United States v. Woodley

Decision Date20 March 2021
Docket NumberCriminal Action No. 2020-0004
CourtU.S. District Court — Virgin Islands


Daniel H. Huston, Esq.,

St. Croix, U.S.V.I.

For the Government

Gabriel J. Villegas, Esq.,

St. Croix, U.S.V.I.

Melanie Lark Turnbull, Esq.,

St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.

For Defendant

Lewis, Chief Judge

THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant Lionel Woodley's ("Defendant") "Motion to Suppress Evidence and Statements" ("Motion to Suppress") (Dkt. No. 26); the Government's Opposition thereto (Dkt. No. 33); and the evidence and arguments presented at the suppression hearing. For the following reasons, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Defendant's Motion to Suppress.


On February 18, 2020, the Government filed a six-count Indictment against Defendant charging him with: felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2) (Count 1); felon in possession of ammunition in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2) (Count 2); possession of a firearm in a school zone in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(q)(2)(A) and 924(a)(1)(B) (Count 3); possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(i) (Count 4); possession of cocaine with intent to distribute in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(C) (Count 5); and, possession of marijuana with intent to distribute in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(D) (Count 6). (Dkt. No. 1).

On April 6, 2020, Defendant filed the instant Motion to Suppress. (Dkt. No. 26). At the subsequent suppression hearing held on October 23, 2020,1 the Government presented the testimony of Officer Rashid Isles ("Officer Isles") of the Virgin Islands Police Department ("VIPD"), VIPD Officer Dirk Marshall ("Officer Marshall"), and VIPD Officer John Pierre Modeste ("Officer Modeste"). The following facts emerged from the record established at the suppression hearing.2

Officer Marshall testified that on March 17, 2019, he conducted a traffic stop in the vicinity of Estate Barren Spot in St. Croix. (Hr'g Tr. at 58). At approximately 11 p.m., he and his partner, Officer Modeste, were at a traffic light near Sunny Isles Shopping Center when he observed a vehicle turn into a parking lot and proceed to run a stop sign. Id. at 58-61. Officer Marshall testified that he engaged his emergency lights and attempted to make a traffic stop. Id. at 62. He then observed the vehicle overtake another vehicle in a no-passing zone. Id. at 63-65. The vehicle accelerated at a high rate of speed, and Officer Marshall pursued and eventually stopped thevehicle. Id. at 62, 66. Officer Marshall then approached the vehicle and requested the driver's license and vehicle documents. Id. at 66. Officer Marshall testified that, as he was speaking to the driver—identified as Defendanthe began to smell the odor of unburnt marijuana coming from the vehicle. Id. at 67, 94-95. He asked Defendant if he was smoking, and Defendant responded that he had smoked "earlier." Id. at 67. Office Marshall testified that he "wasn't satisfied" with Defendant's answer that he had smoked earlier because Officer Marshall was smelling the odor of unburnt marijuana. Id. at 68. Therefore, Officer Marshall requested that Defendant exit the vehicle. Id. Upon exiting, Officer Marshall conducted a pat-down of Defendant for weapons. Id. at 70. Meanwhile, Officer Modeste was standing at the rear of the vehicle on the driver's side. Id. at 70-71. He was armed with his service weapon and a long rifle. Id. at 71.

From inside the vehicle, Officer Marshall saw a revolver in the open center console. Id. at 71. Upon seeing the firearm, Officer Marshall stepped from inside the vehicle while moving to handcuff Defendant and simultaneously asking Defendant whether he had a license for a firearm in the Virgin Islands. Id. at 72-74. Defendant answered "no." Id. at 72. After Defendant said "no," Officer Marshall then stated that he was under arrest for possession of an unlicensed firearm. Id. at 75. Officer Marshall testified that his purpose in placing Defendant in handcuffs was to detain him, given Defendant's close proximity to the gun. Id. at 73-74. Officer Marshall then called in the forensics unit to process the vehicle. Id. at 75. He then went back into the vehicle to ensure that the hammer of the gun was in a safe position and placed the gun on the seat of the car. Id. at 76.

