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United States v. Lopez

United States District Court, D. Kansas

July 16, 2015

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
RODOLFO LOPEZ (01) and JUAN R. TORRES-ARAMBULA (02), Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

DANIEL D. CRABTREE, District Judge.

Defendants Rodolfo Lopez and Juan R. Torres-Arambula filed this joint motion (Doc. 32) seeking to suppress evidence of 33 packages of methamphetamine and cocaine that police discovered after searching the car they were driving. The Court held a hearing on defendants' motion on June 22, 2015. After considering the arguments and evidence that the parties have presented, the Court denies defendants' motion.

I. Facts

The Court takes the following facts from the parties' briefs and the evidence presented at the June 22 hearing, including a video of the traffic stop and subsequent search taken by a dashboard camera ("dashcam") mounted in the arresting trooper's patrol car.

On January 8, 2015, Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Jarrett Ranieri was on duty in his marked police cruiser on Interstate 70 near mile marker 322 in Wabaunsee County, Kansas. Trooper Ranieri was participating in a "ruse drug lane" operation. Officers had posted a sign on the highway indicating that a drug check lane with drug detection dogs was operating on the highway. In reality, no checkpoint existed, and Trooper Ranieri was watching for vehicles attempting to evade the purported checkpoint. At about 12:34 a.m., he observed a silver car take Exit 322 off of I-70 onto Tallgrass Road, the first available exit after passing the checkpoint signs. Tallgrass Road near Exit 322 is an unlighted dirt road that has no businesses or services located on it.

Trooper Ranieri observed that the silver car failed to come to a complete stop at the stop sign at the bottom of the exit ramp, a violation of K.S.A. § 8-1528. Trooper Ranieri thus turned on his emergency lights to stop the silver car. It made a u-turn on Tallgrass Road and came to a stop. Trooper Ranieri pulled his patrol vehicle in front of the car. He determined it was a 2007 Toyota Camry bearing Kansas temporary 60-day registration tags. Trooper Ranieri got out of his police cruiser and approached the driver's side of the Camry. When he arrived at the window, he saw that one driver and one passenger occupied the front seat. Trooper Ranieri later determined that Mr. Lopez was the driver and that Mr. Torres-Arambula was the passenger.

Trooper Ranieri told Mr. Lopez why he had stopped the car and asked for his driver's license. Trooper Ranieri also asked where defendants were coming from and where they were going. Defendants said that they had been to Albuquerque and were headed to Kansas City, Kansas. Trooper Ranieri requested proof of car insurance and asked who owned the car. Mr. Lopez handed over proof of insurance and said that the Camry was a friend's car. Defendants said that the friend, whom they did not identify, let them borrow the car because they had agreed to drive the friend's niece to Albuquerque. Trooper Ranieri then asked to see Mr. Torres-Arambula's driver's license, and Mr. Torres-Arambula handed it to him.

Trooper Ranieri asked defendants why they had taken the Tallgrass Road exit. Defendants said that they were looking for a gas station. Trooper Ranieri looked at the fuel gauge and saw that it showed that the Camry had about a quarter tank of gas left. During this initial conversation, Trooper Ranieri smelled a strong odor of air freshener in the car. He also noticed that the center console was overflowing with burned cigarettes, that the car was filled with fast food and other food wrappers, and that there appeared to be very little luggage. Trooper Ranieri then told defendants that he was going to check their licenses, and he returned to his patrol vehicle. The initial conversation with defendants lasted about two minutes.

Trooper Ranieri moved his patrol car behind defendants' Camry. He then radioed dispatch and asked the operator to run a check on defendants' licenses. At this point, Trooper David Stahl arrived on the scene as back-up, parked in front of the Camry, and approached Trooper Ranieri's police cruiser. After about eight minutes, dispatch radioed back to Trooper Ranieri's cruiser. Over the course of three minutes or so, the operator relayed background information about Mr. Lopez and Mr. Torres-Arambula. Among other things, the troopers learned that each man had a criminal drug history and that Mr. Torres-Arambula had been charged in 2009 with intent to sell methamphetamine in Kansas City, Kansas. When dispatch finished, the troopers discussed defendants' criminal history, as well as other aspects of the traffic stop, for about three minutes. Then, Trooper Ranieri exited the cruiser, and both troopers walked back to defendants' Camry.

Trooper Ranieri returned defendants' licenses and handed Mr. Lopez a warning citation. Defendants asked him where they would find the closest gas station, and Trooper Ranieri said that they should drive east. Trooper Ranieri then said, "Hey guys, thank you, " and both he and Trooper Stahl took a step away from the car. About 20 minutes had elapsed from the time Trooper Ranieri pulled over defendants' car to when he returned their licenses and stepped away.

After taking a step away, Trooper Ranieri turned and asked defendants if they had any guns or illegal drugs in the car. He asked if he could search "the back seat, inside of the car." Defendants initially expressed a desire to leave, but eventually they stepped out of the car. Both troopers then searched the back seat of the Camry. While doing so, Trooper Ranieri noticed modifications to the underside of the vehicle which led him to believe that it contained a hidden compartment. Specifically, he saw: the heat shield in the exhaust tunnel had undercoating spray on it and had bolts sticking out; the exhaust pipe was bent down in a non-factory position in the exhaust tunnel; and the exhaust muffler had new bolts on it. Trooper Ranieri believed that the compartment he suspected was added to the car might contain illegal drugs. As a result, he told defendants to follow him to the Kansas Department of Transportation facility in Alma, Kansas. There, officers accessed the compartment and discovered 33 packages. Thirty-two of the packages contained methamphetamine. The other one contained cocaine.

On January 14, 2015, a grand jury indicted defendants and charged them with knowing and intentional possession with intent to distribute of more than 500 grams of a mixture and substance containing methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1).

II. Analysis

Defendants argue that the Court should suppress evidence discovered in the Camry for three reasons: (1) Trooper Ranieri unlawfully prolonged the initial stop beyond what was necessary to issue a warning citation; (2) Trooper Ranieri lacked a justification to continue to detain defendants after issuing the warning ...


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