United States v. Ratcliff, Case No.: 2:15-cr-415-RDP-SGC

CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Alabama
Citation202 F.Supp.3d 1295
Parties UNITED STATES of America, v. Gerard Earl RATCLIFF, Defendant.
Decision Date16 August 2016
Docket NumberCase No.: 2:15-cr-415-RDP-SGC

202 F.Supp.3d 1295

Gerard Earl RATCLIFF, Defendant.

Case No.: 2:15-cr-415-RDP-SGC

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division.

Signed August 16, 2016

202 F.Supp.3d 1298

USM, United States Marshal, US Probation, Joyce White Vance, United States Probation Office, Kathryn M. McHugh, United States Attorney's Office, Birmingham, AL, for United States of America.

Kevin L. Butler, Federal Public Defender, Birmingham, AL, for Defendant.



This case is before the court on Defendant Gerard Earl Ratcliff ("Ratcliff" of "Defendant")'s Motion To Suppress (Doc. # 15), filed February 2, 2016. In his Motion, Ratcliff has moved to suppress all evidence and statements obtained from what he contends was a warrantless search and a warrantless arrest, in violation of his rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. (Doc. # 15). Specifically, Ratcliff claims five discrete violations of his Fourth and Fifth Amendment protections by the Pleasant Grove Police Department. He contends that the police officers (1) conducted a warrantless search of his garage, (2) arrested him in his home without a warrant, (3) elicited incriminating statements from him in violation of

202 F.Supp.3d 1299

Miranda v. Arizona , 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966), (4) entered his residence and conducted an unlawful protective sweep, and (5) unlawfully searched his residence and seized evidence from his home. (Id. ). He also asks the court to suppress all evidence seized after the police officers obtained a search warrant because, he argues, that warrant was based on unconstitutionally procured information. (Id. ).

The court conducted two hearings on the Motion on March 22, 2016 (Doc. # 25) and April 14, 2016 (Doc. # 34).1 The court ordered the parties to submit supplemental briefing and responses, and on April 29, 2016, Ratcliff filed his Post-Hearing Brief in Support of Motion To Suppress. (Doc. # 35). On May 6, 2016, the United States filed a Response to Defendant's Supplemental Filing. (Doc. # 36). After initial review, the court determined that additional briefing on three issues would assist it in resolving Ratcliff's Motion.2 (Doc. # 37). The parties simultaneously filed that supplemental briefing on July 1, 2016. (Docs. # 38, 39). They both filed responses on July 8, 2016. (Docs. # 40, 41). The Motion is now fully briefed and ripe for review.

I. Findings of Fact

Based upon the evidence presented at the hearings, the court makes the following factual findings:

1. On November 3, 2015, at approximately 2:30 p.m., employees at the George Carr Buick Cadillac dealership in Vicksburg, Mississippi, discovered that a 2015 cream-colored Cadillac Escalade was missing from their lot. Employees of the dealership had last seen the vehicle on October 20, 2015. No security cameras captured the circumstances surrounding the car's disappearance.

2. Because the missing Escalade was equipped with an OnStar security system, a dealership employee contacted OnStar for assistance in locating the vehicle. Upon learning that OnStar would only activate its service after the filing of a police report, dealership manager Preston Balthrop contacted the Vicksburg Police Department. On November 3, 2015, at 3:36 p.m., Office Michelle Moore of the Vicksburg Police Department responded to the dealership, initiated a report on the stolen vehicle, and placed the vehicle on the NCIC.

3. On November 3, 2015, at 5:20 p.m., an OnStar representative contacted Officer Moore and informed her that OnStar had (1) located the vehicle at a location in Pleasant Grove, Alabama, (2) disabled the vehicle and rendered it inoperable, and (3) tracked the vehicle for one-and-one-half hours and it had not moved.

4. The OnStar representative also stated that OnStar had notified the Pleasant

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Grove Police Department of the stolen vehicle.

5. Three Pleasant Grove Police Department officers were dispatched at approximately 5:41 p.m. to 413 4th Terrace, Pleasant Grove, Alabama 35217 after OnStar reported that a stolen cream-colored Cadillac Escalade's vehicle alert showed it to be located at that address. When the officers arrived, they saw two cars in a carport outside the house at that address, but not the Escalade.

