919 F.2d 1482 (10th Cir. 1990), 90-8012, United States v. Maher

Docket Nº:90-8012.
Citation:919 F.2d 1482
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Patrick Lynn MAHER, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:December 07, 1990
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

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919 F.2d 1482 (10th Cir. 1990)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellant,


Patrick Lynn MAHER, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 90-8012.

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

December 7, 1990

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Patty Merkamp Stemler, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Washington, D.C. (Richard A. Stacy, U.S. Atty., and John R. Barksdale, Asst. U.S. Atty., Cheyenne, Wyo., with her on the brief) for plaintiff-appellant.

William M. McKellar of Lathrop, Rutledge & Boley, P.C., Cheyenne, Wyo., for defendant-appellee.

Before ANDERSON and BRORBY, Circuit Judges, and BRIMMER, [*] District Judge.

BRORBY, Circuit Judge.

The United States (the Government) appeals the grant of a motion to suppress evidence. The motion was granted following the trial court's determination that defendant Patrick Lynn Maher's (Maher, or appellee) written consent to search was tainted by his illegal detention. Because we find that the police had probable cause to arrest the defendant, the grant of the motion to suppress is reversed.


The facts of this case are exhaustively set forth in the district court's Memorandum Opinion and Order, published as United States v. Maher, 724 F.Supp. 1348 (D.Wyo.1989). Only those facts useful in understanding this appeal are repeated here.

On November 24, 1988, Maher was traveling through Wyoming with his children when he experienced car trouble on Interstate 80 near Lyman. Maher's vehicle was a 1975 Dodge van pulling a homemade flatbed trailer. He arranged for a tow to a motel in Lyman, where he rented a room for the evening.

Shortly before noon the next morning, Officer Walser of the Lyman Police Department (LPD) noticed Maher working on his van. Walser ran a routine National Crime Information Center (NCIC) check on the separate license plates attached to the van and trailer. The trailer's plate registered an NCIC "hit," which indicated the plate belonged to a yellow 1977 Chevrolet Camaro that had been reported stolen in California.

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Walser approached Maher, asked for his driver's license and informed him that the trailer's license plate had been reported stolen. Maher stated his driver's license had been stolen and he had no other photo identification. Walser checked Maher's name and date of birth and found that he did have a valid California driver's license. He also learned there were no outstanding warrants for him in either California or Wyoming.

Backup officers arrived shortly after Walser confronted Maher. Cursory searches of the van and trailer were conducted at this time, with Maher's oral consent. Nothing incriminating was found, and those searches are not part of this appeal. In response to questioning, Maher produced the van's registration, but explained that the bill of sale for the trailer was at his California home. Maher told the officers he had bought the trailer from a man named Tommy in California and explained where Tommy's house was located. At some time during this exchange, Walser made a cursory and unsuccessful search for the trailer's vehicle identification number (VIN).

At this point in the investigation, Walser could have charged Maher with having an unregistered trailer and possession of a stolen license plate. Walser decided to impound the trailer, suspecting that the trailer itself might be stolen. Walser testified that it was the department's policy to impound stolen vehicles or vehicles with stolen license plates attached to them. 1 Walser informed Maher that the trailer was going to be impounded. 2

At 1:10 p.m., Walser and Maher arrived at the police station, where Walser read Maher his Miranda rights, asked if he understood, and asked if he wanted to speak with a lawyer. Maher answered that he understood his rights and did not wish to speak to a lawyer. In an ultimately fruitless effort to verify Maher's story about how he obtained the trailer, Walser began making phone calls to law enforcement agencies in the southern California area where Maher resided. Meanwhile, officers at the private garage where Maher's trailer was impounded removed the trailer's tailgate and tarp and found its payload consisted of twenty to twenty-five wooden boxes. One of the officers called to tell Walser that he wanted Maher to sign a consent form before searching the trailer. Maher signed the consent form at the station.

After being informed by Walser that a consent form had been obtained, five officers and a drug-sniffing dog began to search the trailer. Among less noteworthy items, the search revealed plastic explosives, five military mine activators and a coil of military safety fuse.

Ultimately, after consulting the county attorney, Walser issued Maher a citation for improper registration and allowed him to post a $50 bond. On July 20, 1989, Maher was indicted for concealing and storing stolen explosive materials in violation of 18 U.S.C. Sec. 842(a) and Sec. 842(h), and for transporting those same materials in interstate commerce in violation of 18 U.S.C. Secs. 842(a)(3)(A) and 844(a).

