266 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2001), 00-2230, United States v. Chhien

Docket Nº:00-2230
Citation:266 F.3d 1
Party Name:UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellee, v. ROTH CHHIEN, Defendant, Appellant.
Case Date:September 24, 2001
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

Page 1

266 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2001)



ROTH CHHIEN, Defendant, Appellant.

No. 00-2230

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

September 24, 2001

Heard Aug. 2, 2001


[Hon. Paul J. Barbadoro, U.S. District Judge]

Page 2

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 3

Elizabeth L. Prevett, Federal Defender Officer, for appellant.

William E. Morse, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Paul M. Gagnon, United States Attorney, and Jean B. Weld, Assistant United States Attorney, were on brief, for appellee.

Before Boudin, Chief Judge, Selya and Lipez, Circuit Judges.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

A jury convicted defendant-appellant Roth Chhien of possessing five grams or more of crack cocaine, intending to distribute it. See 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(B)(iii). The district court sentenced him as a career offender. Chhien now appeals, assigning error both to the district court's denial of his pretrial motion to suppress evidence and to its sentencing determination. We affirm.


During the afternoon of August 21, 1998, the appellant -- a twenty-nine year old native of Cambodia -- drove north on Interstate Route 93 in Salem, New Hampshire. He was traveling at the speed limit when he passed a state police cruiser stationed on the median strip. The cruiser's sole occupant, trooper Lawrence Holdsworth, observed two violations of state law: the appellant was driving perilously close to the vehicle in front of him and his car was equipped with blue-tinted aftermarket

Page 4

lights.1 Holdsworth, a member of an elite team (the so-called Enhanced Enforcement Unit) trained to "look beyond the traffic ticket," i.e., to attempt to ferret out serious criminal activity while conducting routine traffic patrols, commenced pursuit.

Holdsworth signaled the appellant to pull his car to the side of the road. He then approached the driver's side and asked for the appellant's license and registration. After a computer check proved unremarkable, Holdsworth ushered the appellant to the front of his car and inquired about the blue-tinted lights. The appellant acknowledged having purchased them, but claimed that he did so without any awareness of the statutory proscription.

Holdsworth asked if he could conduct a pat-down search for weapons and the appellant acquiesced. During the frisk, Holdsworth felt something "hard" -- a "substantial lump" -- in the appellant's right front pants pocket. When he inquired about the object, the appellant responded that it was a large wad of cash, totaling $2,000.

Holdsworth grew increasingly suspicious. He began to question the appellant about where he had been and where he was going. The appellant told him that he had bought some stereo equipment in Lowell, Massachusetts, and was heading to his home in Franklin, New Hampshire. He asserted that he had made no stops along the way. The trooper then crossed over to the passenger side of the vehicle and posed a similar set of questions to the appellant's companion, Melanie Baker (who had remained seated inside the car throughout the initial phase of the highway stop). Baker verified the trip to Lowell and the purchase of stereo equipment. When asked if she and the appellant had made any other stops, she mentioned that they had driven to the Lowell home of one of the appellant's relatives. Once there, she waited in the car while the appellant went inside.

Returning to the appellant (who was still standing near the front of the car), Holdsworth probed the discrepancy. The appellant immediately amended his story and confirmed that he and Baker had stopped at the home of one of his relatives for a brief visit. But another discrepancy emerged: according to the appellant, both he and Baker had entered the dwelling.

Disturbed by these contradictions, Holdsworth repaired to his cruiser and radioed for assistance. Trooper Timothy Stearns, another member of the Enhanced Enforcement Unit, arrived within a minute or so. Holdsworth was drafting a warning. As the troopers conversed, they noticed Baker's head sink from view and then bob up and down. Curious about these awkward movements, Holdsworth directed Stearns to investigate.

Stearns approached the vehicle. Baker's hands were clenched and Stearns asked to see them. Baker refused. Stearns, fearing that Baker had a gun, unsnapped his holster, renewed his demand, and hollered to Holdsworth "she won't show me her hands!" Holdsworth sprang from the cruiser and ran to assist. When Stearns repeated his request, Baker finally unclenched her fists and raised both hands. At that point, Holdsworth yanked her from the car. The troopers then noticed in plain view on the front passenger seat a small plastic bag containing white powder.

