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USA v. Aaron Williams.   No. 10-1608. 

(Editor’s Note:  The district court judge in this case was the Honorable David H. Coar in Chicago.  Judge Coar is retiring next month.  His integrity and skill will be greatly missed.)

In July 2008, Chicago police officers pulled over a Suburban at the request of another Chicago police officer, who was a member of a Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) task force. A subsequent warrantless search of the vehicle, in which defendant-appellant Aaron Williams was a passenger, revealed a brick of cocaine.

The district court denied William’s motion to suppress the drug evidence on the grounds that the DEA task force had probable cause for the search, which could be imputed to the officers under the collective knowledge doctrine.

On March 31, 2009, Williams filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized by police following the July 16, 2008 traffic stop. At a hearing on the motion, Chicago Police Officer Simon testified that, after following the Suburban for a period of time without observing any traffic violations, he pulled alongside the vehicle. Simon testified that he could see that the passenger-side occupant was not wearing a seat belt, and that he stopped the Suburban based on that violation.

While Illinois law requires drivers and (most) passengers of motor vehicles to wear seatbelts, 625 ILCS 5/12-603.1(a), a police officer “may not search or inspect a motor vehicle, its contents, the driver or a passenger solely because of” a driver or passenger’s failure to wear a seat belt, id. at § 603.1(f); see also 725 ILCS 5/108-1(3). Simon testified that, at the time of the stop, he was aware that the seat belt violation would not justify a search of the vehicle or its occupants.

According to Simon, when he approached the vehicle, he saw “crumbs” of marijuana on the center console and two cigar-like objects in the open ashtray. Based on what he believed to be marijuana in plain view, Simon ordered the occupants to exit the vehicle.

Williams also testified at the suppression hearing. He acknowledged that there were two unsmoked marijuana cigars in the ashtray, but stated that he had closed the ashtray when the vehicle was pulled over. He also testified that there were no “crumbs” or any other marijuana on the center console.

The district court concluded that Simon’s testimony was not credible. In reaching that conclusion, the district court relied on Simon’s manner of testifying, as well as on Simon’s professed strategy for effecting the desired search, which the court concluded made “little sense.”

Finding Simon not to be credible, the district court determined that the search of the Suburban was not supported by the seat belt violation the officers testified that they observed, or the marijuana the officers testified they observed in plain view in the Suburban.

The district court nevertheless denied William’s motion to suppress, concluding that the DEA’s wiretap investigation and surveillance evidence gave the CPD officers probable cause to search the Suburban under the collective knowledge doctrine.

B.  Collective Knowledge Doctrine.

Having determined that the DEA task force had probable cause to search the vehicle, we consider whether the information known to the task force can be imputed to Chicago Police Officer Simon under the collective knowledge doctrine. The collective knowledge doctrine permits an officer to stop, search, or arrest a suspect at the direction of another officer or police agency, even if the officer himself does not have firsthand knowledge of facts that amount to the necessary level of suspicion to permit the given action.

There is no Fourth Amendment violation if the knowledge of the officer directing the stop, search, or arrest—or the collective knowledge of the agency for which he works—is sufficient to constitute probable cause. United States v. Harris, 585 F.3d 394, 400 (7th Cir. 2009).

In order for the collective knowledge doctrine to apply, (1) the officer taking the action must act in objective reliance on the information received, (2) the officer providing the information—or the agency for which he works—must have facts supporting the level of suspicion required, and (3) the stop must be no more intrusive than would have been permissible for the officer requesting it. United States v. Nafzger, 974 F.2d 906, 911 (7th Cir. 1992).

We have applied the collective knowledge doctrine where, as is the case here, DEA agents asked local law enforcement officers to stop a specifically-identified vehicle, and the local officers had no knowledge of the facts underlying the DEA’s probable cause.

For example, in United States v. Rodriguez, 831 F.2d 162, 166 (7th Cir. 1987), the DEA requested that Illinois State Police make a “routine traffic stop” of an individual the DEA believed was involved in drug-trafficking activities for the purpose of identifying the driver. The officer who made the stop knew nothing about the factual basis for the DEA’s suspicion, other than that the DEA was coordinating a large investigation with local agencies. Id. at 165-66. Based on the facts of that case, which involved an admittedly “skeletal” request for assistance, we concluded that the “state trooper was . . . acting as an extension or agent of the DEA agent and she could act on the DEA agent’s suspicions.” Id.  Seen also  United States v. Celio, 945 F.2d 180, 183 (7th Cir. 1991).

The facts here are analogous to those at issue in Rodriguez and Celio. DEA Agent Gutierrez specifically identified the Suburban and its occupants for Chicago Police Officer Simon, who was aware of the ongoing DEA investigation. In fact, Simon knew more about the underlying facts than did the local officers in Rodriguez and Celio, as he knew that the vehicle was leaving a suspected drug transaction.

Appellant Williams attempts to distance his case from Rodriguez and Celio based on Gutierrez’s instruction that Simon develop his own probable cause to stop and search the Suburban. According to Williams, that statement precluded Simon from relying on the DEA’s knowledge, and therefore Simon could not have been acting in objective reliance on the information he received from Gutierrez, as is required for the application of the collective knowledge doctrine.

We disagree with William’s characterization of the instruction. Gutierrez did not forbid Simon from relying on the information collected by the DEA task force. Rather, Gutierrez sought to conceal the existence of the DEA investigation and wire taps from Williams and Howard.

That effort has no impact on the fact that the DEA agents had probable cause, on which Simon was entitled to rely.  Other appeals courts similarly have concluded that the application of the collective knowledge doctrine is unaffected by an officer’s use of a cover story to disguise a stop as a mere traffic stop. See United States v. Chavez, 534 F.3d 1338, 1341-42 (10th Cir. 2008)United States v. Ibarra-Sanchez, 199 F.3d 753 (5th Cir. 1999),.

William also maintains that even if the collective knowledge doctrine applies, only DEA Agent Gutierrez’s knowledge—and not that of the entire DEA task force—can be imputed to Chciago Police Officer Simon.   

We previously have held that whether the requesting officer had direct knowledge of the facts supporting his suspicion is “inconsequential” where the agents in possession of the knowledge and the requesting agents are “part of a coordinated investigation” and are in communication. United States v. Nafzger, 974 F.2d 906, 914 (7th Cir. 1992).  The knowledge of a team of officers “work[ing] together closely in monitoring [a] drug transaction as it unfold[s] . . . `may be mutually imputed'” even the absence of “`express testimony that the specific or detailed information creating the justification for the stop was conveyed.'”  Id. 

That language was designed to recognize that the knowledge of other officers may be imputed to the requesting officer, so long as the officers are in close communication with one another.

Here, DEA Agent Gutierrez was assigned to the DEA task force and worked closely with DEA agents on the drug trafficking investigation. That Simon carried a badge issued by the CPD, not the DEA, does not preclude the application of the collective knowledge doctrine.

Therefore, the district court correctly imputed the DEA task force’s knowledge to Gutierrez and Simon.

For the foregoing reasons, we AFFIRM the district court’s judgment.

For the full opinions visit the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Web Site

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