United States v. Eden

Decision Date29 March 2017
Docket Number1:16-po-00005-JCN
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maine

This matter is before the Court on Defendant's motion to suppress. (ECF No. 9.) Through his motion, Defendant contends law enforcement lacked a reasonable articulable suspicion to "seize" him while he was camping in Acadia National Park on August 3, 2016. Following a hearing, and after consideration of the parties' arguments, the Court denies the motion.

Factual Background

During the evening of August 3, 2016, Darren Belskis, a ranger in Acadia National Park, while on foot patrol in the Blackwoods Campground of the park, heard some noise during quiet hours (10 p.m. - 6 a.m.), and walked toward the direction of the noise. As he approached the location of the noise, he smelled marijuana. He determined the smell was coming from Defendant's campsite.

While at the entrance to the campsite, Ranger Belskis observed two individuals, one male and one female. He witnessed the female hand a vapor pen to the male. A vapor pen is a device used to smoke a variety of substances. The male appeared to conceal the item in one of his hands. Ranger Belskis directed Defendant to put down the vapor pen. Defendant put the pen in the pocket of the short pants he was wearing at the time.

When Defendant did not take the pen out of his pocket and make it available to Ranger Belskis, Ranger Belskis placed Defendant in handcuffs. According to Ranger Belskis, he placed Defendant in handcuffs to gain control of the situation as he was concerned for his safety and about the possible destruction of evidence. Ranger Belskis cited the time of night (approximately 11 p.m.), Defendant's apparent use of an intoxicating drug, and Defendant's failure to follow his instruction to put down the vapor pen as the factors that generated the safety concern.

After placing Defendant in handcuffs, Ranger Belskis frisked Defendant and removed the vapor pen from Defendant's pocket. Ranger Belskis then requested that an associate come to the campsite with a field test so that he could confirm that the vapor pen contained a controlled substance. The content of the vapor pen tested positive for THC. Because of the delay occasioned by the request for a field test from another ranger, the encounter lasted approximately thirty to thirty-five minutes.


The Government bears the burden of establishing that a stop complied with the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Lopez, 380 F.3d 538, 543 (1st Cir. 2004). "The Fourth Amendment prohibits 'unreasonable searches and seizures' by the Government, and its protections extend to brief investigatory stops of persons or vehicles that fall short of traditional arrest." United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273 (2002) (citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 9 (1968)). To determine whether a stop was reasonable, the Court must assess"(1) whether the officer's action was justified at its inception, and (2) whether it was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place." United States v. Moore, 235 F.3d 700, 703 (1st Cir. 2000) (citations and internal quotations omitted).

Where the detention of a suspect is more burdensome than a brief investigatory stop, it is generally analyzed as an arrest.1 A warrantless arrest is permitted when "the facts and circumstances known to the arresting officers were sufficient to warrant a prudent person in believing that the defendant had committed or was committing an offense." United States v. Torres-Maldonado, 14 F.3d 95, 105 (1st Cir. 1994). "[I]n order to establish that probable cause existed for such an arrest, the government need not present the quantum of proof necessary to convict." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). "The standard of probable cause is the probability, not a prima facie showing, of criminal activity." United States v. Ciampa, 793 F.2d 19, 22 (1st Cir. 1986). The standard is met when the totality of the circumstances indicate there is "a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place." Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 238 (1983).

In the absence of probable cause to arrest, an officer may still conduct an investigatory stop where he has knowledge of "specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences," generate a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity "may be afoot." Terry, 392 U.S. at 21, 30. "A finding of reasonable suspicion requires aparticularized and objective basis for suspecting the person stopped of criminal activity." United States v. Brown, 621 F. 3d 48, 55 (1st Cir. 2010) (quoting United States v. Espinoza, 490 F.3d 41, 47 (1st Cir. 2007)).

The Government does not dispute that Ranger Belskis' encounter with Defendant constituted a stop or seizure. Given that Ranger Belskis temporarily placed Defendant in handcuffs and otherwise prevented him from leaving the campsite, Ranger Belskis unquestionably seized Defendant. The issue is whether Ranger Belskis had either reasonable suspicion for the seizure and/or probable cause to arrest Defendant.

Marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. 21 U.S.C. § 812(c), Schedule I(c)(10). As such, the possession of marijuana in Acadia National Park constitutes a federal offense. 36 C.F.R. § 2.35(b)(2). "It is well settled that the smell of marijuana alone, if articulable and particularized, may establish not merely reasonable suspicion, but probable cause." United States v. Ramos, 443 F.3d 304, 308 (3rd Cir. 2006) (citing United States v. Humphries, 372 F.3d 653 (4th Cir. 2004); United States v. Winters, 221 F.3d 1039 (8th Cir. 2000)).

Here, as he arrived at Defendant's campsite, Ranger Belskis smelled burning marijuana and observed Defendant in possession of a device that is used to smoke a number of substances. Insofar as the possession of marijuana in Acadia National Park is illegal, Ranger Belskis plainly had a reasonable basis for an investigatory stop or seizure. The fact that Ranger Belskis had a reasonable basis for a Terry stop, however, does not end the inquiry. Defendant also challenges Ranger Belskis' frisk of him, which frisk produced the vapor pen. During a valid Terry stop, an officer may conduct a pat-down search or frisk ifthe officer "has some articulable, reasonable suspicion that the person[] stopped may be dangerous." United States v. Tiru-Plaza, 766 F. 3d 111, 116 (1st Cir. 2014) (quoting United States v. McGregor, 650 F.3d 813, 820 (1st Cir. 2011)). A pat-down search "must be strictly limited to that which is necessary for the discovery of weapons." United States v. Campa, 234 F.3d 733, 737-38 (1st Cir. 2000) (citations and internal quotations omitted).

The Government maintains the pat-down search was reasonable "to ensure officer safety." (Response to Motion at 4). More specifically, the Government contends "Ranger Belskis was reasonably concerned that the defendant may be armed and dangerous because the defendant possessed illegal drugs, he did not comply with orders, and he concealed the vapor pen." (Id.) In Terry, the Supreme Court held that "there must be a narrowly drawn authority to permit a reasonable search for weapons for the protection of the police officer, where he has reason to believe that he is dealing with an armed and dangerous individual, regardless of whether he has probable cause to arrest the individual for a crime." Terry, 392 U.S. at 27.

The Court is not persuaded that Ranger Belskis had reason to believe Defendant was armed and dangerous. While in certain circumstances a person's failure to follow the directives of a law enforcement officer can generate legitimate safety concerns, in this case, the fact that Defendant did not comply with a directive to put down the vapor pen and Ranger Belskis' suspicion that Defendant was under the influence of an intoxicant do not generate a valid safety concern that justifies a pat down. Although in some instances suspected drug use might support a safety search, suspected use at a campsite under the circumstances in this case does not generate a safety concern. In this case, the search wasmost likely prompted by Ranger Belskis' desire to secure the contraband he observed Defendant place in his pocket, and was not the product of a safety concern.

The search, however, could nevertheless be valid if Ranger Belskis had probable cause to believe Defendant committed a criminal offense in his presence. While on foot patrol, Ranger Belskis smelled marijuana, traced the smell to Defendant's campsite, observed Defendant and a companion use and pass a vapor pen, observed Defendant conceal the vapor pen in his hand as Ranger Belskis approached, and observed Defendant place the vapor pen in his pocket after Ranger Belskis asked him to relinquish the item. Given his observations, Ranger Belskis had a reasonable basis to believe that Defendant had committed and was committing a criminal offense in his presence (i.e., possession of a controlled substance in a park in violation of 36 C.F.R. § 2.35(b)(2)).

Defendant, however, argues that Ranger Belskis did not have probable cause to arrest because federal law recognizes an exception to a controlled substance offense when the substance in question "was obtained by the possessor directly, or pursuant to a valid prescription or order, from a practitioner acting in the course of professional practice or otherwise allowed by Federal or State law." 36 C.F.R. § 2.35(b)(2). According to Defendant, because Ranger Belskis could not know whether Defendant had a medical marijuana license and did not first inquire whether he had a license, Ranger Belskis could not reasonably conclude that Defendant had committed or was committing a criminal offense.

Importantly, Ranger Belskis was not required to have "the quantum of proof necessary to convict." Torres-Maldonado, 14 F.3d at 105. (...

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