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United States v. Alanis-Cuellar

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Laredo Division

August 6, 2019




         Defendant Matilde Alanis-Cuellar has been indicted for one count of conspiracy to transport illegal aliens into the United States in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(ii) and (v)(I) and three counts of attempted transport of illegal aliens into the United States in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(ii) and (v)(II). (Dkt. No. 24). Now pending before the Court is Defendant's Opposed Motion to Suppress Evidence (“Motion to Suppress”) (Dkt. No. 31). Defendant's motion presents three primary issues: (1) whether Defendant's rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966) and its progeny were “scrupulously honored”; (2) whether Defendant's confession was knowing and voluntary; and (3) whether Defendant's statements were obtained in violation of the presentment rule. (See Dkt. No. 31 at 3).

         Defendant's Motion to Suppress has been referred to this Court by the District Judge for findings of fact and recommendations of law. (Dkt. No. 33). After referral from the District Judge, the Court held an evidentiary hearing on Defendant's Motion to Suppress at which the Government presented the testimony of Border Patrol Agents James Bowser, Victor Rivera-Cortes, and Juan Lopez. After the Government presented its case, the Court received testimony from Defendant. At the hearing's conclusion, the Court ordered additional briefing from both parties. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(3), the Court submits the following Report and Recommendation; and based on the parties' briefs, the evidence presented at the hearing, and the reasons stated below, the Court recommends that Defendant's Motion to Suppress (Dkt. No. 31) be DENIED.

         I. Findings of Fact

         A. The Arrest

         On March 27, 2019, sometime after 8:00 p.m., a team of United States Border Patrol agents (“BPAs”) posted in static position by the Rio Grande River encountered a group of approximately twenty individuals suspected of having entered the United States illegally near Laredo, Texas. (Dkt. No. 31 at 2; Dkt. No. 43 at 20).[1] There were approximately six Border Patrol personnel on the scene. (Dkt. No. 43 at 13, 25). Of the twenty individuals the BPAs spotted in the brush, the agents were able to apprehend sixteen. (Dkt. No. 31 at 2; Dkt. No. 43 at 22). By about 8:45 p.m., the BPAs gathered all the detainees in a single location and began conducting field immigration inspections, which involved a pat down and search of each individual for officer safety, and recording each individual's name, date of birth, and country of origin onto a field inspection form. (See Dkt. No. 43 at 22, 24). During the inspections, several individuals admitted that they had just crossed the Rio Grande River and had entered the United States illegally. (Dkt. No. 31 at 2). BPAs determined that all sixteen individuals entered the United States illegally. (Dkt. No. 43 at 27). The six BPAs present simultaneously performed field immigration inspections on the detainees, each inspection lasting three to five minutes. (Id. at 24-25). Within thirty minutes, all sixteen field immigration inspections had been completed. (Id. at 30-31).

         After completing the inspections, a Border Patrol van arrived to transport the detainees to the Laredo South Border Patrol Station, but the lone van lacked the capacity to transport the entire group of sixteen. (Id. at 25-26). While standard Border Patrol protocol dictated that the BPAs wait for another transportation van to arrive-potentially resulting in another thirty- to ninety-minute delay-the agents in the field used several of their unit vehicles to transport the remaining detainees to the Laredo South station. (Id. at 26). Securing the BPAs' vehicles, parked a mile away, added an additional ten to fifteen minutes to the transportation process. (Id. at 31-32). The BPAs arrived with the group of sixteen aliens at the Laredo South station sometime between 10:00 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.[2]

         B. The Border Patrol Station

         When the group arrived at the Laredo South station, a shift change among Border Patrol agents was taking place. (Dkt. No. 43 at 44). At the same time, other detainees were being processed at the station. (Id. at 46). As part of the screening process, the aliens were questioned again about their biographical information. (Id. at 42). During this time, the aliens waited on a bench inside the station, in the presence of other BPAs. (Id. at 89-90). At some point, Defendant was asked by Border Patrol whether he wanted anything to eat, but he only requested to use the bathroom. (Id. at 148).

