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United States v. Sanchez-Cruz

United States District Court, D. Kansas

November 5, 2014



JULIE A. ROBINSON, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Luis Sanchez-Cruz's Motion to Suppress Evidence (Doc. 49). Defendant moves to suppress the heroin and methamphetamine seized during the stop and subsequent search of the vehicle Defendant was driving on April 5, 2014. The Government has responded (Doc. 52), and an evidentiary hearing was held on October 7, 2014. After reviewing the filings and the evidence adduced at the hearing, the Court is now prepared to rule. For the reasons explained in detail below, the Court denies Defendant's motion.

I. Factual Background

On April 5, 2014, Defendant Luis Sanchez-Cruz and his passenger, Daniel Flores ("Flores"), were traveling west along Interstate 70 in a 2013 Dodge Challenger. Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Christopher Nicholas, also westbound, took notice of the Challenger when it began following an SUV at a close distance. Trooper Nicholas trailed the Challenger in his patrol car, observing as the Challenger changed lanes and approached a second vehicle from behind. As it did so, the Challenger passed a third vehicle upon the right and then switched lanes directly in front of that vehicle. Trooper Nicholas activated his emergency lights, prompting a dashboard camera on his patrol car to begin recording the traffic stop.[1] The Challenger pulled over.

Trooper Nicholas approached the Challenger's passenger window, greeted Defendant and Flores, and reported that he had stopped them for "cutting off" the third vehicle. He explained that he would not write Defendant a ticket for the traffic violation, but asked to see Defendant's license and vehicle paperwork. Defendant answered that his license had been suspended and that the Challenger belonged to his father, Francisco Sanchez. As Defendant and Flores handed over their California identification cards, Trooper Nicholas noticed that both travelers' hands were shaking. The trooper repeated his request for the vehicle registration and insurance documents and inquired about the travelers' destination. Apparently uncertain as to the exact location, Defendant consulted his cell phone and responded that he was driving toward Interstate 435. He showed the trooper his cell phone, his hands still shaking. Eventually, Defendant concluded that he was driving to 94th Street. Trooper Nicholas then asked if Defendant still lived at the address listed on his identification card. Defendant asked which address was listed, then informed the trooper that he lived with his father, whose address appeared on the vehicle registration. At that point, Trooper Nicholas returned to his patrol vehicle to run the licenses through dispatch.

Dispatch confirmed that Defendant's license was suspended, and a criminal history check revealed that Flores had a past drug conviction. Trooper Nicholas wrote Defendant a ticket for the suspended license and walked back to the Challenger. He returned the travelers' documents, indicating that Flores would have to drive. Defendant then volunteered that he had received a traffic ticket in Pratt, Kansas, about three months prior. Trooper Nicholas explained the procedure for paying the ticket and told Defendant and Flores that they were free to go.

Trooper Nicholas took two steps away from the Challenger and stopped. He requested permission to ask Defendant and Flores "a couple things real quick." Defendant answered, "Sure." The trooper paused while Defendant and Flores exchanged seats so that Flores would be in position to drive. Before Defendant reentered the Challenger, Trooper Nicholas asked if Defendant came to Kansas often. Defendant responded in the negative and explained that he was currently in the area because his girlfriend's father had suffered a stroke. Defendant then took his seat inside the vehicle, and Trooper Nicholas again obtained permission to ask more questions. After inquiring about the details of the travelers' visit to Kansas, the trooper asked whether the pair had anything illegal with them, such as weapons or drugs. They said they did not. When asked whether the trooper could "search [the] car real quick, " Defendant answered, "Yeah."

Defendant handed the key fob to Trooper Nicholas and stepped out of the Challenger, leaving his cell phone in the car at the trooper's request. Trooper Nicholas immediately performed a pat-down search of Defendant's person and found two hundred dollars cash and a pair of latex gloves in Defendant's pockets. Trooper Nicholas asked Defendant what the gloves were for. Defendant answered that he had gotten the gloves from the hotel where he had been staying. Trooper Nicholas then invited Flores to step out of the car and, after patting Flores down, found a pocket knife, a cell phone, and another two hundred dollars cash. The trooper placed the cell phone inside the car, explaining that he was doing so for officer safety purposes, and laid the pocket knife on top of the vehicle's closed trunk. Confident the scene was now secure, Trooper Nicholas asked the travelers to stand about fifteen feet away from the Challenger while he searched the vehicle.

The trooper started with the trunk, which contained a speaker box and some luggage, then moved to the cabin. About three minutes into the search, Trooper Jimerson arrived. Trooper Nicholas showed Trooper Jimerson some scratches he had noticed on the interior quarter trim panel on the passenger side of the vehicle. He also informed Jimerson of a traffic ticket he had found, issued to Flores on April 4, 2014. Trooper Jimerson then suggested moving the search to a vehicle inspection station about a mile away. Trooper Nicholas agreed, returned Flores' pocket knife, and ordered Defendant and Flores to accompany them to the inspection station.

At the inspection station, the troopers again patted down the travelers and asked them to stand about fifteen feet from the Challenger. The troopers then began to search the vehicle's trunk, cabin, and door panels. Trooper Nicholas testified at the hearing that the quarter panel trim on the driver side appeared to be loose and that some panels in the trunk looked like they had been removed several times. Trooper Nicholas also found a Phillips screwdriver and another tool-similar to a screwdriver but with a bent, two-pronged tip-in the driver-side seat-back pocket. About twenty-three minutes after moving to the vehicle inspection station, and about thirty minutes after beginning the search, Trooper Nicholas inserted a fiber-optic scope into a natural void in the driver-side quarter panel. The scope revealed nine vacuum-sealed packages containing about thirteen pounds of methamphetamine and eight pounds of heroin. Defendant denied knowledge of the packages.

II. Analysis

Defendant contends the troopers' actions violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment. He first challenges the initial stop of the Challenger, asserting that Trooper Nicholas did not have a reasonable, articulable suspicion for pulling over the vehicle. Defendant also argues that he did not give legal consent to search, that the search exceeded the scope of any consent given, and that the troopers did not have a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity to justify the search. Defendant therefore moves to suppress the heroin and methamphetamine seized as a result of the stop and subsequent search of the Challenger.

A. Legitimacy of the Traffic Stop

Defendant first contends that Trooper Nicholas did not have a reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle. "Whether a traffic stop is valid under the Fourth Amendment turns on whether this particular officer had reasonable suspicion that this particular motorist violated any one of the multitude of applicable traffic and equipment regulations of the jurisdiction."[2] The Supreme Court has defined "reasonable suspicion" as a "particularized and objective basis" for believing the person being stopped is committing or did commit a violation.[3] Reasonable suspicion requires a lesser showing than probable cause. Further, in making reasonable-suspicion determinations, courts must look at the "totality of the circumstances" of each case to decide whether the detaining officer has a "particularized and objective basis" for suspecting legal wrongdoing.[4] "This ...

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