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United States v. Mendoza-Ricardo

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

June 4, 2019




         This matter is before the Court on the Defendant's Motion to Suppress (DE 47). For the reasons stated below, that Motion is DENIED. The parties have also filed a Motion to Continue trial based on the pending suppression motion. Based on this Order and Opinion, that Motion (DE 79) is DENIED AS MOOT.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On February 5, 2019, Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) observed two males load suspected bales of marijuana into a Toyota Highlander (“Highlander”) in Phoenix, Arizona. (DE 47-1 at 1.) The HSI agents began surveilling the Highlander and followed it as it began to travel east across the country. (DE 47-1 at 1.) Over the course of a couple days, the agents trailed the Highlander to Nicholasville, Kentucky. During the course of their surveillance, the agents were able to identify one of the occupants of the Highlander-Fabian Noperi. (DE 54 at 1-2). Agents were familiar with Noperi based on previous drug trafficking investigations. (DE 54 at 2.) The agents observed the Highlander pull into a shopping mall parking lot making several turns in different directions. Thereafter, the Highlander continued to a residence (the “Green Street Residence”) in Nicholasville, where it parked in the driveway. (DE 54 at 2.) Although they did not directly observe anyone exit the Highlander, Agents believed the occupants exited and entered the residence.

         Agents notified the Nicholasville Police Department (“NPD”) of their investigation and requested standby assistance. (DE 47-1 at 2.) The agents then positioned themselves around the Green Street Residence. During their surveillance, the agents observed a white work-truck with “Mendoza Painting and Landscaping” written along the side pull up to the residence. Two Hispanic men exited the vehicle and entered the residence. Agents identified one of the males as Fabian Zavala-Romero, a known illegal alien and suspected drug trafficker. Agents then saw someone access the Highlander. The two men then returned to the work-truck, carrying objects wrapped in plastic bags. (DE 47-1 at 2.) Thereafter, the work-truck departed the residence. (DE 47-1 at 2.)

         Agents contacted standby NPD officers and requested their assistance in performing a traffic stop on the work-truck. (DE 54 at 2.) Agents described the truck and told officers that at least one of the occupants was a known illegal alien named Fabian Zavala-Romero. (DE 47-2 at 5.) NPD performed the traffic stop on the work-truck, detained the occupants, and attempted to confirm their identities. The other occupant identified himself as Jonathan Mendoza-Ricardo and provided officers with a social security card and Georgia license. Mendoza informed officers that he spoke very little English.

         Contemporaneously with the departure of the work-truck, events began unfolding at the Green Street Residence. Agents observed Noperi and another individual, later identified as Jesus Sabino Castro-Quinones, unloading the suspected bales of marijuana from the Highlander. Thereafter, Agents decided to move in and secure the residence. One of the individuals from the residence then spotted the surrounding agents. (DE 54 at 2.) He attempted to jump out of a window in the rear of the residence, but quickly retreated back inside after police identified their presence. The agents on the scene quickly coaxed the individuals out of the residence by issuing verbal commands. (DE 54 at 2.) Immediately thereafter, one of the individuals, later confirmed as Noperi, confessed that firearms and marijuana were inside the residence. (DE 54 at 2.) Additionally, he implicated both occupants of the work-truck, stating that they were headed to “get the money.” (DE 54 at 2.)

         After Mendoza and Zavala were implicated in the drug trafficking, HSI Agent Brian Patterson-who helped secure the Green Street Residence-was directed to head to the traffic stop. When he arrived, both occupants of the work-truck had already been detained. Patterson spoke with Zavala and Mendoza briefly at the scene, and thereafter, they were transported to the NPD for further questioning. Once there, Mendoza waived his Miranda rights and made several incriminating statements. (DE 47-1 at 3.)

         Mendoza has filed a Motion to Suppress, which asserts that the traffic stop was unlawfully prolonged, and his arrest lacked probable cause. (DE 47-1 at 1.) The Court held an evidentiary hearing where HSI Agents, Bryan Elton and Patterson, and NPD Detective, Jeff Fryman, testified to the facts stated above. As further explained below, after considering their testimony, the evidence presented, and the parties briefs, the Court finds that the traffic stop was not unlawfully prolonged, and Mendoza's arrest was based on probable cause. Accordingly, Mendoza's Motion to Suppress (DE 47) is denied.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. The traffic stop involving Mendoza was not unconstitutionally prolonged.

         Pursuant to the Fourth Amendment, absent reasonable suspicion, police cannot extend an otherwise completed traffic stop. Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609, 1612 (2015) (“A police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution's shield against unreasonable searches and seizures.”) A seizure becomes unlawful when it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably necessary to complete the intended “mission” of the traffic stop. Id. at 1615. This “mission” includes inquiries such as checking licenses, determining whether there are outstanding warrants for any of the occupants, inspecting automobile registration, and checking proof of insurance. Id.

         There were multiple purposes for the traffic stop in this case. First, was to detain and question the HSI-identified illegal alien traveling within the borders of the United States. (See DE 47-2). Second, to determine the identity of the driver, later identified as Mendoza, who was transporting a known illegal alien within the borders of the United States. Third, to question the occupants of the work-truck about their suspected drug-trafficking activities.

         As evidenced by the bodycam videos, the entire duration of the traffic stop was approximately twenty-four minutes. (DE 72.) Within the first two minutes of the traffic stop, Zavala was removed from the passenger's side of the work-truck and detained. The driver, Mendoza, provided police with his vehicle information, a social security card, and a Georgia license. At this time, police asked Mendoza to exit the vehicle. He was placed in handcuffs and his outer clothing was briefly patted down. Police asked Mendoza if he spoke any ...

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