Officer Modeste testified that on March 17, 2019, he was in the passenger seat of a marked police unit with his partner, Officer Marshall, at the Sunny Isles traffic light when he observed a vehicle turning into a parking lot and then failing to stop at a stop sign. Id. at 96-97. Officer Marshall turned on the police car's emergency lights to attempt to stop the vehicle and OfficerModeste witnessed the vehicle improperly overtake another vehicle. Id. at 102. The officers were able to catch up with the vehicle and pull it over. Id. While Officer Marshall made contact with the driver, Officer Modeste stood to the rear of the vehicle. Id. at 103. Officer Modeste testified that Officer Marshall went to search the car and "came out" of the car and asked the driver whether he had a license for the firearm. Id. at 103-104. The driver answered "no" and he was handcuffed. Id. at 104. They then waited for additional units and forensics to arrive at the scene. Id.

Finally, Officer Rashid Isles of the VIPD Forensics Unit testified that at approximately 12 a.m. on March 18, 2019, he was called to a crime scene in the vicinity of Barren Spot in St. Croix. Id. at 8-9. He was informed by Officer Marshall that there was a gun discovered in the car. Id. at 10. Officer Isles testified that he began photographing the scene and smelled unburnt marijuana. Id. at 10-11, 32. He first started smelling the marijuana when he was taking photographs of the firearm from outside the vehicle when the car window was rolled down. Id. at 45, 56. He then began conducting an inventory search of the vehicle. Id. at 15-16. During this search, Officer Isles discovered a maroon bag in the passenger side of the vehicle containing small bills and a plastic bag containing a green-leafy substance that looked and smelled like marijuana. Id. at 17-18. Officer Isles testified that he concluded that the rest of the search should be continued at the VIPD's impound lot, and therefore the bag, its contents, and the firearm were secured for transport. Id. at 18. The maroon bag was also found to contain a digital scale and plastic bag containing a white granular substance which tested positive for cocaine. Id. at 35-37.

A. Fourth Amendment Search and Seizure

The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from "unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. "Warrantless searches and seizures are presumptively unreasonable andare therefore prohibited under the Fourth Amendment, unless an exception applies." United States v. Mundy, 621 F.3d 283, 287 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565, 580 (1991)); see also Couden v. Duffy, 446 F.3d 483, 494 (3d Cir. 2006) ("Generally, a seizure is reasonable only where it is justified by a warrant or probable cause.").

"[O]nce the defendant has established a basis for his motion, i.e., the search or seizure was conducted without a warrant, the burden shifts to the government to show that the search or seizure was reasonable." United States v. Johnson, 63 F.3d 242, 245 (3d Cir. 1995); see also United States v. Herrold, 962 F.2d 1131, 1137 (3d Cir. 1992). Evidence obtained as a result of an unreasonable search or seizure is inadmissible at trial and must be suppressed as "fruit of the poisonous tree." See Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 487-88 (1963) (requiring exclusion and suppression of evidence obtained as the result of an unlawful search and seizure).

One exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement is the automobile exception. "The automobile exception to the warrant requirement permits law enforcement to seize and search an automobile without a warrant if 'probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband.'" United States v. Burton, 288 F.3d 91, 100 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940 (1996)); see also United States v. Donahue, 764 F.3d 293, 295 (3d Cir. 2014) ("The Supreme Court has interpreted—and reinterpreted—the automobile exception so expansively that the Court essentially has obviated the requirement that the government obtain a warrant to search a vehicle provided it has probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime."). Further, "[w]hile a seizure or search of property without a warrant ordinarily requires a showing of both probable cause and exigent circumstances, the 'ready mobility' of automobiles permits their search based only on probable cause." Burton, 288 F.3d at 100. Because there is no exigency requirement, "probable cause does not dissipate after theautomobile is immobilized." Donahue, 764 F.3d. at 300. Accordingly, a vehicle can be searched without a warrant once probable cause exists "even though [the government] has secured the vehicle against the loss of evidence and it has the opportunity to obtain a warrant for the search." Id.

Probable cause to search a place exists when there is a "fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place." Burton, 288 F.3d at 103 (quoting Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 238 (1983)) (internal quotations omitted). In the Third Circuit:

The probable cause inquiry is "commonsense," "practical," and "nontechnical;" it is based on the totality of the circumstances and is judged by the standard of "reasonable and prudent men.". . . [The Court] evaluate[s] "the events which occurred leading up to the ... search, and then . . . [decides] whether these historical facts,

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