA regulation prohibits the agency from accepting more than 28.35 grams of PCP for testing, Officer Joseph Abdalla "separated approximately one ounce of the drug evidence into a vial and gave it to [the DEA chemist]" for testing. Id. at 133. The remaining PCP was never tested, though it was introduced at trial. The jury subsequently found Sheffield guilty of possessing with intent to distribute 100 or more grams of PCP.

         Following trial, Sheffield filed a "motion to test drugs not submitted to DEA." J.A. 121. He argued that he wanted the test "to ensure that the drugs introduced at trial are the same drugs seized on June 8, 2011, and to ensure that the measurements performed by the Metropolitan Police are accurate." Id. at 123.

         Treating it as a motion for a new trial in light of newly discovered evidence under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33, the district court denied the motion. The court explained that testing the remaining liquid would not lead to new evidence that could produce an acquittal because (i) five officers "testified as to the smell, seizure, documentation, field testing, and storage of the drug evidence, " and Sheffield never argued that such testing was erroneous or that the witnesses were not credible, J.A. 136-137; (ii) measurement of the PCP six months after Sheffield's arrest would "provide[] minimal probative value" because PCP evaporates over time, id. at 137; and (iii) testing the remaining PCP would not address whether the drugs presented at Sheffield's trial were the same drugs seized at his arrest, id. at 138.

         Sheffield was sentenced to 230 months of imprisonment and 96 months of supervised release. In calculating that sentence, the district court applied a career-offender enhancement under the United States Sentencing Guidelines.


         Sheffield first challenges the admission of the PCP discovered during the search of the car. We decide de novo whether the police had probable cause both to stop the car and to search it. See, e.g., United States v. Burroughs, 810 F.3d 833, 839 (D.C. Cir. 2016). However, we review the district court's fact findings for clear error, giving "due weight to inferences drawn from those facts and to the court's determinations of witness credibility." United States v. Brown, 334 F.3d 1161, 1164 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (quotation marks omitted).


         Given the district court's factual findings, we hold that the officers had probable cause to stop the car in which Sheffield was riding. "As a general matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred." Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 810 (1996). Even minor violations of traffic law may justify a stop. See, e.g., id. at 808 (turning without signaling and speeding); United States v. Williams, 773 F.3d 98, 103 (D.C. Cir. 2014) (failure to wear a seatbelt).

         Here, the officers had probable cause to believe that the driver of the vehicle had violated a mandatory traffic regulation because the driver twice failed to signal a turn, in contravention of D.C. Municipal Regulations, Title 18 § 2204.3. Section 2204.3 provides that "[n]o person shall turn any vehicle * * * from a direct course or move right or left upon a roadway without giving an appropriate signal * * * if any other traffic may be affected by the movement." In this case, the district court found that Dudley, the driver of the car in which Sheffield was riding, first "turn[ed] sharply into an alley without using a turn signal, " and then after leaving the alley "ma[de] another right turn without a turn signal" when another car was behind her. J.A. 63, 69. Under Whren, those violations of D.C. traffic law provided probable cause to stop the vehicle, see 517 U.S. at 808-809, 819.

         Sheffield does not deny that those traffic infractions occurred, but argues that their use by the police was mere pretext for the officers' true motivation, which was to stop him. That no traffic citation was ever issued, Sheffield argues, is "clearly indicative of the intent to target Dante Sheffield via this ever so slight traffic violation." Pet. Br. 29.

         Binding precedent forecloses that argument. The test for probable cause is an objective one, focusing on whether the stop was reasonable. See Whren, 517 U.S. at 811-813. Accordingly, "the constitutional reasonableness of traffic stops [does not] depend[] on the actual motivations of the individual officers involved, " even when those motivations are "admitted." Id. at 813-814.

         That means that, contrary to Sheffield's argument, "ulterior motives [cannot] invalidate police conduct that is justifiable on the basis of probable cause to believe that a violation of law has occurred." Whren, 517 U.S. at 811; see also United States v. Washington, 559 F.3d 573, 575 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (traffic stop for running a stop sign was reasonable notwithstanding evidence of "aggressive traffic patrols" that "use[d] routine traffic stops to try to detect and prevent drug and gun crimes"). Indeed, in United States v. Bookhardt, 277 F.3d 558 (D.C. Cir. 2002), we upheld a stop even though the officers did not have probable cause to stop the defendant for the reason they gave-that the defendant was driving with an expired license, id. at 564-because the officers as an objective matter did have probable cause to stop the defendant for a reason they did not give-reckless driving, id. at 565- 566.

         Accordingly, the two undisputed signaling violations committed in front of the officers' car provided an objectively reasonable basis for the officers to believe that the driver had violated the traffic laws, and that in and of itself provided probable cause to stop Dudley's car.


         We likewise hold that, given the district court's factual findings, probable cause existed to ...

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