United States v. Feliciana

Citation974 F.3d 519
Decision Date11 September 2020
Docket NumberNo. 18-4703,18-4703
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff - Appellee v. Jaison R. FELICIANA, Defendant - Appellant.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)

ARGUED: Caroline Swift Platt, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellant. Aidan Taft Grano, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Geremy C. Kamens, Federal Public Defender, Maria N. Jacob, Assistant Federal Public Defender, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellant. G. Zachary Terwilliger, United States Attorney, Allison J. Garnett, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Troy Edwards, Jr., Special Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellee.

Before KING, HARRIS, and RUSHING, Circuit Judges.

Reversed, vacated, and remanded by published opinion. Judge Rushing wrote the opinion, in which Judge King and Judge Harris joined.

RUSHING, Circuit Judge:

A United States Park Police Officer stopped Jaison R. Feliciana for driving his employer's delivery truck on the George Washington Memorial Parkway (Parkway), where commercial vehicles require permits. Feliciana did not possess the requisite permit, but he did possess marijuana; he was charged for both violations. After the magistrate judge denied his motion to suppress, Feliciana pleaded guilty to operating a commercial vehicle without a permit and entered a conditional guilty plea to the marijuana charge, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion. The district court affirmed. We conclude that the Government has not carried its burden to show that the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop Feliciana or that the stop was a valid administrative inspection. We therefore reverse the suppression ruling, vacate Feliciana's marijuana conviction, and remand.

I.

On the morning of October 28, 2017, Feliciana was driving a bakery delivery truck on the Parkway. Officer Jonathan Alto of the U.S. Park Police observed the small box truck and believed it was a commercial vehicle, which are prohibited from driving on the Parkway without a permit. Based solely on his observation of "a commercial truck on the Parkway," Officer Alto stopped the truck. J.A. 60–61.

Officer Alto informed Feliciana that he stopped him for driving a commercial vehicle on the Parkway, and Feliciana responded that he had thought that prohibition applied only to larger trucks. While talking to Feliciana, Officer Alto smelled marijuana. He mentioned the odor to Feliciana, who admitted that he had smoked marijuana earlier in the day on his way to work. Officer Alto requested to see the permit allowing Feliciana to operate a commercial vehicle on the Parkway, but Feliciana could not produce a permit and appeared nervous. Officer Alto instructed Feliciana to exit the vehicle and observed what appeared to be a pipe on the floorboard. When he asked Feliciana if the pipe was for marijuana, Feliciana lunged toward the truck, at which point Officer Alto restrained him in handcuffs. Ultimately, after searching the truck and Feliciana, Officer Alto found a small bag of marijuana in Feliciana's shoe.

Feliciana was charged with possession of marijuana and operating a commercial vehicle on the Parkway without a permit, and he filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained in the traffic stop. The magistrate judge conducted a suppression hearing and denied the motion. Feliciana then pleaded guilty but reserved the right to appeal the suppression ruling. See 18 U.S.C. § 3401 (authorizing magistrate judges to try misdemeanors). On appeal, the district court held that the traffic stop was based on reasonable suspicion that Feliciana was operating a commercial vehicle on a restricted highway without a permit and that the stop was permissible as a warrantless administrative inspection under New York v. Burger , 482 U.S. 691, 107 S.Ct. 2636, 96 L.Ed.2d 601 (1987), because the Parkway is a pervasively regulated federal enclave. See 18 U.S.C. § 3402 (authorizing appeal to the district court). The court further held that Officer Alto had probable cause to search Feliciana's shoe.

Feliciana now appeals to our Court. We review the factual findings underlying a motion to suppress for clear error and the legal determinations de novo. United States v. Davis , 690 F.3d 226, 233 (4th Cir. 2012). Because the magistrate judge denied the suppression motion, we review the evidence in the light most favorable to the government. Id.

II.

A traffic stop constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment and thus must be justified by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or some other exception to the generally applicable warrant requirement. See Kansas v. Glover , ––– U.S. ––––, 140 S. Ct. 1183, 1187, 206 L.Ed.2d 412 (2020) ; Delaware v. Prouse , 440 U.S. 648, 653, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 59 L.Ed.2d 660 (1979). The government bears the burden to justify a warrantless seizure. See United States v. McGee , 736 F.3d 263, 269 (4th Cir. 2013). Here, the Government contends that the traffic stop was supported by reasonable suspicion that Feliciana lacked the required permit and, alternatively, that the stop was a permissible administrative inspection under Burger .

