U.S. v. Prandy-Binett

Citation302 U.S. App. D.C. 1,995 F.2d 1069
Decision Date11 May 1993
Docket NumberNo. 91-3296,PRANDY-BINETT,91-3296
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Appellant v. Pedro Jolio
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (91cr00342-01).

Peggy Kuo, Asst. U.S. Atty., argued the cause for appellant. With her on the briefs were Jay B. Stephens, U.S. Atty. at the time the brief was filed, John R. Fisher and Thomas C. Black, Asst. U.S. Attys. Thomas J. Tourish, Jr. also entered an appearance for appellant.

A.J. Kramer, Federal Public Defender, argued the cause and filed the brief for appellee.

Before: EDWARDS, D.H. GINSBURG, and RANDOLPH, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the court filed by Circuit Judge RANDOLPH.

Dissenting opinion filed by Circuit Judge HARRY T. EDWARDS.

RANDOLPH, Circuit Judge:

Some opaque containers induce assumptions about their contents. Refrigerators contain food. Under the hoods of automobiles are engines. These are predictions, based on experience. Narcotics officers have their own specialized experience and training. Detective John Centrella saw a small rectangular block wrapped in silver duct tape. To the uninitiated, the object's outward appearance said nothing about its contents. To Detective Centrella, the size, shape and wrapping of the object signified one kilogram of illegal narcotics. The question is whether Pedro Jolio Prandy-Binett's possession of the object, together with other information, gave the detective probable cause to arrest him.

Detective Centrella and another narcotics detective were on duty at Union Station, meeting trains arriving from New York City, a "source city" for drugs. As they watched departing passengers, their attention was drawn to an individual walking through the station faster than the others and trying to get around them. When the individual--Prandy-Binett--made eye contact with the detectives, who were in plain clothes, he moved even more quickly toward the exit. The detectives approached him and identified themselves. After telling the officers he had come from New Jersey, Prandy-Binett produced a one-way train ticket, purchased with cash, showing that his trip originated at Penn Station, New York City. After saying he lived in Washington, D.C., he handed the officers a driver's license showing Hyattsville, Maryland, as his residence. Detective Centrella's suspicions, aroused by these possible inconsistencies, were heightened by the cloth "tote" or "gym" bag Prandy-Binett carried on his shoulder. Prandy-Binett reported having spent a week working in New Jersey. Yet his only luggage was the small bag, which did not appear full. Asked whether the bag contained drugs or guns, Prandy-Binett said no. Detective Centrella then requested permission to search the bag. Prandy-Binett replied that he did not have to consent and that the bag contained only clothing. 1 He took the bag from his shoulder, placed it on the ground, knelt down (as did the detective next to him), unzipped the bag and began pulling out a pair of blue jeans. This action uncovered a miniature shopping bag lying on its side, deep purple in color, a "perfume or a cologne bag" from Elizabeth Taylor Perfume. Unprompted, Prandy-Binett said, in evident reference to the perfume bag, "this is a gift." As Prandy-Binett continued to manipulate the blue jeans, a portion of a rectangular block, wrapped in silver duct tape, slid out of the perfume bag. Believing the block to contain illegal drugs, Detective Centrella handcuffed Prandy-Binett, examined the wrapped object further, and seized it and the gym bag. A later field test on the contents of the wrapped block revealed cocaine.

A single-count indictment charged Prandy-Binett with possession with intent to distribute 500 or more grams of cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B)(ii). After an evidentiary hearing, the district court held that the detectives had violated Prandy-Binett's Fourth Amendment rights. The government sought to justify the seizure and search of the wrapped block as incident to a valid arrest. 2 The district court found that Prandy-Binett was arrested immediately after the detectives observed part of the wrapped block. At that point, the court held, the detectives did not have probable cause to believe Prandy-Binett had committed an offense. The exclusionary rule therefore demanded suppression of the cocaine as the fruit of the illegal arrest. 774 F.Supp. at 28. Relying on the testimony of the government's expert, the court stated "that the proper approach" would have been "to investigate further, not to immediately arrest the defendant." Id. At a status call after the district court issued its written opinion, the government acknowledged that it could not proceed without the suppressed evidence, and the court dismissed the indictment. This appeal followed.