6. Upon the officers' arrival, Officer Kendal Coker and Corporal Duane Martin looked through glass windows of the garage door and observed a vehicle fitting the description of the missing car. Officer Coker did so by standing on a retaining wall next to the driveway, leaning slightly, and peering through the glass window. Corporal Martin stood just outside the garage door and looked inside the garage. The officers used a flashlight and observed inside the garage a vehicle fitting the description of the missing Escalade.

7. Corporal Martin then walked from the driveway down the sidewalk leading to the front door.

8. He knocked on the front door and identified himself as Pleasant Grove Police.

9. After identifying himself, Corporal Martin heard someone say something he did not understand, and then heard what sounded like someone running through the residence. Officer Coker also heard speaking and running.

10. Based on these sounds and noises, the officers believed there to be more than one person in the house.

11. Corporal Martin knocked again and identified himself as a Pleasant Grove Police Officer. Corporal Martin and Officer Coker unholstered their guns.

12. During this time, Officer Samuel Powell was looking into a window on the north side of the residence. He could see into a kitchen and living room and saw a blur go by after the first knock. Also, Officer Powell heard loud steps running through the house. He could not tell how many people were inside the house.

13. After a period of time (that is, more than thirty seconds, but less than a minute), Ratcliff opened the door. A strong smell of marijuana wafted from inside the house.

14. Corporal Martin instructed Ratcliff to get on the ground, took hold of his arm, and guided him to the ground. Once Ratcliff was on the ground, partially inside and partially outside the house, Officer Coker holstered her gun. Officer Coker then placed Ratcliff in handcuffs.

15. Subsequently, Corporal Martin and Officer Powell conducted a "protective sweep" of the residence. During that sweep, they observed a pill bottle without a label on a nightstand. When they swept the restroom, the officers also saw a small amount of what they suspected to be marijuana floating in the toilet. In addition, they saw a gun sitting on the left side of the bed.

16. Corporal Martin and Officer Powell then went to the attached garage and performed a "protective sweep." They saw a vehicle matching OnStar's description of the missing Escalade, along with a Dodge Charger. Officer Powell also ran the tag and the VIN of the Escalade and confirmed it was the suspected missing vehicle. Then Officer Powell entered the Escalade and called OnStar. He requested OnStar to set off the Escalade's alarm. The vehicle's alarm sounded. After the sweep ended, Corporal Martin holstered his gun.

17. Corporal Martin contacted Detective Andy Reed, a Narcotics Investigator with the Narcotics Investigations Task Force.

18. At some point shortly after the time the officers entered the house, they asked

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about the marijuana smell. Ratcliff replied that there was a dime bag in the kitchen.

19. Detective Reed arrived at the house at approximately 6:30 to 6:40 p.m. The front door was open and he could smell the odor of marijuana as he exited his vehicle. Detective Reed was in plain clothes.

20. After arriving, Detective Reed advised Ratcliff that Corporal Martin called him to the house regarding a possible narcotics complaint while the officers were following up on a report of a stolen car from OnStar. Ratcliff was handcuffed at this time, sitting on his doorstep.

21. Detective Reed and Ratcliff moved inside and sat on a couch. Detective Reed told Ratcliff he was there because of the reeking smell of marijuana. Ratcliff admitted that he flushed about an ounce down the toilet when the officers had arrived. Detective Reed and Ratcliff had a friendly demeanor with each other. Officer Coker was standing a little behind Detective Reed and Ratcliff, and Officer Powell and Corporal Martin were in the foyer space. All of the officers' weapons were holstered.

22. Detective Reed stated that, in light of the smell of marijuana, Ratcliff could either give permission for the officers to search the house, or Detective Reed can get a search warrant from a judge and the officers would thereafter search. Ratcliff gave consent. Again, Detective Reed reported that this portion of the conversation also had a friendly, casual demeanor.

23. Detective Reed prepared a handwritten form authorizing officers to search the house. He asked Ratcliff if he could read; Ratcliff said yes....

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