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United States v. Cordova

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

February 21, 2017



         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Joseph Cordova's Motion to Suppress evidence discovered in his vehicle pursuant to what Defendant contends was an illegal search and seizure. [Doc. 12] An evidentiary hearing was held on January 31, 2017. After reviewing the motions, briefs, evidence, and relevant law, the Court concludes that there was no violation of Defendant's Fourth Amendment rights warranting suppression of the evidence, and therefore, the motion shall be denied.


         The facts giving rise to Defendant's motion took place on June 5, 2016 in Taos County, New Mexico. Around 2:00 p.m., Taos Central Dispatch sent out a radio advisory about a silver Mitsubishi Lancer that reportedly had been swerving in and out of the roadway, indicating that the driver was intoxicated. [Doc 12, p. 1-2; Doc. 19');">19, p. 2] The vehicle had been last seen at a Shell gas station in Taos, NM. [Id.]

         New Mexico State Police Officer Bennett responded to the call and headed toward the Shell station. Officer Bennett testified that he saw the silver Mitsubishi parked at the gas station, but he did not immediately approach it, and instead parked across the street to observe the vehicle. [1-31-17 Tr. 8:12-25] He described seeing the driver of the Mitsubishi interact with the driver of a red and grey Ford Bronco for a short time before the Ford Bronco left the Shell station. [1-31-17 Tr. 10:13-11:3] The Mitsubishi remained in the Shell parking lot. Officer Bennett believed it was possible that the driver of the Mitsubishi had gotten in the Ford Bronco to escape being arrested for DUI, so he instructed Officer Snyder to follow the Bronco to investigate whether the passenger in the Bronco was intoxicated. [1-31-17 Tr. 11:4-8; 14:4-18] Officer Bennett then went to the Shell station to see if he could locate the driver of the Mitsubishi Lancer, and eventually made contact with the driver, Elijah Martinez, who was not intoxicated. [1-31-17 Tr. 14:24-15:5; 19');">19:15-25] Officer Bennett discovered that Elijah Martinez's driver's license was expired, but because he had not consumed any alcohol, Officer Bennett allowed him to drive away. [Doc. 21-3 p.2]

         Meanwhile Officer Snyder located the Bronco heading southbound away from the Shell station and followed it, noting that there were two occupants in the vehicle. [1-31-17 Tr. 11:5-112:4] Officer Oviedo, who had heard Officer Bennett call for assistance over the radio, also headed in the direction of the Bronco and joined Officer Snyder across the street from an O'Reilly's Auto Parts store about a half mile away from the Shell station. [1-31-17 Tr. 36:2-6; 36:24-37:4112:2-12] Officer Snyder told Officer Oviedo he had seen the two men in the Bronco enter the auto parts store, and Officer Oviedo suggested they approach the men to find out whether the passenger was intoxicated. [1-31-17 Tr. 37:6-11] As the officers entered the store, Officer Oviedo asked the people inside who owned the Ford Bronco, and Defendant responded that it was his. [1-31-17 Tr. 37:14-19');">19] Officer Oviedo asked Defendant who was in the vehicle with him, and Defendant initially denied having a passenger. [1-31-17 Tr. 41:6-8] Officer Oviedo explained that he was looking for an intoxicated driver who was believed to have abandoned his car at the gas station and asked Defendant for his identification. [Ex. 5 1:35-2:10] Officer Oviedo followed Defendant out of the store so he could retrieve his driver's license from his vehicle. [1-31-17 Tr. 41:17-19');">19]

         Officer Snyder, who had recognized Dennis Martinez inside the store, asked Defendant if Dennis was his passenger, and Defendant confirmed that he was. [Ex. 5 2:49-3:04] As Officer Snyder and Defendant talked, Officer Oviedo provided Defendant's driver's license information to the dispatch operator, who verified that Defendant had no outstanding warrants. [Ex. 5 3:05-26; 3:41-51] Having determined that Defendant's license was valid, Officer Oviedo returned his documentation and the officers shifted their focus to the task of determining whether the passenger, Dennis Martinez, was intoxicated. [1-31-17 Tr. 42:1-2; 63:5-21] The officers left Defendant in the parking lot, walked back inside the auto parts store, and Officer Snyder asked Martinez to come out and talk to them. [1-31-17 Tr. 42:21-43:1; 115:13-15] Martinez complied, and Officer Oviedo asked Martinez for his driver's license and provided his information to the dispatch operator to check for warrants. [1-31-17 Tr. 42:21-43:1: 116:24-117:11]

         In response to the officers' questions, Martinez stated that he was not the driver of the Mitsubishi Lancer but that he had been riding in a different car before getting in the Bronco with Defendant. [1-31-17 Tr. 116:10-23] Defendant, who had not been involved in the conversation between the officers and Martinez, then told the officers he believed he left his phone inside the store and asked if he could go retrieve it by himself or if he needed to be accompanied by an officer. [1-31-17 Tr. 118:13-15] Both officers advised Defendant that he was not in trouble and that he could go back inside alone. [1-31-17 Tr. 68: 5-17;118:13-21] [Exh. 5 6:10-7:00] During this conversation, the dispatch operator informed the officers that Dennis Martinez had two warrants out of Taos County so Officer Oviedo placed him under arrest. [1-31-17 Tr. 43:2-11] While conducting a search of Martinez incident to the arrest, Officer Oviedo found a small container containing Oxycodone and Oxycontin pills, for which Martinez stated he had a prescription. [Doc. 12-4, p.1]