Maher subsequently filed a motion to suppress the explosives seized during the search of the trailer.

District Court's Findings

In granting Maher's motion to suppress, the district court held, inter alia: Maher was seized without probable cause; his detention could not be justified as voluntary, or as a Terry stop; impoundment of the trailer was illegal and pretextual; and

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Maher's written consent to the search of the trailer was vitiated by the illegal detention, with no intervening cure. Maher, 724 F.Supp. at 1362.

The Government subsequently filed a motion for reconsideration of the court's memorandum opinion and order on the motion to suppress, essentially challenging the court's refusal to find probable cause. The court denied the motion and the Government's timely appeal followed.

Standard of Review

Factual findings of the district court are not disturbed on appeal unless clearly erroneous. See United States v. Rivera, 867 F.2d 1261, 1262-63 (10th Cir.1989). We review the evidence in a light favorable to the district court's determinations. See, e.g., United States v. Medlin, 842 F.2d 1194, 1198 (10th Cir.1988); United States v. Obregon, 748 F.2d 1371, 1376 (10th Cir.1984).

Legal conclusions are reviewed de novo. In re Ruti-Sweetwater, Inc., 836 F.2d 1263, 1266 (10th Cir.1988).

Issues on Appeal

The Government asserts on appeal that suppression of the evidence was erroneous because Maher's presence at the station was lawful for any one of three reasons. The Government argues: 1) Maher voluntarily consented to go to the station and was neither "seized" nor "arrested"; 2) even if he was arrested, the arrest was supported by probable cause to believe the trailer was stolen; and 3) custodial arrest is authorized under Wyoming law for possessing a stolen license plate and hauling an unregistered trailer. If any of these three contentions is correct, the Government asserts, then Maher was lawfully present in the police station and his written consent to the search was not tainted. The evidence would therefore be admissible. The Government also argues the trailer was lawfully impounded.

Because a finding of probable cause would be dispositive, we turn first to that issue. We assume for the purpose of analysis that Maher was arrested and taken to the police station without his voluntary consent. As noted by the district court, such an arrest " 'trigger[s] the full protection of the fourth and fourteenth amendments.' " Maher, 724 F.Supp. at 1361 (quoting Hayes v. Florida, 470 U.S. 811, 816, 105 S.Ct. 1643, 1646, 84 L.Ed.2d 705 (1985)).

Probable Cause to Arrest

The Government argues that Maher's arrest was supported by probable cause to believe Maher was in possession of stolen goods, including the trailer and license plate. The Government further argues that warrantless arrests for both felonies and misdemeanors are authorized under Wyoming law when based on probable cause. Maher argues the police did not have probable cause to believe the trailer was stolen. Although Maher concedes possession of a stolen license plate, he contends that arrest for that misdemeanor offense is not valid under Wyoming law.

The constitutional validity of a warrantless arrest depends on whether the arresting officer had probable cause. Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 85 S.Ct. 223, 13 L.Ed.2d 142 (1964); Karr v. Smith, 774 F.2d 1029, 1031 (10th Cir.1985). Probable cause exists where the facts and circumstances within the officers' knowledge, and of which they have reasonably trustworthy information, are sufficient in themselves to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense has been or is being committed. Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 175-76, 69 S.Ct. 1302, 1310-11, 93 L.Ed. 1879 (1949); Matthews, 615 F.2d at 1284. Although it is not necessary that the officer possess knowledge of facts sufficient to establish guilt, Holt v. United States, 404 F.2d 914, 919 (10th Cir.1968), cert. denied, 393 U.S. 1086, 89 S.Ct. 872, 21 L.Ed.2d 779 (1969), mere suspicion is insufficient to establish probable cause, Henry v. United States, 361 U.S. 98, 104, 80 S.Ct. 168, 172, 4 L.Ed.2d 134 (1959); Matthews, 615 F.2d at 1284. We recognize that probable cause must be evaluated in light of circumstances as they would have appeared to a prudent, cautious, trained police officer.

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United States v. Lopez, 777 F.2d 543, 551 (10th Cir.1985); United States v. McCormick, 468 F.2d 68, 73 (10th Cir.1972), cert. denied, 410 U.S. 927, 93 S.Ct. 1361, 35 L.Ed.2d 588 (1973).

We apply these standards to the facts...

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