United States v. Dexter

Decision Date04 May 2022
Docket NumberCriminal No. 19-cr-007-LM-01
Citation602 F.Supp.3d 244
Parties UNITED STATES of America v. Neil DEXTER
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Hampshire

Anna Dronzek, Seth R. Aframe, Assistant US Attorneys, US Attorney's Office, Concord, NH, for United States of America.

Murat Erkan, Christopher P. Basso, Erkan & Associates LLC, Andover, MA, for Neil Dexter.

ORDER

Landya McCafferty, United States District Judge

On December 1, 2018, New Hampshire State Police Trooper Brian Gacek pulled over Neil Dexter after observing Dexter driving over the speed limit on I-95. During the stop, Gacek saw several suspicious items in Dexter's car, including balled-up cotton that appeared to have been pulled off the end of Q-tips and used as a filter for taking drugs intravenously. Gacek questioned Dexter, ran the records of Dexter and his companions, and then ordered Dexter out of the car and continued to question him. Gacek eventually impounded Dexter's car, and a few days later found drugs when he searched it pursuant to a warrant.

The government charges Dexter with possession of fentanyl with intent to distribute and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute fentanyl. 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 ; 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A)(vi). Dexter moves to suppress all evidence seized as a result of the search of his vehicle. The government objects. On March 22, 2022, the court held an evidentiary hearing. For the reasons explained below, the court denies Dexter's motion.

BACKGROUND

On December 1, 2018, sometime before 7:30 pm, Dexter was driving north on I-95. He drove a Toyota Corolla with Maine license plates. He had two companions with him: Amanda Davis sat in the passenger seat, and Angel Wilson sat in the backseat behind Dexter. As Dexter drove through the Hampton toll plaza, he saw a marked state police car parked nearby. He then saw the trooper pull out a few cars behind him and continue to follow him as he drove north.1

The first exit after the toll plaza is Exit 3 for Portsmouth. At that point, the speed limit drops to 55 miles per hour to account for an interchange with many entrance and exit ramps. The next exit (Exit 4) is on the left. Exit 4 is approximately seven miles after the Hampton toll plaza.

As Dexter drove past Exit 3 and entered the 55-mile-per-hour zone, he did not slow down. Gacek activated his radar and found that Dexter was traveling at 67 to 68 miles per hour. Dexter proceeded to take Exit 4 on the left, continuing at that speed. Gacek followed him and, after Dexter drove onto Exit 4, Gacek activated his emergency lights and pulled Dexter over.

Gacek approached Dexter's car from the passenger side—as is his practice when a car is stopped on the right-hand shoulder of a highway—because it is safer. It was dark out, but Gacek could see well because of his hand-held spotlight and the light bar on his cruiser's windshield.

Gacek asked Dexter for his license and registration and asked if Dexter knew that the speed limit dropped at Exit 3. Dexter answered that he did not know about the speed limit drop and produced the documents. The car was registered to a woman who was not present in the car. Because the owner was not present, Gacek also collected the two passengers’ identifications so he would have a record of who was in the car in case it was later reported stolen. Gacek asked Dexter "where are you coming from?" and "where are you headed?" Dexter stated that the group had planned to go to the Square One Mall in Saugus, Massachusetts, because Davis had a gift card to Victoria's Secret. Dexter told Gacek that they were unable to locate the mall and were heading home. Davis—who was sitting between Gacek and Dexter in the passenger's seat—added that they were trying to visit her kids in Boston. Gacek testified that the whole conversation took about a minute.

During that initial conversation, Gacek made several observations about the car and its occupants. First, he noticed a single key in the ignition. Instead of giving Dexter the whole keychain, the car's owner had apparently given Dexter only the car key itself. Second, Gacek saw balled-up pieces of cotton on the floor of the backseat. Gacek described that they looked like the cotton ends of a Q-tip had been pulled off, balled up, and used as a filter to inject drugs intravenously. Gacek stated that the cotton wads he saw were gray and dirty, and looked as if they had been used. Third, he noticed that Davis's teeth were "extremely rotted," consistent with prior methamphetamine use. Finally, he noted "movie theater size" bags of candy.

