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United States v. Rodriguez

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

May 15, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
ESMERVI CARONE RODRIGUEZ, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SIDNEY A. FITZWATER, SENIOR JUDGE

         Defendant Esmervi Carone Rodriguez (“Rodriguez”) moves to suppress and preclude the government from introducing as evidence at trial all evidence (including statements and alleged contraband) obtained following a traffic stop. After an evidentiary hearing, and for the reasons that follow, [1] the court denies the motion.

         I

         On October 3, 2018 Texas Department of Public Safety (“DPS”) Corporal Darrin Bridges (“Corporal Bridges”) was patrolling on Interstate Highway 40 (“I-40”) in Carson County, Texas. Corporal Bridges has been employed as a law enforcement officer for 23 years. He served for three years as an officer in the city of Borger, Texas and has served for 20 years as a Texas State Trooper. At the time of the traffic stop in question, Corporal Bridges was enforcing traffic laws and performing drug interdiction.

         While traveling westbound on I-40 and observing traffic, Corporal Bridges observed a white SUV (“SUV”) traveling eastbound behind a passenger vehicle. Using his radar detector, Corporal Bridges determined that both vehicles were traveling at approximately 75 miles per hour, and he estimated that the SUV was traveling approximately two seconds behind the other passenger vehicle.[2] Corporal Bridges estimated that the distance between the two vehicles was approximately 180 to 200 feet.

         Corporal Bridges turned his vehicle around and drove eastbound in order to catch up with, and pull over, the SUV for the traffic offense of following too closely. As he approached the SUV from behind, Corporal Bridges observed that the vehicle was still closely following the passenger car in front of it. At the hearing, Corporal Bridges testified that he estimated that the SUV was now 120 feet behind the other passenger car and still appeared to be traveling at approximately 75 miles per hour. Based on his extensive experience, Corporal Bridges testified that the distance between the two vehicles can be calculated by assessing ten feet for each white stripe on the road and 30 feet to each distance or “gap” between each stripe. In Corporal Bridges' estimation there were three gaps (90 feet) and three stripes (30 feet) between the SUV and the other vehicle. According to Corporal Bridges and the 2017 Texas Driver Handbook, at the speed of 70 miles per hour, the SUV should have been approximately 387 feet behind the other passenger car. In Corporal Bridges' estimation, traveling at 120 feet behind the passenger vehicle, the SUV could not have stopped and avoided a collision had there been some sort of catastrophic event, a blowout, or a sudden stop.

         While the SUV was traveling in the right lane, Corporal Bridges attempted to pull up next to it in order to ascertain whether the driver of the vehicle was committing any other traffic violations, such as a seatbelt violation. At this point, the SUV was approximately 120 to 130 feet behind the passenger car in front of it, still traveling between 70 and 75 miles per hour, and was advancing on the vehicle in front of it when the driver (Rodriguez) applied the vehicle's brakes.

         Corporal Bridges pulled his vehicle behind the SUV and activated his emergency equipment. The SUV pulled to the side of the road and came to a complete stop. During the traffic stop, Corporal Bridges identified Rodriguez as the driver and the registered owner of the SUV. Corporal Bridges ultimately issued Rodriguez a warning for following the other passenger car too closely, in violation of Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 545.062(a) (West 2011 & Supp. 2018).

         During the traffic stop, Corporal Bridges asked for consent to search the vehicle, and Rodriguez consented.[3] A search was conducted, and it led to the discovery of 30 bundles of suspected methamphetamine, which weighed approximately 36 pounds (16, 329.3 grams). Rodriguez was read his Miranda warnings, and he voluntarily consented to an interview. During the interview, Rodriguez made incriminating statements.

         Rodriguez was charged in a two-count indictment with the offenses of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, and possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(A)(viii). Rodriguez moves to suppress all evidence, including statements and alleged contraband, seized during the search of the vehicle. The government opposes the motion.

         II

         The Fourth Amendment protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures. “The stopping of a vehicle and detention of its occupants constitutes a ‘seizure' under the Fourth Amendment.” United States v. Brigham, 382 F.3d 500, 506 (5th Cir. 2004) (en banc). Evidence derived from an unreasonable search or seizure generally must be suppressed under the “fruit-of-the-poisonous-tree doctrine.” United States v. Alvarado-Zarza, 782 F.3d 246, 249 (5th Cir. 2015) (citing United States v. Cotton, 722 F.3d 271, 278 (5th Cir. 2013)). “Warrantless seizures are ‘per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment-subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.'” Id. (quoting United States v. Hill, 752 F.3d 1029, 1033 (5th Cir. 2014)). One such exception comes from Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).

         The framework articulated in Terry is used to analyze the legality of a traffic stop. “Under the two-part Terry reasonable suspicion inquiry, [the court asks] whether the officer's action was: (1) ‘justified at its inception'; and (2) ‘reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.'” United States v. Lopez-Moreno, 420 F.3d 420, 430 (5th Cir. 2005) (quoting Terry, 392 U.S. at 19-20). “A temporary, warrantless detention of an individual constitutes a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes and must be justified by reasonable suspicion that criminal activity has taken or is currently taking place; otherwise, evidence obtained through such a detention may be excluded.” United States v. Garza, 727 F.3d 436, 440 (5th Cir. 2013). “Reasonable suspicion requires more than merely an unparticularized hunch, but considerably less than proof of wrongdoing by a preponderance of the evidence.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). As this court has previously explained:

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. The Supreme Court has stated that in making a reasonable suspicion inquiry, a court must look at the totality of the circumstances of each case to see whether the detaining officer has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting legal wrongdoing. We have stated previously that reasonable 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. In evaluating the totality of the circumstances, a court may not consider the relevant factors in isolation from each other. In scrutinizing ...

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