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United States v. Tafuna

United States District Court, D. Utah

December 11, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
TEVITA FINAU TAFUNA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER GRANTING THE GOVERNMENT'S MOTION FOR RECONSIDERATION

          JILL N. PARRISH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.

         Before the court is the Government's motion to reconsider the court's order to suppress evidence. [Docket 47]. The court GRANTS the motion to reconsider and VACATES its prior order suppressing evidence.

         FINDINGS OF FACT

         On January 25, 2019, at approximately 1:00 a.m., Tafuna was sitting in the passenger seat of a vehicle parked in the back corner of a large apartment complex. Tafuna's friend, who owned the vehicle, was seated in the driver's seat. Two other individuals were siting in the back seat. The vehicle was backed into the parking space.

         Officer Jeffery Nelson pulled into the apartment complex and observed the vehicle and its occupants. Officer Nelson was suspicious of the individuals sitting in the parked vehicle because, in his experience, this indicated drug use or a stolen vehicle. But he believed that he did not have the amount of reasonable suspicion required to detain the occupants of the vehicle. Officer Nelson pulled up to the vehicle at an angle with the front of his car pointed toward the driver's side door. His “takedown” lights-bright overhead lights across the top of his vehicle-were activated. The vehicle occupied by Tafuna was not blocked in by Officer Nelson's vehicle.

         Officer Nelson approached the vehicle, inquired what the occupants were doing, and asked for their names and birth dates. He noticed an open beer can in the center console at that time. Tafuna identified himself, admitted that he was on parole, and stated that he had a knife with him. Officer Nelson told the occupants of the parked vehicle he was going to run their names and returned to his vehicle. Officer Nelson did not tell the vehicle occupants that they were detained, nor did he tell them that they were free to leave.

         Officer Nelson accessed Tafuna's records and discovered that he was listed as having a gang affiliation and potentially being armed and violent. Officer Nelson requested backup, which took 10 or 15 minutes to arrive. Officer Austin Schmidt was one of the officers responding to the request for back up. When he arrived, he looked up Tafuna's parole agreement, which has a “section G” clause. That clause states:

G - Pursuant to state law [Utah Code §77-23-301], while I am on parole I am subject to search and seizure of my person, property, place of temporary or permanent residence, vehicle, or personal effects by a parole officer or by any other law enforcement officer at any time (with or without a search warrant, and with or without cause); however a law enforcement officer who is not my parole officer must either have prior approval from a parole officer or have a warrant for a search of, or seizure from, my residence.

         The parole agreement also contained a standard weapons clause, stating: “I will not purchase, possess, own, use, or have under my control, any explosive, firearm, ammunition, or dangerous weapon, including archery or crossbows.” Finally, the parole agreement contains a nonstandard special condition prohibiting alcohol. It states: “Do not use, possess, consume, or have access to alcoholic beverages.”

         Officer Nelson returned to the parked vehicle and asked Tafuna to exit. Officer Nelson conducted a pat down and discovered a pocketknife. Tafuna stated that he used the pocketknife to open boxes at his job. Officer Nelson then searched the vehicle and discovered a firearm underneath the passenger seat. At that point, the officers arrested all of the occupants of the vehicle. Officer Nelson notified Tafuna of his Miranda rights and interviewed him at the scene. Tafuna admitted to possession of the firearm.

         CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

         I. STANDING TO CHALLENGE THE VEHICLE SEARCH

         Tafuna originally moved to suppress the firearm and his confession on two grounds. First, he argued that Officer Nelson violated his Fourth Amendment rights by detaining him without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity by shining his takedown lights at the vehicle he occupied and then approaching on foot. Second, he asserted that Officer Nelson violated his Fourth Amendment rights by searching the vehicle without probable cause. The court did not address Tafuna's first argument because it determined that Tafuna's parole agreement did not authorize the search of his friend's vehicle without probable cause. The court, therefore, issued an order to exclude the firearm and the confession. [Docket 44].

         The Government then moved for reconsideration, raising for the first time the issue of Tafuna's standing to challenge the vehicle search. [Docket 47]. The Government waived the issue of standing in the original motion to suppress by not raising it. See United States v. Dewitt, 946 F.2d 1497, 1499 (10th Cir. 1991) (holding that the Government waived the issue of standing by failing to raise it before the district court). But because the court has agreed to hear the Government's motion for reconsideration, the court now addresses the issue of standing. See United States v. Huff, 782 F.3d 1221, 1222 (10th Cir. 2015) (“[D]istrict court[s] may reconsider a motion to suppress without requiring the government to justify why it initially failed to set forth that legal basis for the seizure of evidence.”).

         The Government now argues that Tafuna lacks standing to challenge the vehicle search because he did not own or have a possessory interest in the vehicle. “Fourth Amendment rights are personal, and, therefore, ‘a defendant cannot claim a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights based only on the introduction of evidence procured through an illegal search and seizure of a third person's property or premises.'” United States v. Mosley, 743 F.3d 1317, 1322 (10th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). “As such, ‘without a possessory or property interest in the vehicle searched, “passengers lack standing to challenge vehicle searches.”'” Id. (citation omitted). A person who lacks standing to challenge a vehicle search, however, “may nonetheless contest the lawfulness of his own detention and seek to suppress evidence found in the vehicle as the fruit of the defendant's illegal detention.” Id. at 1322-23 (citation omitted). “To suppress evidence as the fruit of his unlawful detention, a defendant must show, first, that he was seized in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights and, second, that ‘a factual nexus' exists between his unlawful seizure and detention and the challenged evidence.” Id. at 1323 (citation omitted).

         Tafuna concedes that he did not have a possessory interest in the vehicle and that he does not have standing to challenge the search. Thus, the firearm and confession evidence cannot be suppressed based upon the unconstitutional search. Tafuna argues instead that he was unconstitutionally detained by officer Nelson and that his detention led to the discovery of the firearm and his confession. The Government argues that Tafuna was not detained until the firearm was ...


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