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United States v. Acosta

United States District Court, D. Utah

June 21, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
STEVEN ACOSTA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO SUPPRESS

          Ted Stewart United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Steven Acosta's Motion to Suppress. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will deny the Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On the night September 22, 2017, Officer Brennon Peterson, an officer with the Cedar City Police Department, observed a tow truck driving without its taillights on. Officer Peterson pulled behind the vehicle, followed it for a period of time, and ran its license plate through his computer. The license plate came back for an Audi passenger car, not a tow truck. Officer Peterson then ran the license plate through dispatch for verification and it again returned as belonging to an Audi. Having followed the vehicle for five or six blocks, Officer Peterson activated his lights and initiated a traffic stop. As will be discussed further below, Officer Peterson's vehicle was equipped with a dash cam, but the stop was not recorded.

         Officer Peterson approached the vehicle, which had two occupants. Officer Peterson engaged with Defendant Acosta, who was the driver of the vehicle. Officer Peterson asked Mr. Acosta about the license plate and Mr. Acosta stated that it belonged to the tow truck. Officer Peterson disagreed and asked Mr. Acosta to step out of the vehicle. Officer Peterson wanted to run the VIN, but could not see the VIN in the doorjamb without opening the door. Officer Peterson asked Mr. Acosta to step out of the vehicle for safety reasons and had him stand behind the door. Officer Peterson relayed the VIN to dispatch. After doing so, dispatch reported that the registration was expired and that the vehicle did not have insurance. Based on the lack of insurance, the tow truck would have been impounded.

         While Officer Peterson was examining the VIN, he saw a box of 9mm ammunition on the floor of the driver's side of the vehicle. Officer Peterson asked Mr. Acosta if there was a firearm in the vehicle and Mr. Acosta stated that there was a firearm under the driver's seat. Officer Peterson leaned in to verify that there was a firearm.

         Officer Peterson then asked Mr. Acosta if he had any felony convictions. Mr. Acosta stated that he did. Officer Peterson asked dispatch to confirm Mr. Acosta's criminal history. Dispatch confirmed that Mr. Acosta did have felony convictions. Mr. Acosta was then arrested for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

         After back-up arrived, Officer Peterson went to seize the firearm and remove any ammunition from it. While emptying the firearm, he detected an odor of marijuana. Officer Peterson asked Mr. Acosta if there were any drugs in the vehicle and Mr. Acosta stated that there were not. Officer Peterson then observed a glass pipe in the vehicle and Officer Peterson advised Mr. Acosta of his Miranda rights. Mr. Acosta agreed to speak to Officer Peterson and admitted that the glass pipe was his.

         At this point, a back-up officer, Officer Bergstrom, conducted a further search of the vehicle. Officer Bergstrom found a blue tube with a substance consistent with marijuana. He also found a black bag with a substance consistent with the appearance of methamphetamine. In addition, Officer Bergstrom found a flashlight-Taser, a knife, digital scales, prescription pills, and over $200 in cash.

         Mr. Acosta was placed in Officer Peterson's patrol car. Upon questioning, Mr. Acosta stated that he was unaware of the black bag or its contents, but did state that the firearm belonged to his wife. The passenger of the vehicle, also a convicted felon, was allowed to leave after the conclusion of the stop.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Defendant raises three issues in his Motion. First, Defendant argues that evidence should be suppressed based on the government's failure preserve evidence. Second, Defendant challenges his removal from the vehicle so that Officer Peterson could check the VIN. Third, Defendant seeks dismissal based on a violation of the Equal Protection clause.

         A. PRESERVATION OF EVIDENCE

         Mr. Acosta first argues that the failure of Officer Peterson to record the stop on his dash cam should warrant suppression. Officer Peterson's vehicle was equipped with a dash cam. However, at the hearing, Officer Peterson testified that the stop at issue here was not recorded because his dash cam had run out of memory. Officer Peterson testified that, generally, officers turn in their memory card every two hours to have the data uploaded, which clears the card. Officer Peterson had not done this. Had the dash cam been functioning, it would have recorded the stop, including a thirty second period prior to when the officer activated the lights.

         The Due Process clause requires “that criminal defendants be afforded a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.”[1] To protect this right, the Supreme Court “has developed ‘what might loosely be called the area of constitutionally guaranteed access to evidence.'”[2] “[T]he government violates a defendant's right to due process when: (1) it destroys evidence whose exculpatory significance is apparent before destruction; and (2) the defendant remains unable to obtain comparable evidence by other reasonably available means.”[3] “[I]f the exculpatory value of the evidence is indeterminate and all that can be ...


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