Page 5

The troopers immediately concluded that the white powder was contraband.2 Arrests, Miranda warnings, see Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444-45 (1966), and further questioning followed apace. During this brief roadside interrogation, the appellant admitted that the plastic bag contained crack cocaine purchased in Lowell. Baker confirmed this tale, adding that she had tried to conceal the contraband when Holdsworth intervened. The troopers then transported the suspects to a nearby station house.

On September 9, 1998, a federal grand jury indicted the appellant for possession with intent to distribute five grams or more of crack cocaine.3 See 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(B)(iii). In due course, the appellant moved to suppress both the drugs and his statements at the scene of the highway stop. After conducting an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied the motion. The court concluded that the roadside confrontation had lasted no longer than five minutes from start to finish; that this brief detention was reasonable, given the patent motor vehicle violations; that the appellant voluntarily consented to the pat-down search; and that, in all events, the pat-down search and the questioning that followed did not lead to the discovery of the contraband. Rather, it was the troopers' legitimate fear for their own safety, sparked by Baker's movements, that prompted them to remove her from the car and displayed the crack cocaine in plain view. This, in turn, gave rise to probable cause for the subsequent arrests and interrogation.

Following some procedural skirmishing (not material here), the case went to trial in September of 2000. The jury found the appellant guilty as charged. The district court thereafter classified him as a career offender and imposed a 228-month prison sentence. This appeal ensued. In it, the appellant argues that the lower court erred both in denying his motion to suppress and in fashioning his sentence. We address these assignments of error separately.


When reviewing the district court's disposition of a motion to suppress, we accept the court's findings of fact unless clearly erroneous and evaluate its legal conclusions de novo. United States v. Sowers, 136 F.3d 24, 26 (1st Cir. 1998); United States v. Schaffer, 87 F.3d 562, 565 (1st Cir. 1996). Here, the appellant's principal contention is that impermissible police tactics transformed a routine highway stop into an unconstitutional fishing expedition -- an expedition that ultimately led to the contraband and the confession. To place this contention into perspective, we begin by discussing the legal framework surrounding such stops. Moving from the general to the specific, we then grapple with the various components of the appellant's argument.

A. The Legal Landscape.

A traffic stop, by definition, embodies a detention of the vehicle and its occupants. It therefore constitutes a seizure within the purview of the Fourth Amendment. Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653 (1979). This means, of course, that

Page 6

the stop must be supported by a reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity, see Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 439 (1984), and that the detention must be reasonable under the circumstances, United States v. Whren, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10 (1996).

Reasonable suspicion, as the term implies, requires more than a naked hunch that a particular person may be engaged in some illicit activity. United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7 (1989). By the same token, however, reasonable suspicion does not require either probable cause or evidence of a direct connection linking the suspect to the suspected crime. United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417-18 (1981); United States v. Velez-Saldana, 252 F.3d 49, 52 (1st Cir. 2001). Reasonable suspicion, then, is an intermediate standard -- and one that defies precise definition. Its existence must be determined case by case, and that determination entails broad-based consideration of all the attendant circumstances. Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 500 (1983). In mulling those circumstances, an inquiring court must balance "the nature and quality of the intrusion on personal security against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion." Sowers, 136 F.3d at 27 (quoting United States v. Hensley, 469 U.S. 221, 228 (1985)). To keep this balance true, the court must make a practical, commonsense judgment based on the idiosyncracies of the case at hand. Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 695-96 (1996).

To work the calculus of reasonable suspicion in the context of a traffic stop, an inquiring court must ask whether the officer's actions were justified at their inception, and if so, whether the officer's subsequent actions were fairly responsive to the emerging tableau -- the circumstances originally warranting the stop, informed by what occurred, and what the officer learned, as the stop progressed. Sowers, 136 F.3d at 27. Formulating the answers to these queries demands a margin of flexibility. After...

To continue reading