United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Corpus Christi Division
ORDER DENYING MOTION TO SUPPRESS
GONZALES RAMOS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Ulises Francisco Cortinas (Cortinas) is charged by indictment
with one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to
distribute controlled substances and two counts of money
laundering. D.E. 1. Before the Court are Defendant's
motion to suppress (D.E. 119) and the Government's
response (D.E. 134). The Court held an evidentiary hearing on
the motion on July 24, 2019. For the reasons set forth, the
motion to suppress (D.E. 119) is DENIED.
December 2017, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
obtained a court ordered wiretap to intercept phone
conversations of co-defendant Rodolfo Hernandez Ramos (Ramos)
for information on illegal narcotic sales. Through a series
of Ramos' phone calls, the DEA believed that Ramos was
discussing the sale of cocaine with an unidentified person
located in Mexico. This unidentified person told Ramos to
meet with Defendant Cortinas to drop off money for an alleged
sale of cocaine. On December 19, 2017, Ramos and Cortinas
spoke on the phone to arrange a meeting that evening at the
parking lot of an HEB grocery store in Brownsville, Texas.
Ramos told Cortinas he would be in a red truck.
approximately 7 p.m. on December 19, 2017, DEA Task Force
Officer Joe Villarreal (Officer Villarreal) drove to the HEB
parking lot to surveil the area for the anticipated drug
transaction. Soon after, a maroon Ford 150 and a Pontiac G6
entered the lot and parked parallel to each other within
forty yards from Officer Villarreal's position in his
unmarked vehicle. Officer Villarreal witnessed a man exit the
Ford and walk toward the Pontiac, carrying a brown paper bag.
The man handed the bag to an occupant in the Pontiac.
According to Officer Villarreal, he heard an unidentified DEA
agent report on the police radio that the Pontiac might not
have a front license plate, in violation of Texas law.
the man returned to the Ford, both vehicles exited the
parking lot and turned onto the street in opposite
directions. Officer Villarreal followed the westbound Pontiac
and attempted to drive ahead of the vehicle to see whether it
had a front license plate. Due to heavy traffic, he could not
see the lower front area of the Pontiac. Officer Villarreal
then contacted Brownsville Police Officer Joseph Mazur
(Officer Mazur), who was assisting with the investigation, to
perform a traffic stop on the Pontiac. According to Officer
Mazur, Officer Villarreal told him that the vehicle did not
have a front license plate. Based on this information,
Officer Mazur activated his lights and pulled the Pontiac
Officer Mazur approached the vehicle, the driver, Cortinas,
held an ID card outside of his window. Officer Mazur took the
ID card and explained that he pulled him over because the
vehicle was missing a front license plate. Cortinas looked
confused and Officer Mazur immediately saw that the Pontiac
did have a front license plate. With the ID card still in his
hand, Officer Mazur told Cortinas he was mistaken, but needed
to know that he had a driver's license before he could
let him go. Cortinas stated that he was working on
"fixing" his driver's license.
Mazur proceeded to run Cortinas' information to ensure
that he had a driver's license. Upon learning that
Cortinas had a suspended driver's license and no
liability insurance, Officer Mazur arrested Cortinas. By
then, Officer Hugo Martinez arrived in response to Officer
Mazur's request for assistance. After receiving consent
from the Pontiac passenger, Cortinas' wife, to search the
vehicle, Officer Martinez found approximately $36, 980 inside
of a paper bag on the floorboard of the vehicle.
moves to suppress this evidence and statements he made to the
officers as fruit of the poisonous tree, arguing that Officer
Mazur's baseless traffic stop was an unreasonable seizure
under the Fourth Amendment.
Fourth Amendment guarantees individuals the right to "be
secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against
unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const, amend.
IV. An automobile stop by a police officer, even if only for
a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a
Fourth Amendment seizure of persons. Whren v. United
States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10 (1996). Under Terry v.
Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19-20 (1968), the reasonableness of
the automobile stop is determined by: 1) whether the
officer's action was justified at its inception, and 2)
whether the search or seizure was reasonably related in scope
to the circumstances that justified the stop in the first
place. Generally, any evidence obtained as a result of a
defendant's illegal seizure is excluded at trial.
United States v. Lopez-Valdez, 178 F.3d 282, 289
(5th Cir. 1999).
that Officer Villarreal provided Officer Mazur with false
information of a missing front license plate, Cortinas
challenges the stop on the grounds that (1) there was no
lawful basis for Officer Mazur to initiate the stop, and (2)
the investigative detention exceeded the permissible limits
of the traffic stop.
The traffic stop was justified at its inception.
traffic stop to be constitutional 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." United States v. Lopez-Moreno, 420
F.3d 420, 430 (5th Cir. 2005). Under the good faith
exception, evidence obtained as a result of an officer's
reliance on incorrect information from another officer is
admissible as long as the officer "maintain[ed] a good
faith and objectively reasonable belief that he ha[d] an
adequate foundation to make a stop." United States
v. De Leon-Reyna,930 F.2d 396, 399-401 (5th Cir. 1991)
(en banc). In assessing whether an officer's judgment is
objectively reasonable, courts must consider the totality of
the circumstances. Id. at 399 (citing United
States v. Cortez,101 S.Ct. 690, 695 (1981)). The
inquiry does not need to rise to the level of probable cause.
United States v. Garcia,942 F.2d 873, ...