A.

Reasonable suspicion to initiate a brief investigative traffic stop requires "a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity." Glover , 140 S. Ct. at 1187 (quoting United States v. Cortez , 449 U.S. 411, 417–418, 101 S.Ct. 690, 66 L.Ed.2d 621 (1981) ). Although it is a "commonsense, nontechnical" standard, Ornelas v. United States , 517 U.S. 690, 698, 116 S.Ct. 1657, 134 L.Ed.2d 911 (1996), to support a finding of reasonable suspicion "the detaining officer [must] ‘... either articulate why a particular behavior is suspicious or logically demonstrate, given the surrounding circumstances, that the behavior is likely to be indicative of some more sinister activity than may appear at first glance,’ " United States v. Williams , 808 F.3d 238, 246 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting United States v. Foster , 634 F.3d 243, 248 (4th Cir. 2011) ). In practice, this typically means that "an officer's articulated facts must in their totality serve to eliminate a substantial portion of innocent travelers before reasonable suspicion will exist." United States v. McCoy , 513 F.3d 405, 413 (4th Cir. 2008).

Officer Alto testified that he stopped Feliciana's vehicle because "[i]t was a commercial truck on the Parkway." J.A. 60; see also J.A. 61 ("I advised Mr. Feliciana the reason he was stopped was for having a commercial vehicle on the Park Roadway."). National Park Service (NPS) regulations prohibit "commercial vehicles"—which include but are not limited to "trucks, station wagons, pickups, passenger cars or other vehicles when used in transporting movable property for a fee or profit ... or used as an incident to providing services to another person, or used in connection with any business"—from driving on the Parkway except "when authorized by a permit" or other exception. 36 C.F.R. §§ 5.6(a), 7.96(f). The superintendent of a park area "shall issue permits" for commercial vehicles to drive on park roads "when such use is necessary for access to private lands situated within or adjacent to the park area," and the superintendent also "may grant permission to use park roads" in emergencies. Id. § 5.6(b), (c) ; see also id. § 1.6(a) (authorizing the superintendent to issue permits). Use of park roads is also authorized when "in connection with the operation of the park area." Id. § 5.6(b).

Officer Alto did not articulate any reason to suspect that Feliciana did not possess the requisite permit to drive a commercial vehicle on the Parkway. The entire factual basis he offered for conducting the traffic stop was that he saw a vehicle requiring a permit on the Parkway. But that fact by itself is wholly innocent. The Government elicited no testimony concerning why Officer Alto or any other reasonable officer would think that Feliciana's truck in particular lacked a permit.

On appeal, the Government argues that permits are rarely granted therefore it is reasonable to suspect that any commercial vehicle on the Parkway lacks a permit. Without passing upon the theoretical viability of that argument, we find no evidence in the record to support it. The record is bereft of information about how many permits are issued, how many permit requests are denied, what types of vehicles typically receive permits, or even how many regulations authorize the issuance of permits. While the government is not required to rule out the possibility of innocent conduct to meet the reasonable suspicion standard, Prado Navarette v. California , 572 U.S. 393, 403, 134 S.Ct. 1683, 188 L.Ed.2d 680 (2014), it must articulate some particularized and objective basis for suspecting illegality.

We agree with Feliciana that this case is governed by Delaware v. Prouse , 440 U.S. 648, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 59 L.Ed.2d 660 (1979). There, a patrolman stopped a vehicle on a public highway solely to check the driver's license and registration, without having observed any traffic violation or suspicious activity or any other reason to believe the car was being driven contrary to law. Id. at 650–651, 99 S.Ct. 1391. The Supreme Court held that, absent reasonable suspicion that a motorist is unlicensed or an automobile is unregistered or that either is otherwise subject to seizure for a violation of law, "stopping an automobile and detaining the driver in order to check his driver's license and the registration of the automobile are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment." Id. at 663, 99 S.Ct. 1391. So too here. Absent articulable suspicion that Feliciana lacked the required permit, Officer Alto was not entitled to stop Feliciana's vehicle at his discretion to check whether Feliciana possessed a permit.

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