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United States v. Rivas

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

March 10, 2017




         On February 14, 2017, the Court held a hearing on Defendant's Amended Motion to Suppress. (Doc. 17).[1] The Defendant, Felix Rivas, and his attorney, Daniel McCleave, Esq., were both present. Assistant United States Attorney George May was present on behalf of the United States. The Court has considered the parties' additional briefing (Docs. 26-27) and the matter is now ripe for adjudication. For the reasons discussed herein, the motion to suppress is DENIED.

         I. Background

         On October 3, 2016, Officer Austin Sullivan of the Saraland, Alabama Police Department (“Sullivan”) was patrolling southbound Interstate 65, around mile marker 15. At the suppression hearing, Sullivan testified he observed Rivas' truck touch or slightly cross the “fog line” eight times. Though the view is partially obstructed, a dashboard camera video of the traffic stop does not contradict Sullivan's testimony.

         After observing what Sullivan determined to be eight traffic infractions, Sullivan initiated a traffic stop. Sullivan approached the vehicle and requested the Rivas' license and registration and inquired as to whether Rivas was sleepy. Sullivan also observed that there were only two keys on the key ring in the ignition and that Rivas had a small bag of luggage in the front seat of the truck. Sullivan also noticed that Rivas' hands were shaking. According to Sullivan, the shaking was severe enough that Rivas had trouble handing Sullivan his identification.

         Shortly after his initial contact with Rivas, Sullivan determined that Rivas was not fluent in English. Sullivan asked Rivas to sit in the passenger seat of his patrol car so he and Rivas could utilize a translation program Sullivan had on his computer. Sullivan and Rivas then both sat in the patrol car and began to converse using the translation program. Sullivan also observed that Rivas seemed nervous, was avoiding eye contact, was breathing unusually, and that his carotid artery was visibly pulsating.

         While continuing to try to communicate with Rivas via the translation program, Sullivan learned via the results of electronic records checks that Rivas had entered the United States from Mexico a few days prior to the traffic stop. Rivas also told Sullivan that he was on his way from Houston to Atlanta to stay with a person named Danielle Gonzalez. Sullivan inquired as to the nature of his trip, who Danielle Gonzalez was, and where he lived. Through the records checks, Sullivan also learned that Rivas had some connection to human trafficking.[2]

         Before Sullivan issued Rivas a warning citation for the lane infractions, Saraland Police Lieutenant Gregory Cully arrived with drug detecting K-9, Chico. Lieutenant Cully and Chico completed a search around the truck. Chico alerted that drugs were present in the vehicle. Later, 136.4 grams of methamphetamine were found hidden in one of the trucks' two gas tanks. As a result, Rivas was indicted on the charges now pending in this Court.

         II. Analysis

         There are two issues before the Court: 1) whether the initial traffic stop violated the Defendant's rights under the Fourth Amendment; and 2) whether the duration of the stop was unreasonable in light of Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609 (2015). As the answer to both questions is no, Defendant's motion to suppress is DENIED on both grounds.

         A. Legality of the Traffic Stop

         As the Eleventh Circuit has explained:

“The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable search and seizure.” Chanthasouxat, 342 F.3d at 1275. A traffic stop, however, is constitutional if it is either based upon probable cause to believe a traffic violation has occurred or justified by reasonable suspicion in accordance with Terry,392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889. Chanthasouxat, 342 F.3d at 1275. When determining whether an officer had probable cause to believe that a traffic violation occurred, the “officer's motive in making the traffic stop does not invalidate what is otherwise objectively justifiable behavior under the Fourth Amendment.” United States v. Simmons, 172 F.3d 775, 778 (11th Cir.1999) (quotation omitted). The Constitution also permits police officers to conduct a brief investigatory stop, Terry v. Ohio,392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968), “if they have a reasonable, articulable suspicion based on objective facts that” an individual is engaged in criminal activity. United States v. Powell,222 F.3d 913, 917 (11th Cir.2000). A determination of reasonable suspicion is based on the totality of the circumstances, and “[i]t does not require officers to catch the suspect in a crime. Instead, [a] reasonable suspicion of criminal activity may be formed by observing exclusively legal activity.” United States v. Acosta,363 F.3d 1141, 1145 (11th Cir. ...

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