         Officer Snyder, meanwhile, had been talking to Defendant about his history of drug use and daily routine of visiting a methodone clinic. [1-31-17 Tr. 121:2-122:22] Defendant asked Officer Snyder about Martinez's bond, which Defendant indicated he intended to pay so that Martinez could get out of jail. [1-31-17 Tr. 121:13-18] Officer Snyder told Defendant that Martinez's bond would be $2000 cash-only and that Martinez would be transported to the Taos Hidalgo Detention Center. [1-31-17 Tr. 121:19');">19-22] Officer Snyder also told Defendant that he was free to leave. [1-31-17 Tr. 121:19');">19-22]

         Around this time, Officer Bennett arrived at the auto parts store and after talking with Officer Oviedo, he approached Martinez who had been placed in Officer Oviedo's patrol car. [1-31-17 Tr. 143:14-17] Martinez told Officer Bennett that the prescription for his pills was in Defendant's vehicle. [1-31-17 Tr. 144:2-3] Officer Bennett moved Martinez to the back of his own patrol car, and asked Officer Snyder if he could get Martinez's prescription from Defendant's vehicle. [1-31-17 Tr. 124:19');">19-23] Defendant walked back toward the officers, who asked him if they could get Martinez's prescription from the passenger seat of his vehicle, and he agreed. [1-31-17 Tr. 124:24-125:25] Defendant and Officer Snyder walked back across the parking lot toward the Bronco. [1-31-17 Tr. 126:2-22] Defendant opened the driver's side door and reached across the center console to grab the prescription bottles from the passenger's side. [1-31-17 Tr. 126:2-8] Officer Snyder, who was standing a few feet behind Defendant, noticed a small baggie containing a dark substance that looked like heroin in the door of the vehicle, took possession of the baggie, and arrested Defendant for possession of a controlled substance. [1-31-17 Tr. 127:8-9; 127:15-128:2]

         Officer Snyder searched Defendant incident to the arrest and found suboxen strips, which Defendant claimed were properly prescribed, along with a large bundle of cash and a baggie containing 15.3 grams of cocaine. [1-31-17 Tr. 128:13-20] The officers then conducted an inventory of the contents of Defendant's vehicle and found containers with large amounts of pills. [1-31-17 Tr. 130:15-17] Officers later obtained a search warrant for the vehicle and found heroin and digital scales. [Doc. 12-1 p. 5]


         Defendant now challenges the validity of the officers' conduct, arguing that although the initial stop at the O'Reilly's store was proper, the officers exceeded the scope of what was permissible under the circumstances underlying the initial stop by continuing contact once they determined Defendant and Martinez were not intoxicated. Accordingly, Defendant argues that all evidence found in his vehicle should be suppressed. [Doc. 12] The Government argues that the contact was a consensual encounter which does not implicate the Fourth Amendment. Alternatively, the Government contends that even the initial stop arose to the level of an investigative detention, Defendant was told that he was free to leave before officers found the evidence supporting his arrest, so the encounter became consensual and the evidence was lawfully obtained. [Doc. 19');">19, p. 1]

         The Supreme Court has explained that “a seizure does not occur simply because a police officer approaches an individual and asks a few questions.” Florida v. Bostick, 429');">501 U.S. 429, 434, 111 S.Ct. 2382, 2386 (19');">1991). “Whether a police-citizen encounter constitutes a seizure turns on a consideration of ‘all the circumstances surrounding the encounter to determine whether the police conduct would have communicated to a reasonable person that the person was not free to decline the officers' requests or otherwise terminate the encounter.'” United States v. Lambert, 46 F.3d 1064, 1067-68 (10th Cir. 19');">1995) (quoting Bostick, 501 U.S. at 439, 111 S.Ct. at 2389). In a consensual encounter, the interaction is viewed as wholly voluntary. “A consensual encounter is the voluntary cooperation of a private citizen in response to non-coercive questioning by a law enforcement officer. If the individual is free to leave at any time during the encounter, he or she is not seized under the Fourth Amendment.” United States v. Hernandez, 493');">93 F.3d 1493, 1498 (10th Cir. 19');">1996). A consensual encounter does not necessarily have to be supported by any modicum of suspicion or cause. Lambert, 46 F.3d at 1067 (“Officers may approach an individual and ask questions randomly or on a hunch.”). On the other hand, an investigative detention is a “Fourth Amendment seizure[] of limited scope and duration and must be supported by a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” United States v. Lopez, 443 F.3d 1280');">443 F.3d 1280, 1283 (10th Cir. 2006). An investigative detention can become a consensual encounter if the police conduct changes such that the suspect no longer has a reasonable basis to believe he or she is not free to leave. See Hernandez, 93 F.3d at 1498.

         The Tenth Circuit has considered several factors in determining whether an ...

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