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United States v. Perez

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, El Paso Division

June 17, 2019




         Presently before the Court is Defendant Gabriela Alicia Perez' "Motion to Suppress Evidence" (ECF No. 38) filed on May 4, 2019. On May 29, 2019, the Court held an evidentiary hearing on the Motion where the parties presented their evidence and arguments. See ECF No. 45. For the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART Defendant's Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On March 27, 2019, Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Jesus Rios ("Officer Rios") conducted a traffic stop on Defendant's 2008 Buick Enclave SUV on Interstate 10 ("I-10"). Mot. at 1; Resp. at 1, ECF No. 41. Officer Rios' reason for conducting the traffic stop was his observation that the middle passenger in the third row was not wearing a seatbelt. Resp. at 1. After approaching the vehicle; informing Defendant, the driver, of the reason for the traffic stop; and asking her for her driver's license and vehicle proof of financial responsibility; Officer Rios observed a female in the front-right passenger seat, two children in the second-row seat, and three male passengers not wearing seatbelts in the third-row seat. Id. at 2. Officer Rios asked the three men for identification, but they did not respond. Id. Officer Rios asked the men again in Spanish for their identification, and two responded that they did not have any; the third man still offered no response. Id. After speaking to the men in the third row and the women in the front, Officer Rios requested assistance from another officer and eventually had all five adults exit the vehicle.[1] Id.

         After Defendant and the four adult passengers departed the vehicle, Officer Rios had the three men in the back, who were suspected of being illegal aliens, remove their shoes and had Defendant walk to his vehicle. Govt. Ex. 3, ECF No. 47. After requesting that another officer on the scene watch the three men and the front-seat passenger, Officer Rios approached Defendant and questioned her outside his vehicle. Id. After a few minutes of questioning, Officer Rios opened the door to the front seat of his vehicle and had Defendant sit inside while he continued with his questioning. Id. Based on Defendant's statements and the statements from the three men who were sitting in the third row, Officer Rios contacted United States Border Patrol ("Border Patrol") and turned Defendant and her adult passengers over to them about an hour after stopping Defendant. Id.; Resp. at 3. After being turned over to Border Patrol, two of the three men allegedly admitted that they did not have proper legal documentation that would allow them to enter, travel through, or remain in the United States; consequently, all persons present in Defendant's vehicle at the time of the stop were transported to Border Patrol's Sierra Blanca station for processing. Resp. at 3-4. Subsequently, on April 24, 2019, Defendant was indicted for Conspiracy to Transport Aliens, in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324. Id. at 4.

         II. STANDARD

         "It is well established that the burdens of production and persuasion generally rest upon the movant in a suppression hearing." United States v. de la Fuente, 548 F.2d 528, 533 (5th Cir. 1977). However, in certain situations, the burden of persuasion shifts to the government. Id. For example, "[w]hen the government searches or seizes a defendant without a warrant, the government bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the search or seizure was constitutional." United States v. Guerrero-Barajas, 240 F.3d 428, 432 (5th Cir. 2001). Further, the government also bears the burden of proving that a confession obtained during custodial interrogation is admissible. Taylor v. Alabama, 457 U.S. 687, 690 (1982); de la Fuente, 548 F.2d at 533. However, in order to shift the burden to the government, the defendant must first discharge his initial burden of producing some evidence, based on specific factual allegations, sufficient to make a prima facie showing of illegality. United States v. Lyons, 31 Fed.Appx. 833 (5th Cir. 2002).


         By her Motion, Defendant seeks to exclude all physical and testimonial evidence derived and flowing from her allegedly illegal seizure and custodial interrogation. Mot. at 3. Defendant's bases for her Motion are the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Bond v. United States, 529 U.S. 334, 336 (2000) ("The Fourth Amendment provides that '[t]he right of the people to be free in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated'" (quoting U.S. Const, amend. IV)); the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, U.S. Const, amend. XIV ("No State shall make or enforce any law which shall... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."); and the exclusionary rule, Segura v. United States, 468 U.S. 796, 804 (1984) ("The suppression or exclusionary rule is a judicially prescribed remedial measure [that]. .. reaches not only primary evidence obtained as a direct result of an illegal search or seizure, but also evidence later discovered and found to be derivative of an illegality or 'fruit of the poisonous tree.'" (internal citations omitted)). This case presents the Court with two determinative questions:

1) Did Officer Rios have reasonable suspicion of a seatbelt violation when he conducted the traffic stop?
2) Did Officer Rios administer a custodial interrogation prior to mirandizing Defendant? • The Court will address each of these questions in turn.

         A. Reasonable Suspicion

         Defendant argues that Officer Rios did not have reasonable suspicion to execute a traffic stop for a seatbelt violation. Mot. at 1-3. The government counters that Officer Rios' stop was legal because he had reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that a passenger in Defendant's vehicle was committing a seatbelt violation. Resp. at 6. The Court holds that Officer Rios had reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop for a violation of Texas Transportation Code § 545.413.

         The legality of a traffic stop is analyzed under the Terry v. Ohio framework. United States v. Lopez-Moreno,420 F.3d 420, 430 (5th Cir. 2005) ("Under the two-part Terry reasonable suspicion inquiry, we ask 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.'" (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19-20 (1968))). "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." Id. Reasonable suspicion is a less demanding standard than probable cause and requires a showing considerably less than preponderance of the evidence, but the Fourth Amendment does require at least a minimal level of objective justification for making the stop. United States v. Jordan, 232 F.3d 447, 448 (5th Cir. 2000). In order to find that sufficient reasonable suspicion existed to justify a stop, "a court must examine the 'totality of the circumstances' in the situation at hand, in light of the individual officers' own training and experience, ...

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