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United States v. Molina-Isidoro

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

March 1, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee

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

          Before DAVIS, HAYNES, and COSTA, Circuit Judges.

          GREGG COSTA, Circuit Judge [*]

         After discovering kilos of meth in the suitcase Maria Isabel Molina-Isidoro was carrying across the border, customs agents looked at a couple of apps on her cell phone. Molina argues that the evidence found during this warrantless search of her phone should be suppressed. Along with amici, she invites the court to announce general rules concerning the application of the government's historically broad border-search authority to modern technology for which the Supreme Court has recognized increased privacy interests. See Riley v. California, 134 S.Ct. 2473, 2489-91, 2493 (2014). We decline the invitation to do so because the nonforensic search of Molina's cell phone at the border was supported by probable cause. That means at a minimum the agents had a good-faith basis for believing the search did not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment.


         Molina attempted to enter the United States at a border crossing in El Paso. Customs and Border Protection officers "detected anomalies" while x-raying her suitcase. When they questioned Molina, she acknowledged owning the suitcase but claimed that it only contained clothing.

         At a secondary inspection area, in response to questions about her travels, Molina said she had delivered clothing to her brother in Juarez, Mexico and would be flying home to Tijuana, Mexico from El Paso. At that point, an officer opened Molina's suitcase and noticed a modification. After rescanning the suitcase, the officers located an "anomaly . . . covered by electrical tape." That anomaly was a hidden compartment, which held 4.32 kilograms of a white crystal substance. A drug-sniffing dog alerted officers to the presence of narcotics, and the crystal substance field-tested positive for methamphetamine. Later laboratory tests confirmed that result.

         Agents from the Department of Homeland Security soon arrived on the scene. Molina could not explain how the drugs made their way into her suitcase, though she admitted that no one could have placed them there without her knowledge. Then Molina again recounted her recent travels. She claimed to have taken a taxi from El Paso to Juarez to visit her brother. But she could not remember his address. She reiterated that she was returning to El Paso to fly home to Tijuana. But she had not yet purchased a ticket. When the agents confronted Molina about why she was carrying so much personal clothing for such a short trip, she remained silent. And when the agents told Molina that her story made little sense, she ended the interview and requested a lawyer.

         Either at that point, or during the questioning, agents searched Molina's phone, looking at Uber and WhatsApp.[1] They did not ask for, and Molina did not provide, consent for that search. The agents found the following (paraphrased) conversation on Molina's WhatsApp:

Molina advised RAUL that she was headed to El Paso, and requested [that] RAUL . . . send her the information for the Uber. MOLINA advise[d] RAUL that she had arrived in El Paso. RAUL responded that he sent her the information for the Uber. RAUL sent a picture [o]f a credit card, front and back, and told MOLINA to use that credit card information to pay for [the] Uber. RAUL sent information regarding a hotel located in Juarez, Mexico. RAUL directed MOLINA to Hotel Suites in Colonia Playas, Room #10, and advised MOLINA that the stuff [was] located there. MOLINA advised RAUL that she [had] arrived [at] the room but no one was there. RAUL stated he w[ould] get a hold of them. MOLINA then responded that the guy [had been] asleep [but had now] opened the door. RAUL sent another picture of a Southwest Airlines flight itinerary. The itinerary listed MOLINA as the passenger o[n] a flight departing El Paso at 5:15 P.M. with a final destination of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. MOLINA advised RAUL that she got the stuff and was headed back to El Paso.

         After the search, the government kept Molina's phone but did not conduct a more intrusive forensic search of it.

         A grand jury charged Molina with one count of importing methamphetamine and one count of possessing methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. She moved to suppress the evidence obtained during the cell phone search. The district court denied the motion to suppress, concluding that Riley v. California did not extend to the border-search context. It also observed that the most demanding requirement a court has required for any type of border search is reasonable suspicion, which existed for the search of Molina's phone.

         The district court then held a stipulated bench trial as Molina wanted to preserve her right to appeal the denial of the suppression motion. Molina was found guilty on ...

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