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United State v. Vargas

United States District Court, D. Kansas

March 5, 2014

JUAN VARGAS, Defendant.


MONTI L. BELOT, District Judge.

This case comes before the court on defendant's motion to suppress. (Doc. 13). The motion has been fully briefed (Doc. 15) and the court held an evidentiary hearing on March 3, 2014. Defendant's motion is denied for the reasons herein.

I. Facts

On November 9, 2014, Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Benjamin Kahle was parked in the median on Interstate 70. Kahle observed a Kia Optima traveling east at 81 miles per hour. The speed limit on I-70 is 75 miles per hour. Kahle drove onto the highway and initiated a traffic stop. Defendant Juan Vargas was the driver of the Optima and he immediately complied by pulling over to the shoulder of the highway. Kahle approached the passenger side of the Optima and asked defendant for his license and insurance. Defendant informed Kahle that the Optima was a rental. Kahle asked defendant where he was going. Defendant said he was heading to New Jersey.

Defendant handed over the paperwork and his hand was shaking. The rental agreement stated that the Optima was rented in California two days earlier. The rental agreement was signed by a third party. Kahle asked defendant why he did not personally rent the Optima. Defendant stated that he did not have a credit card. The rental agreement was for a period of seven days and the Optima was to be returned to California. At the time of the rental, the Optima had 13, 000 miles.

While at the passenger side of the Optima, Kahle observed various items inside. Kahle observed a large black mattress pad, a case of water, personal hygiene items, an empty Red Bull, a Federal Express box with Verizon Wireless paperwork, a bottle of Visine, a black Iphone with directions to New Jersey and a Samsung phone.

Kahle returned to the patrol vehicle and ran a check on defendant's license. Kahle was advised by dispatch that there were no outstanding warrants for defendant's arrest. Defendant, however, did have a history of alien smuggling. Kahle returned to the Optima and gave defendant a warning citation. Kahle handed back defendant's documents and told him to "drive safe." Kahle then turned around and walked back towards his patrol car. When Kahle arrived at the rear of the Optima, he turned and walked back to the passenger window. Kahle asked defendant if he could ask him some more questions. Defendant agreed. Kahle asked defendant about his travel plans. Defendant stated that he would go to New York and New Jersey. Kahle asked defendant who he was visiting there and defendant responded that he did not know anyone in that area. Kahle asked defendant if there were drugs or anything illegal in the vehicle. Defendant said no. Kahle then asked defendant if he could "look real quick." Defendant said sure. Kahle asked "if that's ok" and defendant said yes.

Undersheriff Finley arrived at the scene just before the search began.[1] Finley approached the Optima as Kahle asked defendant to step out of the vehicle. Kahle had defendant walk more than 20 feet in the grass so that he would be safe from oncoming traffic and so that the officers would be safe during the search. Kahle searched the driver's side and Finley searched the passenger side. Kahle then opened the trunk with the key. Kahle observed a bag of shoes, towels and clothes hung on hangers. Kahle then looked in the spare tire well. Kahle noticed that the lug nuts did not secure the tire in the well. The lug nuts were positioned halfway up the screw instead of being flush to the tire. Kahle also saw that the spare tire's tread was worn down and the rim had tool marks on it. The spare tire brand was different than the tires on the vehicle and not consistent with what he usually observed in a new rental car. The tires on the Optima were newer and had a lot of tread.

Finley removed the spare tire from the tire well and bounced it on the ground. Kahle and Finley heard something shifting inside the tire when it bounced. Kahle believed that there were drugs inside the tire. Finley poked a hole in the tire. Kahle and Finley observed gray duct tape and plastic baggies inside the tire. They also saw white powder. The entire search of the Optima lasted only two minutes. Defendant did not restrict the search area or interrupt the search at any time. Finley had a drug dog in his patrol vehicle but he did not run it around the car until after they cut into the tire.[2]

The tire was not completely taken apart until after Kahle transported defendant to jail. The tire contained five bundles of methamphetamine.

Defendant moves to suppress the search on the basis that it was not consensual or, in the alternative, that it exceeded the scope of defendant's consent. The government contends that the search of the Optima was voluntary and that Kahle had probable cause to search the tire.

II. Analysis

The Fourth Amendment protects "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. The Supreme Court has liberally interpreted "seizures" to encompass routine traffic stops, "even though the purpose of the stop is limited and the resulting detention quite brief." See Delaware v. Prouse , 440 U.S. 648, 653 (1979). An initial traffic stop is justified at its inception if it was "based on an observed traffic violation, " or if "the officer has a reasonable articulable suspicion that a traffic... violation has occurred." United States v. Hunnicutt , 135 F.3d 1345, 1348 (10th Cir. 1998).

In this case, the undisputed facts show that the traffic stop was justified. Defendant was traveling at a higher speed than the posted limit in violation of Kansas law. Even when the initial stop is valid, any investigative detention must not last "longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop." Florida v. Royer , 460 U.S. 491, 500 (1983). An officer "conducting a routine traffic stop may request a driver's license and vehicle registration, run a computer check, and issue a citation." United States v. Bradford , 423 F.3d 1149, 1156 (10th Cir. 2005). The uncontroverted testimony shows that Kahle approached the Optima upon initially stopping it and then obtained defendant's driving documents. Kahle returned to his patrol car to write out the warning ticket and run a license check, which was appropriate. Kahle re-approached the Optima, returned defendant's ...

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