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United States v. Gonzalez-Zea

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

September 10, 2018





         Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportation officers linked a fugitive to a house in Heflin, Alabama, so they put the house under surveillance. The officers saw a man leave the house and get in a car, but they could not tell who the man was, so they stopped him and asked for his Id. The man was Defendant Guillermo Gonzalez-Zea. Gonzalez-Zea identified himself, said he lived alone in the house, and admitted that he was an illegal alien. The officers recognized that Gonzalez-Zea was not the fugitive they were after, but they still asked to search his house. Gonzalez-Zea consented. Once inside the house, the officers spotted several guns in plain view, so they arrested Gonzalez-Zea.

         The United States charged Gonzalez-Zea with being an illegal alien in possession of a firearm and live ammunition. Now before the court is Gonzalez-Zea's Motion to Suppress (Doc. # 28), in which he argues that the officers: (1) lacked reasonable suspicion to stop his car; (2) unreasonably extended the vehicle stop; and (3) did not get valid consent to search his house. After an evidentiary hearing, the Magistrate Judge recommended that the court deny the motion. (Doc. # 56.) Gonzalez-Zea objected to the Magistrate Judge's factual findings and legal conclusions. (Doc. # 57.)

         The court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's conclusion, but it expands the supporting rationale and corrects minor misstatements of the facts. Based upon the applicable law and a thorough review of all of the evidence, the Motion to Suppress is due to be denied.


         When a party objects to a Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation, the district court must review the disputed portions de novo. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The district court “may accept, reject, or modify the recommendation, receive further evidence, or resubmit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(b)(3).

         De novo review requires that the district court independently consider factual issues based on the record. Jeffrey S. ex rel. Ernest S. v. State Bd. of Educ., 896 F.2d 507, 513 (11th Cir. 1990). If the Magistrate Judge made findings based on witness testimony, the district court must review the transcript or listen to a recording of the proceedings. Id. The district court cannot reject a credibility determination without rehearing live testimony. United States v. Powell, 628 F.3d 1254, 1257 (11th Cir. 2010). But the district court may, without holding a new hearing, modify findings in a way that is consistent with the Magistrate Judge's credibility determination. See Proffitt v. Wainwright, 685 F.2d 1227, 1240-41 (11th Cir. 1982).

         III. FACTS

         On September 26, 2017, ICE deportation officers Christopher Purdy, Scott Skillern, and Waylon Hinkle (together, “the officers”) staked out a house located at 30926 Highway 431 in Heflin, Alabama. The officers were pursuing a man named Jose Rodolfo Alfaro-Aguilar, an illegal alien with an administrative warrant out for his arrest. (Doc. # 46-3, at 113.) But as things turned out, the officers ended up arresting Defendant Guillermo Gonzalez-Zea instead.

         The officers did not know for sure where Alfaro-Aguilar lived. (See Doc. # 46-3, at 11-13; Doc. # 47, at 65, 69.) But Officer Purdy got a lead from colleagues in Atlanta that Alfaro-Aguilar might be in Heflin. (Doc. # 47, at 66.) Purdy verified that lead. (Doc. # 47, at 69.) As he explained at the evidentiary hearing, there was a Social Security number in ICE's file on Alfaro-Aguilar. (Doc. # 46-3, at 11; Doc. # 47, at 70.) And according to a database, the same Social Security number was associated with a man named Jose Sanchez - a man with twenty-six possible aliases and fifteen possible addresses. (Doc. # 46-3, at 27-33; Doc. # 47, at 71-72.)[1] The first of those addresses was 30926 Highway 431 in Heflin. The Social Security number used by both Alfaro-Aguilar and Sanchez had been used to open a utility account at that address. (Doc. # 46-3, at 29; Doc. # 47, at 77.)[2]

         Officers Purdy, Skillern, and Hinkle went to Heflin to stake out the house. (Doc. # 47, at 5, 48, 63.) They got to the house between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m. (Doc. # 47, at 7.) Purdy and Skillern parked their cars about 50-75 yards from the end of the driveway (Doc. # 47, at 6-7, 74), and Hinkle was at a store a few minutes away (Doc. # 21, at 5; Doc. # 47, at 48).

         Sometime before dawn, Purdy saw a man leave the house, get in a car, and start driving away. (Doc. # 47, at 10, 74.) The man drove past where Skillern was parked. (Doc. # 47, at 10.) Neither Purdy nor Skillern could tell whether Alfaro-Aguilar was the driver. (Doc. # 47, at 10, 77). Skillern flipped on his car's siren and flashing red and blue lights; the suspect vehicle stopped; and Skillern went to identify the driver. (Doc. # 47, at 10-11, 17.) Purdy stayed put to watch the house (Doc. # 47, at 14, 43, 78), while Hinkle came to help Skillern (Doc. # 47, at 48). The sole purpose of this vehicle stop was to determine whether the driver was the fugitive Alfaro-Aguilar. (See Doc. # 34, at 2; Doc. # 47, at 32; Doc. # 55, at 2.)

         But Alfaro-Aguilar was not the driver; Defendant Gonzalez-Zea was behind the wheel. When asked, Gonzalez-Zea gave Skillern his name, which Skillern recognized “didn't match the person we were looking for.” (Doc. # 47, at 11.) Skillern then asked for identification, and Gonzalez-Zea handed the officer a Mexican ID card. (Doc. # 47, at 11-12, 38-39.) Skillern asked for a driver's license, but Gonzalez-Zea replied that he did not have one. When asked why, he admitted that he was in the United States illegally. (Doc. # 47, at 12, 38-40.)

         At this point, the vehicle stop had taken only a “couple minutes” (Doc. # 47, at 42, 49, 60), but Skillern was already “pretty positive” that Gonzalez-Zea was not Alfaro-Aguilar (Doc. # 47, at 14).[3] So Skillern told Gonzalez-Zea that the officers were looking for a fugitive and asked him ...

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