         Next, the aliens underwent initial processing. Three or four BPAs were assigned to the task, but two others, BPAs Juan Lopez and Victor Rivera-Cortes, members of separate units, [3]assisted with intake to expedite the process. (See Dkt. No. 35 at 2; Dkt. No. 43 at 44-45). One by one, the aliens were patted down and searched. (Dkt. No. 43 at 43). If an alien possessed money, the money was counted in front of him, and he would sign a Form I-213 confirming the amount of money in his possession. (Id. at 73). If the individual had any other property on his person, such as a cell phone or religious items, that property would be placed in a bag and the tracking number would also be recorded on the Form I-213. (Id. at 43, 73). Photographs were taken of each of the aliens, and everyone over fourteen years old had his fingerprints scanned. (Id. at 47, 100). The information obtained was entered into the Border Patrol's electronic database and used to retrieve criminal history and any records of prior apprehensions by Border Patrol. (Id. at 47).

         The group of sixteen aliens was one of the largest groups the Laredo South station had ever received. (Dkt. No. 43 at 106). A typical group of detainees consists of six to eight aliens. (Id. at 46). Given the size of the group, BPAs Rivera-Cortes and Lopez suspected that one of the sixteen individuals was a brush guide and suspected that Defendant, specifically, was the brush guide for the group.[4] (Id. at 48). He was the only person in the group from Nuevo Laredo, [5] and he was dressed differently than the other aliens. (Id. at 48-49, 91). As is standard Border Patrol operating procedure, Defendant was placed in an isolated cell. (Id. at 50, 105).[6]

         Defendant was later removed from his cell and escorted to BPA Rivera-Cortes's desk. (See Id. at 65). BPA Rivera-Cortes attempted to confirm Defendant's biographical information because Defendant's profile was not showing up in the Clave Única de Registro de Población (commonly referred to as the “CURP”), an electronic database maintained by the Mexican government in which each Mexican national is registered. (See Id. at 61). BPA Rivera-Cortes made several attempts in Defendant's presence to pull up Defendant's information based on the biographical information he provided, but to no avail. (See Id. at 65-66). BPA Rivera-Cortes told Defendant that he suspected he was lying about his age. (Id. at 66-67). BPA Rivera-Cortes eventually showed Defendant his computer screen indicating that the information was not showing up in the system, after which Defendant gave his correct date of birth. (Id. at 66).[7] Once the correct date of birth was entered, Defendant's profile appeared in the CURP. (Id. at 66). Defendant's delay in providing the correct date of birth added approximately twenty minutes to his intake processing. (Id. at 64). Defendant was not Mirandized at this point, nor did he invoke any Miranda rights. (Id. at 56-57, 114). He was not questioned further and was returned to his cell. (Id. at 99-100). It took between one and two hours to complete the intake process for the entire group. (Id. at 44).

         Sometime between 11:00 p.m. and midnight, after the completion of the intake process and a review of the record check information, the BPAs began to conduct individual interviews. (Id. at 44, 106-07). Aside from the Defendant, twelve of the sixteen aliens were interviewed.[8] (Id. at 107). BPAs Rivera-Cortes and Lopez were the only agents conducting interviews of the group. (Id. at 107). While under normal circumstances both agents would be present during each one of the interviews, BPAs Rivera-Cortes and Lopez decided to split the duties to expedite the process. (See Id. at 107-08). Thus, Agent Lopez conducted the interviews mostly on his own. (Id. at 51). The time each interview took to complete varied, but each interview lasted on average between thirty and forty-five minutes.[9] (Id. at 54). Meanwhile, Agent Rivera-Cortes prepared six-pack photo lineups (id. at 51), reviewed records checks (id. at 51), sat-in on portions of interviews (see Id. at 2), and drafted narrative summaries of the completed interviews onto a Form D-166. (Id. at 51, 79). BPA Rivera-Cortes testified that he did not take a break during his shift. (Id. at 54). Agent Lopez, on the other hand, took a twenty-minute lunch break. (Id. at 111).

         When an individual is suspected of being a guide for undocumented aliens, the BPAs interview all the other witnesses first to establish the facts of the case, prior to speaking to the suspect. (See Dkt. No. 35 at 2; Dkt. No. 43 at 109). Defendant was therefore interviewed last. (Id.).