Somewhere between " 'less than evidence which would justify ...' conviction" and "more than bare suspicion," probable cause is satisfied. Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 175, 69 S.Ct. 1302, 1310, 93 L.Ed. 1879 (1949) (citation omitted). The precise point is indeterminate. We are concerned not simply with probabilities, but with conditional probabilities: if one event occurs, how likely is it that another event will occur? 3 This is why the detectives' observations up to the time the block slipped out of the perfume bag cannot be disregarded. It is why in similar cases we ask, although sometimes tacitly, what is the probability that a train passenger arriving at Union Station from New York City will be carrying cocaine? Quite low, we trust, despite New York's status as a source city for narcotics. Is the probability increased if the passenger moves quickly through the station after leaving the train? Greater if the passenger also gives apparently deceptive answers when the police question him? Greater still if the passenger opens his bag and refers to a package wrapped in duct tape inside a fancy perfume bag as a "gift?" Neither courts nor law enforcement officers, nor anyone else for that matter, can quantify any of this. A mathematician could not perform the calculations because there is no way of assigning probabilities to the individual events. The information is simply unavailable, as will doubtless be true in every Fourth Amendment case. Still, we are convinced that, up to the sighting of the duct tape package, the conditional probability was low, much too low to have satisfied the Fourth Amendment in light of the interests it protects.

The case thus comes down to the detectives' inference of narcotics from the appearance of the wrapped block, and the extent to which that inference enhanced the probability of Prandy-Binett's possessing drugs. We put the question in these terms because "probable cause" is evaluated not only from the perspective of a "prudent man," Gerstein v. Pugh, 420 U.S. 103, 111, 95 S.Ct. 854, 861, 43 L.Ed.2d 54 (1975); Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91, 85 S.Ct. 223, 224, 13 L.Ed.2d 142 (1964), but also from the particular viewpoint of the officer involved in the search or seizure. See, e.g., Texas v. Brown, 460 U.S. 730, 742-43, 103 S.Ct. 1535, 1543, 75 L.Ed.2d 502 (1983) (plurality opinion); United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 418, 101 S.Ct. 690, 695, 66 L.Ed.2d 621 (1981); United States v. Ortiz, 422 U.S. 891, 897, 95 S.Ct. 2585, 2589, 45 L.Ed.2d 623 (1975); Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10, 13, 68 S.Ct. 367, 368, 92 L.Ed. 436 (1948); United States v. Davis, 458 F.2d 819, 821-22 (D.C.Cir.1972). See generally 1 W. LAFAVE, SEARCH AND SEIZURE § 3.2(c) (2d ed. 1987). Law enforcement officers naturally reach conclusions based on their training and experience. In cases of searches or seizures without warrants, the court's role is to decide whether the officer's inference from the facts was "reasonable," United States v. Ortiz, 422 U.S. at 897, 95 S.Ct. at 2589. This depends on information showing the officer's accumulated knowledge of criminal activity, information that must be in the record if it is to be considered.

Upon seeing the kilo-sized rectangular package wrapped in silver duct tape sticking out of the perfume bag, Detective Centrella and his partner immediately concluded that it held narcotics. Detective Centrella testified: "As soon as I saw that, in my mind, that's drugs." The record firmly supports the detective's inference.

There was first the block's bulk. The weight of consumer goods in this country is usually described in pounds and ounces. Perhaps because of foreign influence, the weight of illicit narcotics is usually measured--in statutes and on the street--in terms of the metric system. The evidence showed that in the drug trade, a kilogram of cocaine or heroin is a standardized unit of exchange, commonly referred to as a "kilo brick" or simply a "kilo." (A kilogram equals 2.2046 pounds.) Detective Centrella was quite familiar with the bulk of packages containing one kilogram of cocaine. During his 20 years of service, he personally had seized 100 such kilos and had seen many more. Both Detective Centrella, and his partner, an experienced narcotics detective who had undergone training at the Drug Enforcement Administration, thus had good reason for believing that the wrapped block in Prandy-Binett's gym bag was about the size of a package containing one kilogram of cocaine or heroin.

The second consideration was the rectangular shape of the object. The portion protruding from the perfume bag was consistent with what the detectives knew to be the standard configuration, the typical "kilo brick." The bag itself, roughly four inches wide and between six and ten inches deep, was the right size for holding a kilo of narcotics so packaged. The brick-like shape of the object thus further alerted the detectives, in light of their training and experience, to the possible presence of narcotics.

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