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United States v. Salinas

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

July 11, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
ADAM JOSEPH SALINAS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Sam A. Lindsay, United States District Judge

         Before the court are the Motion to Suppress Evidence (Doc. 26), filed by Defendant Adam Joseph Salinas (“Defendant” or “Salinas”) on January 9, 2017; and Defendant's Second Motion to Suppress Evidence (Doc. 34), filed March 24, 2017. After considering the motions, responses by the Government, evidence, and applicable law, the court grants in part and denies in part the Motion to Suppress Evidence (Doc. 26) and denies Defendant's Second Motion to Suppress Evidence (Doc. 34).

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Defendant moves to suppress evidence of firearms and drugs seized by law enforcement during searches of his vehicle, apartment, and storage unit on three separate dates. Defendant also moves to suppress statements that he made to state and federal law enforcement officers on two different occasions. An indictment was originally filed in this case against Defendant on May 18, 2016. On the same date, an arrest warrant was issued for his arrest. Defendant was arrested on August 26, 2016, and ordered detained pending disposition of this case.

         In the superseding Indictment (“Indictment”) in this case, Salinas is charged in Counts 1, 4, and 6 with being a Convicted Felon in Possession of a Firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2), as a result of events and searches that occurred on February 17, 2014; February 4, 2016; and August 26, 2016. In Counts 2, 3, and 7, Salinas is charged with Possession with Intent to Distribute Controlled Substances (methamphetamine and heroin) in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A), as a result of events and searches that took place February 4, 2016; and August 26, 2016. In Counts 5 and 8 of the Indictment, Salinas is charged with Using and Carrying a Firearm During and in Relation to, and Possessing a Firearm in Furtherance of a Drug Trafficking Crime in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(i), based on searches that occurred on February 4, 2016; and August 26, 2016.

         II. First Motion to Suppress (Doc. 26)

         A. February 17, 2014 Stop and Search of Defendant's Vehicle

         Defendant moves to suppress evidence of the firearm seized by a Farmers Branch police officer during a traffic stop and warrantless search of his vehicle on February 17, 2014, which is the basis for the offense charged in Count 1. According to Defendant, the police offense report states “that [he] was stopped at a traffic light”; “that once the officer pulled in behind him, [he] put his turn signal on and turned east”; and “[t]he office[r] stopped [him] since he failed to signal his turn for 100 feet prior to turning.” Def.'s Mot. 1. Defendant asserts that he did not commit a traffic violation because, before being pulled over, he was stopped at a traffic light and signaled before turning. Defendant contends that applying Texas Transportation Code section 545.104(b)'s one hundred feet signaling requirement to situations such as this, in which a vehicle operator fails to signal within the required distance before turning because he intended to proceed straight though an intersection but changed his mind and instead turned left or right after stopping at the intersection, would lead to an absurd result that the Texas State Legislature could not have possibly intended. Defendant, therefore, contends that the firearm seized, without a warrant, from his vehicle on this date should be suppressed because there was no probable cause for the traffic stop.[1]

         According to the Government, the police report of the traffic stop indicates that, when Defendant was encountered by law enforcement, his vehicle was stopped at an intersection behind several cars, and it was not until the officer pulled up behind Defendant's vehicle that he signaled and proceeded in a turn-only lane to turn left after the traffic light turned green. The Government contends that Defendant's hypothetical and argument, that section 545.104's signaling requirement does not apply to drivers who do not signal prior to stopping at an intersection because they intend to go straight through the intersection but change their minds, was rejected by the Texas Court of Appeals in State v. Losoya, 2015 WL 9594721, at *2 (Tex. App.-San Antonio, Dec. 30, 2015, pet. ref'd). The Government, therefore, contends that the traffic stop was proper because “there can be no question that the officer had reasonable suspicion to pull over Salinas.” Pl.'s Resp. 10. The Government also argues that the good faith exception to warrantless stops applies even if the court determines that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion.

         The Fourth Amendment protects individuals “against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. This protection extends to traffic stops of vehicles, which are considered seizures for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Lopez-Moreno, 420 F.3d 420, 430 (5th Cir. 2005);United States v. Shabazz, 993 F.2d 431, 434 (5th Cir. 1993) (citing Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653 (1979)). The legality of a traffic stop is analyzed under the two-part test in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). United States v. Andres, 703 F.3d 828, 832 (5th Cir. 2013); Lopez-Moreno, 420 F.3d at 430. In analyzing the propriety of a traffic stop under Terry, the court first asks whether the officer's action in stopping the vehicle was: (1) initially justified at its inception by reasonable suspicion. United States v. Powell, 732 F.3d 361, 369 (5th Cir. 2013). The court then determines “whether the officer's subsequent actions were reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the stop of the vehicle in the first place.” Andres, 703 F.3d at 832 (internal quotation marks omitted); United States v. Brigham, 382 F.3d 500, 506 (5th Cir. 2004) (en banc).