After the initial one-minute conversation, Gacek returned to his car and ran Dexter's and his passengers’ records. At 7:32 pm he ran Dexter's record. Next, at 7:42 pm, he ran the vehicle registration, and at 7:46 pm he ran Davis's record. None of these checks revealed anything of note. Dexter had no warrants, his license was clear, and the car's registration was valid. Finally, at 8:08 pm, Gacek ran Wilson's record. He learned that Wilson had been arrested earlier that day on an outstanding warrant and that she had also been charged with possession of narcotics.

Gacek returned to Dexter's car and asked Dexter to step out. He pat-frisked Dexter, and then began asking Dexter in more depth about his travels that day. During the conversation, Dexter stated that he used to have a bad cocaine problem and that Davis used heroin and methamphetamine. Gacek asked if there were any drugs in the car, and Dexter said that the women had "used him" and had picked up drugs. Based on these statements, Gacek called for backup at 8:22 pm.

Over the next half hour, Gacek returned to the car and spoke with the two women. When backup arrived, a female trooper ordered the two women out of the vehicle and pat frisked them. Gacek ultimately impounded the car, and he later obtained a warrant to search the car based on what he learned during the traffic stop. He found a kilogram of fentanyl in Wilson's purse.

DISCUSSION

Dexter moves to suppress all evidence seized as a result of this traffic stop. He contends that Gacek violated his Fourth Amendment rights because (1) the initial traffic stop was not supported by probable cause that a traffic violation had occurred, and (2) even if the initial stop was justified, Gacek impermissibly extended the traffic stop without reasonable suspicion that Dexter was engaged in criminal activity. Dexter argues that the evidence subsequently found in his vehicle should be suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree of the unlawful stop and extended detention.

The Fourth Amendment guarantees "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. Amend. IV. The temporary detention of individuals by police during a traffic stop is a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249, 255, 127 S.Ct. 2400, 168 L.Ed.2d 132 (2007). To ensure that all such seizures satisfy the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness requirement, the court engages in a two-step inquiry. United States v. Mouscardy, 722 F.3d 68, 73 (1st Cir. 2013). First, the court determines whether the seizure was justified at its inception. Id. Second, the court examines whether the "actions undertaken during the stop were reasonably related in scope to the stop itself unless the police had a basis for expanding their investigation." Id. (internal quotations and brackets omitted). Where, as here, the defendant challenges the constitutionality of a warrantless seizure, the government bears the burden of proving that the seizure was sufficiently limited in its scope and duration. See Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 500, 103 S.Ct. 1319, 75 L.Ed.2d 229 (1983) ; United States v. Acosta-Colon, 157 F.3d 9, 14 (1st Cir. 1998).

I. Initial Traffic Stop

A traffic stop is reasonable and properly justified at its inception if the officer has "probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred."2 Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 810, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (1996). Courts in the First Circuit have held that even minor traffic violations can justify a traffic stop. See, e.g., United States v. Dunbar, 553 F.3d 48, 55-56 (1st Cir. 2009) (initial stop justified based on officer's observation and video showing defendant's vehicle following another car too closely); United States v. Garcia, 53 F. Supp. 3d 502, 509-10 (D.N.H. 2014) (initial traffic stop justified based on officer's observation that vehicle crossed once over dashed line and once over solid fog line).

Dexter argues that Gacek lacked probable cause to stop the vehicle for two reasons. First, he argues that the court should not credit Gacek's testimony that Gacek saw Dexter driving at 67 or 68 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone. Second, Dexter argues that even if he were travelling at 67 or 68 miles per hour, that is not a sufficient ground to pull him over. Neither argument has merit.

Looking at Dexter's first contention, Dexter asserts that Gacek was lying about Dexter speeding. Dexter acknowledges that a stop is lawful so long as the officer has an objectively reasonable basis for the stop. See Whren, 517 U.S. at 813, 116 S.Ct. 1769. Dexter argues, however, that Gacek found the car suspicious and manufactured a false justification (speeding) for the stop. In support of his position that Gacek had no lawful basis for the stop, Dexter points out that Gacek attended various drug interdiction trainings, where he learned about indicators that might reveal a vehicle was being used to smuggle drugs. Further, Dexter notes that Gacek followed Dexter for seven miles after the toll plaza before pulling him over. And finally, he points out that Gacek never issued Dexter a speeding ticket, and that from the beginning of the stop Gacek seemed more interested in asking questions about Dexter's itinerary than he was in discussing speeding. These facts, Dexter asserts, imply that not only was Gacek subjectively interested in...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT