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Ramirez-Tamayo v. State

Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas

September 20, 2017




          Alcala, J.

         In this case, we address whether the record supports the trial court's decision that a peace officer had reasonable suspicion of narcotics possession to continue the detention of a driver beyond the purpose of the stop for a traffic violation. In his appeal from the trial court's order denying his motion to suppress, Elvis Elvis Ramirez-Tamayo, appellant, argued that the deputy who stopped him lacked reasonable suspicion to prolong his detention after deciding to issue him a warning ticket for speeding, and the court of appeals agreed. See Ramirez-Tamayo v. State, 501 S.W.3d 788, 800 (Tex. App.-Amarillo 2016). In the instant petition for discretionary review challenging this ruling, the State argues that the court of appeals erred by failing to defer to the trial court's implicit determination that the credible officer's training and experience were adequate to support his inferences and deductions that the otherwise seemingly innocent circumstances led to reasonable suspicion of narcotics possession in this case, and by failing to consider the totality of the evidence in examining whether there was reasonable suspicion.[1] We agree with the State and, therefore, reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and reinstate the trial court's judgment of conviction.

         I. Background

         In 2015, appellant was driving on Interstate 40 near Amarillo when he was stopped for speeding. The traffic stop eventually led to the discovery of approximately twenty pounds of marijuana that had been hidden inside the door panels of appellant's rental car. Appellant was arrested and later charged with possession of marijuana in an amount greater than five pounds but less than fifty pounds. See Tex. Health & Safety Code § 481.121(b)(4). Appellant filed a pre-trial motion to suppress the evidence in which he argued that the deputy lacked reasonable suspicion to continue detaining him beyond the time needed to conduct the traffic stop for speeding.

          Deputy Simpson was the sole witness at the hearing on appellant's motion to suppress. At the time of the hearing, which took place about a year after the traffic stop, Deputy Simpson testified that he had been employed by the Potter County Sheriff's Office for nine years and had been a licensed peace officer in Texas for approximately eight years. He stated that he was assigned to the Criminal Intelligence Unit and "mainly work[ed] the highway and interdiction functions." He agreed with the State's description of his duties as being "sort of like patrolling; [ ] you're out on the streets in your car every day[.]"

         Deputy Simpson recounted that he stopped appellant for driving 78 miles per hour in a 75 mile per hour zone on the interstate freeway. For safety reasons, Deputy Simpson approached the passenger side of appellant's car rather than the driver's side. The deputy saw that appellant "appeared confused" after he approached on the passenger side, and, rather than lowering the window, appellant leaned across the front seat to open the passenger door. The deputy testified that he found this behavior "strange" because appellant was driving a rented, almost brand-new car, which would likely have electric windows that easily could be rolled down with the push of a button from the driver's side of the car.[2] The deputy also believed that it would be unlikely that a rental car company would rent a vehicle whose power windows did not work because, ordinarily, a rental car company would inspect the vehicle prior to renting it to make sure that it was fully functional. The deputy testified that he did not see any damage to the window or car to explain why appellant behaved as if the window was inoperable. The deputy explained that he felt it was suspicious that appellant did not roll down the passenger window because, in his experience, he had previously encountered drug traffickers who had concealed drugs inside car door panels making the windows inoperable.[3]

         In addition to appellant's opening of the door rather than rolling down the window, the deputy discussed four additional "factors" that he observed during the traffic stop that led him to suspect that appellant was trafficking drugs. First, he noticed that appellant wore "a lot of cologne." The deputy described it as being "a very overwhelming smell of cologne" and "more than most people" would wear. The deputy testified that, based on his training and experience, drug traffickers frequently "use cover odors to cover the odor of the drugs they're hauling." Second, the deputy noted that appellant appeared to have been chain smoking in the car leaving cigarette ashes all over the car "in the floorboards and everything" as well as the odor of cigarette smoke. Because appellant was driving a rental car with two decals on the windows indicating that smoking was prohibited, the deputy agreed with the suggestion that appellant's chain smoking was "more peculiar than a person smoking in their every day car." Furthermore, he opined that a chain-smoking driver "would probably at least crack the window if not roll it down" to try to avoid the penalty fee for smoking in a rental car. This additionally appeared to indicate that the car's windows could not be rolled down. Third, Deputy Simpson agreed that, "based on [his] training and experience, based on doing these interdiction stops on I-40, [] it [is] pretty common that people are carrying drugs in rental cars versus cars that they own." Fourth, the deputy noticed that appellant appeared "nervous and excited." Although he acknowledged that "a little bit" of nervousness and excitement would be normal for a stopped driver, Deputy Simpson described appellant's state as being one of "extreme nervousness" in excess of what he considered normal. He noted that appellant was unable to "get comfortable" and was "constantly shifting in the seat and crossing his arms and he couldn't sit still, even for just a few minutes." Even after the deputy informed appellant that only a warning would be issued, appellant did not become less nervous, which the deputy viewed as unusual in his experience. The deputy, however, conceded that appellant's confusion and nervousness could have been due to the fact that English was not appellant's first language and he possibly had not fully understood what the deputy was saying to him.

         By the time that he handed appellant a warning for speeding, Deputy Simpson testified that he had formed reasonable suspicion to believe that appellant was trafficking drugs based on all of the factors described above. Accordingly, at that point, Deputy Simpson asked appellant whether the car contained drugs, and he also asked for permission to search the vehicle. However, due to the language barrier, Deputy Simpson was unable to determine whether appellant consented, and he instead decided to rely on the use of a drug-detection dog that had arrived on the scene prior to the moment at which he handed appellant the warning ticket. The dog walked around the perimeter of the car and alerted to the presence of illegal drugs. After the drug dog alerted, the deputy initiated a search of appellant's car and discovered a total of approximately twenty pounds of marijuana in vacuum-sealed plastic bags that had been concealed inside the car's four door panels.[4]

         The trial court denied appellant's motion to suppress. Neither appellant nor the State requested findings of fact and conclusions of law. Following the denial of his suppression motion, appellant pleaded guilty and received a sentence of four years' imprisonment, probated for four years.

         The court of appeals reversed the trial court's order denying appellant's motion to suppress. Ramirez-Tamayo, 501 S.W.3d at 800. The court of appeals explained that the record was lacking in sufficient details to establish exactly what type of training or experience Deputy Simpson had that would allow him to reliably form reasonable suspicion based on the otherwise seemingly innocent circumstances-the fact that appellant opened the passenger door instead of lowering the window, wore heavy cologne, chain smoked, drove a rental car, and was extremely nervous. Id. at 799-800. The court of appeals acknowledged that a law enforcement officer may properly develop reasonable suspicion on the basis of a suspect's seemingly innocent behavior when the officer's expertise, training, or experience makes him aware that such behavior is likely indicative of criminal activity under the circumstances. Id. at 794-95. But the court of appeals reasoned that, before a court may credit an officer's opinion on such a matter, the officer "should be shown to have knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education about the topic on which [he] speak[s][.]" Id. at 795. The court of appeals found that type of evidence lacking in the instant case with respect to Deputy Simpson's qualifications. It explained that the State "simply proffered evidence of [the deputy's] job titles and employment categories . . . . [A]side from the deputy simply invoking his 'knowledge, training, and expertise, ' the State did little to illustrate of what it consisted or how it was garnered." Id.

         In view of its determination that the record lacked information regarding Deputy Simpson's training and experience that could support the reliability of his formation of reasonable suspicion, the court of appeals concluded that the State had failed to carry its burden to explain why the activities and circumstances relied on here were sufficiently distinguishable from the activities of innocent people under the same circumstances. Id. at 800 (citing Wade v. State, 422 S.W.3d 661, 670 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013)). The court of appeals reversed the trial court's ruling denying appellant's motion to suppress. Id.

         II. The Record Demonstrates Reasonable Suspicion

         After reviewing the applicable law, we address the State's arguments that the court of appeals erred by rejecting the trial court's implicit determination that the deputy's observations were credible and reliable based on his training and experience, and by failing to consider the totality of the record and the combined logical force of all of the circumstances in determining that the deputy lacked reasonable suspicion.

         A. ...

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