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United States v. Morris

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division

August 15, 2017



          Leonard T. Strand, Chief Judge

         This matter is before me on a Report and Recommendation (R&R) (Doc. No. 24) in which the Honorable Kelly Mahoney, United States Magistrate Judge, recommends that I deny defendant's motion to suppress (Doc. No. 11).


         A district judge must review a magistrate judge's R&R under the following standards:

Within fourteen days after being served with a copy, any party may serve and file written objections to such proposed findings and recommendations as provided by rules of court. A judge of the court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made. A judge of the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.

28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(b). Thus, when a party objects to any portion of an R&R, the district judge must undertake a de novo review of that portion.

         Any portions of an R&R to which no objections have been made must be reviewed under at least a “clearly erroneous” standard. See, e.g., Grinder v. Gammon, 73 F.3d 793, 795 (8th Cir. 1996) (noting that when no objections are filed “[the district court judge] would only have to review the findings of the magistrate judge for clear error”). As the Supreme Court has explained, “[a] finding is ‘clearly erroneous' when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573-74 (1985) (quoting United States v. U.S. Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948)). However, a district judge may elect to review an R&R under a more-exacting standard even if no objections are filed:

Any party that desires plenary consideration by the Article III judge of any issue need only ask. Moreover, while the statute does not require the judge to review an issue de novo if no objections are filed, it does not preclude further review by the district judge, sua sponte or at the request of a party, under a de novo or any other standard.

Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 150 (1985).


         A. Procedural History

         On November 16, 2016, the grand jury returned an indictment (Doc. No. 2) charging Morris with three counts related to the distribution of methamphetamine. The defendant filed his motion to suppress on December 16, 2016. The Government filed a resistance (Doc. No. 12) on December 22, 2016. Judge Mahoney conducted a hearing on January 17, 2017, and issued her R&R (Doc. No. 24) on February 10, 2017. Morris filed a timely objection (Doc. Nos. 25, 30), which the Government resisted (Doc. No. 31).

         B. Relevant Facts

         Judge Mahoney made detailed factual findings. Doc. No. 24 at 4-12. The parties have not specifically objected to any portion of Judge Mahoney's findings. Doc. No. 25. Based on my de novo review, which included reviewing the transcript of the hearing, Government Exhibit 2 and defendant's Exhibits A through C, I find Judge Mahoney's findings to be accurate.

         In short, this case involves a vehicle stop and impound search. Local law enforcement in Clay County, Iowa, received a tip that Morris was engaged in the distribution of methamphetamine. Clay County sheriff's deputies began surveilling her. On September 7, 2016, an unrelated warrant was issued for Morris' arrest in Palo Alto County, Iowa. Clay County deputies learned of the warrant the next day. Later that day, Clay County Deputy Spencer Taylor, who knew Morris from past experience, drove by her rural residence and saw a recreational vehicle (RV) leaving her driveway. Taylor ran the plates, learned the RV was registered to Morris and stopped the vehicle. The stop occurred on a country black-top road. Taylor had Morris exit the vehicle and arrested her pursuant to the arrest warrant. Shortly thereafter, Taylor requested a tow to impound the RV. The longer Morris was in custody, the more agitated she became. Taylor took Morris to the Sheriff's office while another officer, Deputy Schueller, stayed with the RV.

         The main issue in this case is the vehicle impound. As Judge Mahoney explained:

The impound record listed the “reason for impoundment” as “arrest.” Ex. 2. Deputy Taylor acknowledged he could have exercised discretion and allowed Defendant, as she requested, to secure the vehicle rather than having it towed. He did not do so. Deputy Taylor testified that his decision to impound the RV was within the policy and practice of the sheriff's office. During re-cross-examination, Deputy Taylor answered “correct” to defense counsel's repeated questions that Deputy Taylor exercised discretion and did not follow “standardized criteria” in deciding to impound the RV. He reiterated several times throughout his testimony, however, that it was standard practice to impound vehicles under the type of circumstances presented in this case. Deputy Taylor testified that he made the decision to impound the RV based on multiple factors. First, as was common practice, he decided to impound because the driver had been arrested and no other driver was present. Second, he believed the RV posed a liability risk for multiple reasons: another vehicle could have struck the RV, it could have been vandalized, or someone could have broken into the RV if left on the side of the road. Deputy Taylor felt the RV presented “somewhat of a traffic hazard” parked at that location. He described the parked RV as “bottle-necking” the roadway. He considered the fact that at that time of day, traffic was heavier due to people driving home from work. According to Deputy Taylor, many vehicles use that road, and traffic seemed “fairly busy” that day. He was also not comfortable leaving the RV there because it presented a potential opportunity for someone to vandalize or break into the RV. According to him, any time a vehicle is left on the side of the road, locked or not, it is possible someone could break into the vehicle.
According to Deputy Taylor, Defendant stated several times during the traffic stop that she wanted to secure her property.

Doc. No. 24 at 9-10.

         Clay County's impound policy was not admitted into evidence. Judge Mahoney summarized Taylor's testimony about the policy as follows:

The sheriff's office issued a written impound policy on August 1, 2015. According to Deputy Taylor, that policy was a written adaptation of the unwritten practices used by the sheriff's office prior to that time. The written policy provided four instances when a deputy may impound a vehicle: the vehicle was abandoned; the vehicle had been involved in an accident; the vehicle's driver had been arrested; or the vehicle posed a hazard. The policy and practice for the sheriff's office was to tow vehicles when they posed a hazard or when the sole occupant had been arrested. Deputy Taylor testified that the impound policy was also consistent with the goal of preventing liability for the sheriff's office. Liability could arise if a vehicle that deputies did not impound were to be struck, vandalized, or broken into.
In regard to the driver's arrest provision of the policy, deputies are allowed to release the vehicle, rather than have it impounded, if there is a licensed driver available, and the vehicle was properly registered and insured. It is unclear from the record what, if anything, the policy says about what constitutes an “available” driver. Deputy Taylor testified that in practice, “available” means the licensed driver was present at the scene. . . On cross-examination, Deputy Taylor agreed with defense counsel that “at the scene” was not in the written policy. Deputy Taylor testified that it was not standard practice to allow arrestees to contact someone to respond to the scene to drive the vehicle. Based on his experience, arrestees often lied and said a driver could respond to the scene quickly, and then deputies ended up waiting for a long period before the other driver actually arrived. Deputy Taylor said that in his experience, arrestees did this because they preferred not having their vehicles towed and impounded. He testified that deputies avoid trying to wait long periods for another driver to arrive and move the vehicle. Deputies do not tow every vehicle that falls under one of the policy's four categories. Deputy Taylor testified that they could exercise discretion under the policy.

Id. at 4-5. The evidence indicates that there were several individuals who could have picked up Morris' RV, although none were at the scene and it is unclear how much information about these individuals was communicated to the deputies.

         As for why Taylor chose to impound the RV instead of leaving it, Judge Mahoney summarized his testimony as follows:

It appears the policy allows deputies to exercise discretion in deciding whether a vehicle was abandoned or posed a hazard, and whether another driver was available. According to Deputy Taylor, whether a vehicle was impounded “depends on the circumstances.” For instance, when the driver is arrested for driving offenses (such as driving while barred), the vehicle will “almost assuredly” be impounded. As another example, vehicles involved in accidents would usually be towed, although Deputy Taylor could not say definitively that this happened every time. He testified that “more often than not” in circumstances in which the driver was arrested and there were property concerns (the type of circumstances present in this case), the vehicle was impounded. Deputy Taylor testified that “by more often than not, ” he meant there were “outliers” when a vehicle in those circumstances would not be impounded. There are situations when vehicles that could be impounded are left on the side of the road. Deputy Taylor reiterated that the policy provided for impounding vehicles when the driver was arrested or the vehicle posed a hazard.

Id. at 5-6. Once the vehicle is secured, Taylor stated that, “deputies are required to inventory items that could be valued at more than $25.00. These items are recorded on an impound report that contains a description of the vehicle, the operator, the owner, the reason for the tow, the ...

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