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United States v. Vargas

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

February 16, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
OSWALDO VARGAS, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama D.C. Docket No. 7:15-cr-00188-MHH-JHE-2

          Before ED CARNES, Chief Judge, TJOFLAT, and WILLIAM PRYOR, Circuit Judges.

          PER CURIAM:

          Alabama law enforcement officers discovered cocaine and methamphetamine in a vehicle that Oswaldo Vargas was riding in. He was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and possession with intent to distribute those drugs. The district court denied Vargas' motion to suppress, finding that the traffic stop that led to the discovery of the drugs did not violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable seizures. Vargas later pleaded guilty to both charges, and he has appealed the denial of his motion to suppress.

         I.

         Corporal Shone Minor of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency pulled a Ford Freestyle SUV with a Texas license plate to the side of Interstate 20/59 for "following too close" (tailgating) and for failing to maintain its lane. The driver, Antonio Castro, immediately admitted that he did not have a driver's license, so Minor asked Castro to come back to Minor's patrol car, where Minor asked him a series of routine questions. When Minor asked Castro where he was going, Castro said Alabama, then changed his answer to Georgia, before finally clarifying that he was going to Atlanta specifically. He also stated that he was driving from El Paso, although he later revealed that he lived in New Mexico. Two minutes and fifty- seven seconds after he made the traffic stop, Minor informed Castro that he was issuing him a warning for a "following too close" violation.[1]

         For an additional three minutes Minor continued asking Castro questions in order to fill out the written warning. Then Minor approached the vehicle's passenger, Vargas, to determine whether he could legally operate the vehicle once the stop was completed. Vargas admitted that he did not have a driver's license either. After that, Minor spent about twelve minutes working with Castro and Vargas in an attempt to determine how to safely and legally get the car moved. For example, he asked them if they knew anyone who could come drive the vehicle for them.

         Eighteen minutes and thirty-four seconds into the traffic stop - about fifteen minutes after Minor first informed Castro that he was issuing a warning - Minor asked Castro for consent to search the vehicle. Castro consented. The search, conducted by Minor and a partner, revealed cocaine and methamphetamine hidden in the vehicle.

         A grand jury charged Vargas with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and methamphetamine and substantive possession with intent to distribute cocaine and methamphetamine, both violations of 21 U.S.C. § 841. Before trial, Vargas moved to suppress the government's evidence, contending that Minor had violated the Fourth Amendment by continuing the stop after he informed Castro that he was issuing him a warning.

         Minor was the sole witness at the suppression hearing. He testified that under state law he could not allow Castro or Vargas to drive the vehicle away from the traffic stop since neither one had a driver's license. He explained that he eventually asked for consent to search the vehicle because he found numerous aspects of Castro and Vargas' trip to be suspicious and he suspected they may have been involved in illegal activity.

         The district court denied Vargas' motion to suppress. He pleaded guilty, but reserved the right to appeal the court's ruling on his suppression motion. He was sentenced to 123 months imprisonment.

         II.

         Vargas contends that the length of the traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment. "We review a district court's denial of a defendant's motion to suppress under a mixed standard of review, examining the district court's findings of fact for clear error and the district court's application of law to those facts de novo." United States v. King, 509 F.3d 1338, 1341 (11th Cir. 2007).

         As a general matter, a traffic stop "exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution's shield against unreasonable seizures." Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S.__, 135 S.Ct. 1609, 1612 (2015). The Supreme Court explained in Rodriguez that, in addition to issuing a ticket or warning, a police officer's "mission includes ordinary inquiries incident to [the traffic] stop." Id. at 1615 (quotation marks omitted). Those inquiries "involve checking the driver's license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile's registration and proof of insurance." Id. Because they "serve the same objective as enforcement of the traffic code" - namely, ...


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