         C. The Subject Interview

         Defendant's interview took place at 4:00 a.m. on March 28, 2019. (Gov't Ex. 2). BPAs Lopez and Rivera-Cortes were both present for Defendant's interview. (Dkt. No. 43 at 81). BPA Lopez began by confirming with Defendant that his preferred language was Spanish. (Id. at 112). BPA Lopez then read the Miranda rights listed on Form I-214 to Defendant in Spanish. (Dkt. No. 43 at 85, 111-12; Gov't Ex. 2). The notice of rights on the Form I-214 are presented in Spanish. (Gov't Ex. 2). Upon his request, Defendant was provided with the Form I-214, which he read over himself. (See Dkt. No. 43 at 83-84). BPA Lopez then asked Defendant whether he understood his rights. (Id. at 127). Defendant said that he did and that he was willing to answer questions. (Id. at 112-13, 127-28). BPA Lopez asked Defendant whether he wished to have a lawyer present and remain silent or would he answer some questions; and Defendant agreed to answer Agent Lopez's questions. (See Id. at 84-85, 112-13). Defendant signed the Form I-214 indicating that he read the notice of rights, that he was willing to answer questions, and that he did not wish to have an attorney present. (Id. at 112; Gov't Ex. 2). At the time Defendant waived his Miranda rights, he showed no signs of confusion. (Dkt. No. 43 at 134). During the hearing, Defendant confirmed that he was able to read and write in Spanish (id. at 132); that he completed school up to the age of sixteen, receiving passing grades in all of his courses (id. at 136); that he had read over the Form I-214 (id. at 146); and that he had signed the form. (Id. at 140; Gov't Ex. 2).

         The interview lasted for approximately forty-five minutes. (Dkt. No. 43 at 114). Agents asked about Defendant's background and his reason for traveling to the United States. (Id. at 115). Defendant initially claimed that he had entered the United States with a relative and denied being the brush guide of the group. (Id. at 67, 115). When Defendant was confronted with the information gathered from the material witnesses and told that he was suspected of engaging in human trafficking, he verbally confessed that he was the group's brush guide. (Id. at 67, 114). The confession occurred twenty- to twenty-five minutes into the interview. (Id. at 115). At no point did Defendant invoke his right to remain silent. (Id. at 61, 108). At no point did Defendant request an attorney. (Id. at 61, 108). BPA Lopez and BPA Rivera-Cortes denied ever suggesting to Defendant that telling the truth would result in leniency.[10] (Id. at 89, 128). At some point after Defendant confessed, Defendant asked the BPA agents how much jail time he was facing. (Id. at 114-15). The BPA agents told him he was facing three to five years in jail, [11] but that the final determination was up to a judge. (Id. at 68, 114-15).

         BPA Lopez then prepared a Form I-215B sworn statement. (Id. at 86-87). The form was written in English and organized in a question-and-answer format, memorializing the specific questions that BPA Lopez had asked Defendant and Defendant's corresponding responses. (Id. at 86-87). BPA Lopez went over the form with Defendant, page by page, explaining in Spanish what he had written down. (Id. at 131). Defendant initialed each page of the form to indicate that he adopted its contents. (See Id. at 131). The process took about fifteen minutes. (Id. at 132-33).[12]The proposed complaint was filed later that day. (Dkt. No. 1). On March 29, 2019, Defendant made his initial appearance before Magistrate Judge Sam Sheldon. (See Minute Entry dated March 29, 2019).

         II. Analysis

         Defendant's Motion to Suppress raises three principal issues: (1) whether Defendant's Miranda rights were “scrupulously honored”, (2) whether Defendant's confession was knowing and voluntary; and (3) whether Defendant's statements were obtained in violation of the presentment rule. The Government does not dispute that Defendant was in custody at the time he was interrogated, nor that Defendant was entitled to Miranda warnings prior to his interrogation. (See Dkt. No. 31 at 3). The issues raised by the Motion to Suppress are addressed in turn.

         A. Whether Defendant's Miranda Rights were Violated

         1. Miranda Rights Overview

         The Fifth Amendment provides that “[n]o person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” U.S. Const. amend. V; Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1, 8 (1964). This provision-the Self-Incrimination Clause-protects the right of the accused to not bear witness against himself at trial. “The privilege against self-incrimination guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment is a fundamental trial right of criminal defendants.” Chavez v. Martinez, 538 U.S. 760, 767 (2003) (quoting United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, 494 U.S. 259, 264 (1990)). To protect against violations of the Self-Incrimination Clause, the Supreme Court announced a prophylactic rule in Miranda v. Arizona, whereby the failure to give suspects specific warnings will create a generally irrebuttable presumption of coercion. 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

         Miranda decrees that any person subjected to custodial interrogation must invariably be given four constitutionally mandated warnings, namely:

[The person] must be warned prior to any questioning that he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if he so desires.

Miranda, 384 U.S. at 479. All four warnings and a waiver thereof are “prerequisites to the admissibility of any statement made by a defendant.” Duckworth v. Eagan, 492 U.S. 195, 202 (1989) (citing Miranda, 384 U.S. at 476). If an officer were to elicit statements from a suspect in violation ...

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