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United States v. Gonzalez

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

September 12, 2019




         Presently before the Court is Defendant Florence Aileen Gonzalez's "Motion to Suppress Arrest and Statement of Defendant and Request for Evidentiary Hearing" (ECF No. 72) (hereinafter, "Motion to Suppress"). For the reasons that follow, the Court DENIES the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 25, 2019, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and United States Border Patrol (USBP) agents executed a federal search warrant on a residence at 16205 Metalico Street, Fabens, Texas (the Metalico residence) and found several undocumented aliens (UDAs). Almost simultaneously, nearby at 122 N.W. K Street, Fabens, Texas (the K-Street address), a second group of agents arrested Defendant and her boyfriend Juan Balderas Flores ("Balderas"), who were residents of the Metalico residence. After her arrest, Defendant made incriminating statements during a custodial interview conducted at a USBP station in Clint, Texas.

         In February 2019, a federal grand jury sitting in the Western District of Texas, El Paso Division, indicted Defendant for, among others, conspiracy to conceal and harbor illegal aliens in violation of 8 U.S.C. §§ 1324(a)(1)(A)(v)(I) and (a)(1)(A)(iii).[1] In April 2019, Defendant, through her counsel, filed the instant motion to suppress the statements she made during the custodial interview. After the Government filed a response to the motion, [2] the Court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion on June 10, 2019. At the hearing, Eric Lopez (a USBP agent), Lee Rivas (an HSI agent), Juan Vargas (also an HSI agent), and Defendant testified. Following the hearing, the Court ordered the parties to file their proposed findings of fact, citing to the transcript of the hearing, and their proposed conclusions of law.[3] In August 2019, the parties filed a "Joint Proposed Findings of Fact" (ECF No. 113), which contains stipulated facts as well as disputed facts, and their respective "Proposed Conclusions of Law" (ECF Nos. 114, 115).

         II. FINDINGS OF FACT[4]

         The Court makes the following findings of fact based on (1) the parties' Joint Proposed Findings of Fact; (2) testimony at the suppression hearing; (3) exhibits introduced at the hearing, including a videotape of Defendant's custodial interview[5]; and (4) the affidavit in support of the application for the federal search warrant (ECF No. 78-1), which Defendant does not contest for purposes of the instant motion.[6] Having observed Lopez, Vargas, Rivas, and Defendant's demeanor and testimony at the hearing, the Court finds the consistent testimony of the agents more credible than Defendant's testimony.

         A. The Events Leading up to January 25, 2019

         On November 16, 2018, HSI's Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST) received tips on possible alien smuggling activities involving the Metalico residence. Previously, on November 1, 2018, Juan Angel Ramirez ("Angel"), a resident of the Metalico residence, was arrested for transporting two UDAs and admitted to harboring them at that residence. BEST opened an investigation to determine if the residents of the Metalico residence were involved in harboring and transporting UDAs from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas, and then onto the interior of the United States.

         On November 21, 2018, seven UDAs were arrested at a nearby motel in Clint, Texas; they admitted to being harbored at the Metalico residence days earlier. On December 17, 2018, a subject believed to be Angel was observed leaving the residence in a grey 2002 Honda Odyssey at approximately 8:24 p.m.; on the next morning, Angel was arrested near Sweetwater, Texas, while transporting three UDAs in a grey 2002 Honda Odyssey. On January 25, 2019, at approximately 11:05 a.m., BEST agents arrested six UDAs at 214 Fifth Street, Fabens, Texas; two of the UDAs stated that they were harbored at the Metalico residence until 7:00 p.m. on the night before. They further stated that there were six other people left behind at that residence waiting to be picked up, and when a photograph of Angel was shown to them, the UDAs recognized him "as one of the subjects taking care of the people at [the Metalico residence]."

         B. The Events on January 15, 2019

         1. Surveillance, Detention, and Arrest

         On January 25, 2019, between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m., Andres Maldonado (a supervisory HSI agent), Martha Pedregon (a USBP agent), Lopez, and Rivas, together with other agents, initiated surveillance on the Metalico residence. The agents were in plain clothes and sitting in unmarked cars. While they were surveilling, another agent was preparing an application for the search warrant that was later executed at that residence.

         During surveillance, the agents observed, on multiple occasions, a woman and a man- later identified as Defendant and Balderas-leave the Metalico residence in a black Chevy HHR and return to the residence. On the last time they left the residence, the agents followed the HHR. Defendant and Balderas drove, for two to three minutes, to a nearby trailer park and parked the HHR in front of a trailer at the K-Street address, which is approximately 1.3 miles away from the Metalico residence.

         Upon arriving at the K-Street address, Defendant and Balderas exited the HHR and were about to enter the trailer, when Maldonado approached them; it was 8:15-8:30 p.m. Maldonado questioned them and sought Balderas's consent to search the Metalico residence, but Balderas declined. Thereafter, Defendant and Balderas went inside the trailer. Maldonado left to join the agents at the Metalico residence to prepare for the search warrant. Lopez, Rivas, another male agent, and two female agents stayed behind at the K-Street address to "keep eyes" on the trailer.

         At 8:28 p.m., United States Magistrate Judge Leon Schydlower signed the search warrant applied for by Juan A. Ortiz (an HSI agent). The warrant authorized search of the Metalico residence and seizure therefrom of, inter alia, any UDAs in the United States illegally or without proper permission, and indicia of occupancy, residence, or ownership of the residence. Ortiz sought the warrant in connection with HSI's investigation into harboring and transporting aliens by Angel. Ortiz's application for the warrant and affidavit in support thereof did not mention Defendant or Balderas, though the affidavit stated that there was probable cause to believe that Angel was committing conspiracy to harbor aliens in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324, and that, according to the UDAs arrested earlier that day at 214 Fifth Street, Fabens, Texas, Angel was "one of the subjects taking care of the people at the [Metalico residence]."

         Between 8:45 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., Maldonado called Lopez and informed him that the magistrate judge signed the search warrant and that the agents at the Metalico residence would enter and search the residence. Maldonado further told him not to let Defendant and Balderas leave the K-Street trailer.

         A few minutes later, Defendant and Balderas emerged from the trailer and returned to the Chevy HHR. Lopez pulled up his vehicle behind the HHR. Lopez and Rivas approached Balderas, as he was about to enter the HHR, and told him that they were being detained and could not leave because a search warrant was being served at the Metalico residence in search of illegal aliens. Defendant asked if she could sit inside the HHR because it was a cold night, and the agents allowed her to do so. The agents detained Balderas outside the HHR.

         Another few minutes later, Maldonado again called Lopez. He told Lopez that the agents at the Metalico residence executed the search warrant and arrested seven UDAs found inside the residence. The agents also found an envelope addressed to Defendant at the Metalico residence and a framed photograph of Defendant and Balderas together-both items were found in the bedrooms of the residence. Maldonado instructed Lopez to place Defendant and Balderas under arrest. A female officer placed Defendant under arrest and handcuffed her, and Rivas Mirandized her. Immediately after her ...

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