         “For a traffic stop to be justified at its inception, an officer must have an objectively reasonable suspicion that some sort of illegal activity, such as a traffic violation, occurred, or is about to occur, before stopping the vehicle.” Andres, 703 F.3d at 832. “[R]easonable suspicion exists when the officer can point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the search and seizure.” Lopez-Moreno, 420 F.3d at 430. Reasonable suspicion can rest upon a mistake of law or fact if the mistake is objectively reasonable. United States v. Alvarado-Zarza, 782 F.3d 246, 249 (5th Cir. 2015) (citations omitted).

         In assessing whether reasonable suspicion has been developed, the court takes into account “the totality of the circumstances, ” including the “collective knowledge and experience levels” of the officers involved and “must allow law enforcement officers to draw on their own experience and specialized training to make inferences from and deductions about the cumulative information available to them that might well elude an untrained person.” United States v. Estrada, 459 F.3d 627, 631-32 (5th Cir. 2006) (internal quotations omitted). A “mere hunch” is insufficient, but “‘reasonable suspicion' need not rise to the level of probable cause.” Lopez-Moreno, 420 F.3d at 430. The Government bears the burden of proving that the officer had objectively reasonable suspicion for conducting the traffic stop. See United States v. Gomez, 623 F.3d 265, 269 (5th Cir. 2010).

         Salinas's motion focuses on the first part of the Terry test. No evidence of the police report referenced by the parties was submitted by the Government, but Salinas does not dispute that he failed to signal his turn 100 feet before stopping at the intersection; and he does not question the officer's credibility. He instead contends that his conduct in signaling his turn after he stopped at the intersection but before proceeding to turn was not a violation of section 545.104 of the Texas Transportation Code. He also contends that this section should not apply when a person stopped at an intersection intending to go straight but changes his mind and decides to turn left or right. Because the pertinent facts that led to the stop are not disputed, the court's resolution of Defendant's motion regarding the validity of the February 17, 2014 traffic stop turns on its determination of whether the aforementioned undisputed facts constitute a violation of section 545.104.[2]

         Section 545.104 provides: “An operator intending to turn a vehicle right or left shall signal continuously for not less than the last 100 feet of movement of the vehicle before the turn.” Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 545.104(b). As correctly noted by the Government, Texas courts that have addressed the issue have held that signaling after stopping at an intersection but before turning is a violation of the statute. See, e.g., Tucker v. State, 183 S.W.3d 501, 508 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2005, no pet.); Peterson v. State, No. 01-14-00228-CR, 2015 WL 4549195, at *4 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] July 28, 2015, no pet.) (mem. op.); Taylor v. State, No. 14-12-01041-CR, 2014 WL 1713895, at *1 n.1 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] Apr. 29, 2014, pet. ref'd) (mem. op.); Lee v. State, No. 06-07-00032-CR, 2007 WL 2274937, at *2-3 (Tex. App.-Texarkana Aug. 10, 2007, pet. ref d) (mem. op.). Accordingly, the court determines that Defendant's signaling after stopping at the intersection but before turning was a violation of section 545.104(b), and this conduct provided the officer with an objectively reasonable suspicion that illegal activity in the form of a traffic violation had occurred that justified the initial stop of Defendant's vehicle.

         While the cases cited above do not address whether evidence of a vehicle operator's initial intent to proceed straight through an intersection and decision after stopping to turn at the intersection would dictate a different result under the statute, the court was unable to find any case interpreting the statute in this manner, and Salinas has not pointed to any such authority. Moreover, given the reluctance of Texas courts to carve out an exception to the one hundred feet signaling requirement for drivers who do not signal until after stopping at an intersection, the court seriously doubts that a driver's subjective intent and decision to turn only after stopping would change the way in which Texas courts have interpreted and applied this statute. Thus, even assuming, as Salinas contends, that he initially intended to proceed straight but changed his mind after stopping at the intersection, the court determines that his interpretation of section 545.104(b) is not supported by Texas authority. In light of this determination, the court denies Defendant's motion with respect to the traffic stop and search of his vehicle on February 17, 2014, and it need not address the Government's alternate good faith exception argument.

         B. February 4, 2016 Stop and Search of Defendant's Vehicle

         Defendant moves to suppress evidence seized from his vehicle during a traffic stop conducted by Dallas police officers on February 4, 2016, which is the basis for the offenses charged in Counts 2, 3, 4, and 5.

         1. Traffic Stop

         Defendant asserts that he “was stopped for the traffic violation of having a ‘burnt out license plate light'” and arrested for outstanding warrants. Defendant contends that Texas law requires a taillamp or separate lamp to be constructed and mounted to a vehicle to emit a white light that “(1) illuminates the rear license plate; and (2) makes the plate clearly legible at a distance of 50 feet from the rear.” Def.'s Mot. 2 (quoting Tex. Transp. Code Ann. 547.322(f) (Vernon 1999) and United States v. Alexander, 589 F.Supp.2d 777, 783 (E.D. Tex. 2008)). Defendant contends that “the Officer simply states that the purpose of the traffic stop was for a burnt out license plate light” but “fails to state whether that was sufficient for probable cause that [he] violated” section 547.322(f) of the Texas Transportation Code. Defendant, therefore, contends that the stop was unconstitutional.

         In response, the Government expresses confusion regarding the basis for Defendant's contention regarding this traffic stop and contends that the stop was appropriate because: (1) the officer had “reasonable suspicion to believe that Salinas was violating [the] Texas Transportation Code by driving with a burnt-out license plate light”; and (2) Salinas “concedes that he was pulled over because the light above his license plate was burnt out, in violation of [section 547.322(f).” Pl.'s Resp. 11(citing Def.'s Mot. 2-3).

         Generally, a defendant who seeks to have evidence suppressed bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the evidence was seized illegally. See United States v. Waldrop, 404 F.3d 365, 368 (5th Cir. 2005). When a search or seizure is conducted without a warrant, however, the Government has the burden to show that the search or seizure was constitutional. Id.; United States v. Chavis, 48 F.3d 871, 872 (5th Cir. 1995). It is undisputed that the traffic stop and search of Defendant's vehicle on February 4, 2016, was done without a warrant. Accordingly, the Government bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the officer had reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop.

         Unlike the Government, the court does not read Defendant's argument regarding this traffic stop as a concession that he was “pulled over because the light above his license plate was burnt out, in violation of [section 547.322(f)].” Id. Salinas instead states that he “was stopped for the traffic violation of having a ‘burnt out license plate light.'” Def.'s Mot. 2. Defendant then reiterates: “As stated above, the Officer simply states that the purpose of the traffic stop was for a burnt out license plate. It fails to state whether that was sufficient probable cause that [he] violated [section 547.322(f)] and therefore the traffic stop was illegal.” Id. at 3. This does not appear to be a concession by Salinas that he had a burnt out license plate light or that his conduct violated section 547.322(f); rather, he simply conveys, without agreeing to it, what was communicated to him by the officer when he was pulled over or what the officer put in the citation or report as the reason for the initial stop.

         Even if the court assumes that the asserted justification for stopping Salinas was “a burnt out license plate light, ” the Government does not point to or produce any evidence in the form of a citation, report, or otherwise, from which the court can determine whether the Dallas police officer had an objectively reasonable suspicion that Salinas had violated section 547.322(f). For example, the Government asserts that, “[o]n February 4, 2016, at approximately 2:00 a.m., law enforcement observed a truck (driven by Salinas) operating with a burnt-out license plate light.” Pl.'s Resp. 3. Evidence that the traffic stop occurred at 2 a.m. would support an inference regarding the likelihood that the officer noticed Salinas was driving with a “burnt-out license plate light.” Id. Without evidence, however, the Government's contention regarding the officer's observations and the time of the observations amounts to nothing more than unsupported argument, which is insufficient to establish specific, articulable facts to warrant the traffic stop.

         Accordingly, the Government has not met its burden of showing that the officer had reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop. For the reasons that follow, the court similarly concludes that the Government has failed to meet its burden with respect to the warrantless search of the vehicle that occurred on February 4 2016, after Salinas was stopped, such that neither can justify the search and seizure of evidence recovered from Defendant's vehicle on this date.

         2. Warrantless Vehicle Search

         Regarding the search of his vehicle, Defendant contends that, although he was arrested after being stopped for outstanding traffic warrants, the rationale behind authorizing a police officer to search a vehicle incident to an arrest does not apply here because: (1) he was handcuffed and placed in the officer's patrol car where he was secured and not within reaching distance of the passenger compartment of his vehicle; and (2) it was unreasonable for the officer to believe that he would find evidence of his offense (the outstanding traffic warrants) in his vehicle.

         In responding to Defendant's motion, the Government does not rely on the incident to arrest exception to warrantless searches. It instead contends that suppression of the guns and drugs found in Defendant's vehicle is not warranted because, under the inevitable discovery doctrine, the guns and drugs would have been found during an inventory of the vehicle following Salinas's arrest for outstanding warrants. In this regard, the Government contends as follows:

Here, Salinas was arrested because he had outstanding warrants, one of which was for possession of drug paraphernalia. He stopped his vehicle in a high-crime neighborhood making the vehicle susceptible to being burglarized. He was arrested for the outstanding warrants and his vehicle was towed as a result. Under Dallas Police Department's applicable policy, an inventory search of the vehicle would have been conducted because it was towed. Accordingly, the police would have discovered the box containing firearms and drugs. Because the evidence would have inevitably been discovered during the course of an inventory, suppression is inappropriate.

Pl.'s Resp. 12. For support, the Government cites United States v. Ochoa, 667 F.3d 643, 650 (5th Cir. 2012).

         Under the inevitable discovery doctrine, evidence initially seized improperly need not be suppressed if it would have been legitimately discovered pursuant normal police practices. United States v. Jackson, 596 F.3d 236, 241 (5th Cir. 2010) (explaining that the inevitable discovery doctrine “renders the exclusionary rule inapplicable to otherwise suppressible evidence if that evidence would inevitably have been discovered by lawful means”); United States v. Seals, 987 F.2d 1102, 1108 (5th Cir. 1993). “The inevitable discovery doctrine 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) the Government was actively pursuing a substantial alternate line of investigation at the time of the constitutional violation.” Ochoa, 667 F.3d at 650 (quoting United States v. Zavala, 541 F.3d 562, 579 (5th Cir. 2008)). As noted, ...


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