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United States v. Broca-Martinez

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

April 28, 2017


         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before KING, JOLLY, and PRADO, Circuit Judges.

          EDWARD C. PRADO, Circuit Judge

         Defendant-Appellant Cecilio Broca-Martinez appeals the district court's denial of his motion to suppress. While on patrol in December 2015, Officer Juan Leal began following Broca-Martinez's vehicle because it matched a description Homeland Security agents had provided the Laredo Police Department ("LPD"). Officer Leal stopped Broca-Martinez after a computer search indicated the vehicle's insurance status was "unconfirmed." The stop led to the discovery that Broca-Martinez was in the country illegally and that he was harboring undocumented immigrants at his residence. Broca-Martinez entered a conditional guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to transport undocumented aliens in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324. On appeal, he contends that there was no reasonable suspicion justifying the initial stop. Because we find there was reasonable suspicion, we AFFIRM.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On December 2, 2015, Broca-Martinez was stopped by Officer Leal in Laredo, Texas. That day, Homeland Security Investigations ("HSI") received a tip that undocumented immigrants were being housed at a residence on Zacatecas Avenue in Laredo. While surveilling the residence, HSI agents saw two men leave and enter a gray Nissan Altima. HSI subsequently notified the LPD to have its officers "be on the lookout" for the vehicle. After receiving a radio transmission to "be on the lookout" for this vehicle, Officer Leal saw an Altima that matched the description. He followed the vehicle and entered its license plate number into an "in-vehicle computer" database designed to return vehicle information such as insurance status. The computer indicated the insurance status was "unconfirmed." Based on his experience using this system, Officer Leal concluded that the vehicle was likely uninsured-a violation of Texas's driver financial responsibility law. Official Leal then stopped the vehicle. After being stopped, Broca-Martinez gave his name to Officer Leal and admitted he was in the United States illegally. While they waited for HSI agents to arrive, Officer Leal issued Broca-Martinez a citation for violating the insurance requirement and driving without a license.

         When HSI agents arrived, they interviewed Broca-Martinez. The agents obtained verbal consent from Broca-Martinez to search the Zacatecas Avenue residence, where fourteen undocumented immigrants were being sheltered. On December 22, 2015, Broca-Martinez was indicted by a grand jury on three counts of conspiring to harbor illegal aliens in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324. Broca-Martinez filed a motion to suppress evidence on January 25, 2016. He argued there was no reasonable suspicion justifying the initial stop and that the exclusionary rule barred all evidence obtained as a result of the stop.[1]

         Officer Leal testified to the following at a hearing on the motion to suppress: At the time of the stop, Leal knew the radio-transmission instruction involved a Homeland Security investigation but was unaware of any details. Upon seeing a vehicle that matched the given description, he ran the "license plates through what is called the NCIC/TCIC system, which gives a return on the vehicle, make, model, [and] year" as well as "a VIN number" and "a confirmation to see if the vehicle is insured." Officer Leal has in the past "performed multiple traffic stops for vehicles not having insurance" and was familiar with the Texas law requiring drivers to have liability insurance. Leal did not stop the vehicle because of Broca-Martinez's undocumented status-a fact he did not know-but because he believed Broca-Martinez was uninsured. He explained that when he types a license plate number into the NCIC/TCIC system, it will either report "insurance confirmed" or "unconfirmed, " and after getting a response he knows, "with the knowledge and experience of working, " whether the vehicle is uninsured.

         During the stop, Officer Leal did not ask for proof of insurance. He stated that he "already knew that the vehicle wasn't insured" based on the "unconfirmed" status generated by the computer. However, the district court questioned why Officer Leal did not seek to confirm the computer's report, asking specifically whether "reports are sometimes inaccurate." Broca-Martinez responded: "For the most part, no." Later, Broca-Martinez's attorney pressed Officer Leal on the "unconfirmed" status:

Q: Officer Leal, you said that the information you got on the insurance is that it was unconfirmed?
A: Yes.
Q: So, in other words, he could have or not have insurance, correct?
A: No.
Q: It's ...

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