In 2020, Officers Donovan Polk and Rolando Foster were patrolling a high-crime area in Houston, Texas. They saw a Nissan Altima hesitantly pulling out of a parking lot that was known for narcotics activity. The officers ran the Nissan’s license plates. Associated with that license were municipal warrants for traffic violations by Jesse Walker. Their search also identified Walker as a gang member and felon.
The officers had been following the Nissan while searching for information about the vehicle. They sped up because the Nissan was travelling at a high rate of speed. The officers saw the Nissan cross all three lanes and turn on the outside lane of traffic, and begin driving erratically and at a high rate of speed. The Nissan then suddenly turned into a Texaco parking lot.
At this point, the officers made a traffic stop. Both officers approached the vehicle. Polk testified he had already decided to arrest Walker based on his outstanding traffic warrants. Foster approached the driver’s side of Walker’s vehicle, stated Walker was travelling at a high rate of speed, and asked him to produce a driver’s license. Walker responded that it was in his pocket but then began looking in his car for the license.
Foster, unable to see Walker’s hands when he supposedly was searching for his driver’s license, became concerned. The officer asked Walker to get out of the car so that the officers could detain him and explained they were doing so to get Walker’s ID for him. Polk told Walker that he was not under arrest. After Walker got out of the vehicle, Foster handcuffed him.
Foster then searched Walker. He removed Walker’s wallet and looked for a driver’s license but did not find one. Meanwhile, Polk searched Walker’s vehicle. Before beginning the search, Polk asked Walker if there is anything he should know about in the vehicle. Walker eventually stated there is something you might take me to jail for if I tell you, and then told Polk about a pistol in the console.
After discovering the firearm, the officers moved Walker to their patrol car and called Homeland Security Special Agent Kayada Ereme. Agent Ereme arrived, read Walker his Miranda rights, and questioned him about the firearm. Following Agent Ereme’s questioning, the officers gave Walker an opportunity to call his girlfriend to pick up his car if she could get there within approximately 10 minutes. Walker’s girlfriend arrived at least 30 minutes later after the vehicle was already attached to the tow truck.
One officer estimated it was an hour before she arrived, while a video that recorded many events at the scene revealed it was closer to a 30-minute delay. We did not discover testimony or video recording of any conversation by the officers with Walker’s girlfriend after she appeared. We do know, though, that Walker’s vehicle was towed instead of being released to his girlfriend.
Walker pled guilty to the charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm and sentenced to 21 months. His plea agreement reserved his right to appeal the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress.
Walker argues the evidence and statements arising from his traffic stop should have been suppressed for two reasons: (1) his arrest and stop were unjustified, and thus any evidence and statements arising from the stop or arrest should be excluded as fruits of the poisonous tree; and (2) his statements to Polk and Foster were part of an improper interrogation and must be excluded. The 5th affirmed.
We start with the legality of the traffic stop. The officers stated that Walker committed two traffic violations — making an illegal U-turn and erratic driving. Walker responds by emphasizing that the bodycam video recorded Officer Foster stating the turn wasn’t an illegal U-turn. At the suppression hearing, Foster explained his statement by saying “those words did come out of my mouth,” but that was because he thought the overall violation was erratic driving, not an illegal U- turn. The district court had an opportunity to evaluate this testimony at the suppression hearing and found the officers’ testimony regarding observed traffic violations credible. Having witnessed two traffic violations, the officers had reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify making a traffic stop.
Walker also contends that the City of Houston traffic warrants on which the officers relied as the basis of their arrest and subsequent search were devoid of probable cause. The good faith exception provides that evidence obtained in objectively reasonable reliance on a subsequently invalidated search warrant typically should not be excluded. See United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984)). This exception also applies to arrest warrants. See Arizona v. Evans, 514 U.S. 1 (1995). If a warrant is used in good faith, then it is not necessary to determine whether the warrant was supported with probable cause. See Blevins.
Here, the officers relied on their computer records that listed Walker’s warrants. They did not have the complaints underlying the warrants or other information that might have revealed possible invalidity. In sum, there is nothing in the record that would show that Foster’s and Polk’s reliance on the computer records was not objectively reasonable. The district court did not err in applying the good faith exception, and the officers were justified in their reliance on the traffic warrants as a basis for arrest.
C. Firearm and cell phone
Walker argues that even if his arrest were based on probable cause and his traffic stop justified, the evidence discovered should be excluded because Walker’s statements to the officers informing them of the gun’s location were made before Miranda warnings were given.
We set aside the issue of whether Walker was in custody when he answered questions and instead focus on whether it was inevitable that the officers would have discovered the firearm and cell phone. The inevitable- discovery doctrine is a limit on the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule. It provides that otherwise suppressible evidence will be admitted if that evidence would inevitably have been discovered by lawful means. See Jackson.
It applies if the Government demonstrates by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) there is a reasonable probability that the contested evidence would have been discovered by lawful means in the absence of police misconduct and (2) that the Government was actively pursuing a substantial alternate line of investigation at the time of the constitutional violation.
Here, the officers were required to conduct an inventory search of Walker’s vehicle once he was arrested. As we indicated above, the arrest was valid. Once the vehicle was properly seized, an inventory search is valid if it is conducted pursuant to standardized regulations and procedures that are consistent with (1) protecting the property of the vehicle’s owner, (2) protecting the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property, and (3) protecting the police from danger. See McKinnon.
Walker’s vehicle was illegally parked in front of a gas pump. After Walker was justifiably arrested, the vehicle had to be removed. Already, this subjects Walker’s vehicle to a nonconsent tow and to an inventory search under Houston inventory search policy.
Still, the officers gave Walker an opportunity to release the vehicle to his girlfriend. She did not arrive, though, until at least 30 minutes after being called. By then, Walker’s car was already hooked up to the tow truck. HPD’s policy did not require the officers to release Walker’s car to a third party in the first place and still did not require them to do so at the end of the traffic stop if no third party was at the scene. Thus, Walker’s car was subject to an inventory search, meaning both the firearm and cell phone would have been inevitably discovered. The firearm and cell phone were properly seized.
We close by acknowledging that Walker also argues that the statements he made during Polk and Foster’s questioning should have been suppressed because he was subjected to custodial interrogation without first being given his Miranda warnings. The only significant statement, though, was his answer to being asked if there is anything the officer should know about in the vehicle. Walker responded that there is something you might take me to jail for if I tell you, and he then told Polk about a pistol in the console.
We just held that the discovery of the firearm was inevitable. The statement is not independently significant. We reject any prejudicial error from the admission of the statement. The district court did not err in denying Walker’s motion to suppress.