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United States v. Chavez

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 14, 2018



         On February 14, 2018, a federal grand jury returned an indictment charging Defendant Manuel Chavez with being a felon in possession of a firearm contrary to 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). See Redacted Indictment. (Doc. 12). On April 30, 2018, Defendant filed a motion to suppress physical evidence, including the firearm, obtained during a search of the vehicle he was driving.[1]The United States filed a response opposing the Motion.[2] The Court held a hearing on Defendant's Motion beginning on June 13, 2018 that continued on June 15, 2018. Having considered the parties' briefing, [3] arguments, and relevant case law, the Court will deny Defendant's Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 12(d) requires that, when factual issues are involved in deciding a motion, the Court must state its essential findings on the record. “[T]he rules of evidence normally applicable in criminal trials do not operate with full force at hearings before the judge to determine the admissibility of evidence.” U.S. v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 172-73 (discussing, in part, Fed.R.Evid. 104(a)[4] and Fed.R.Evid. 1101(d)(1)[5]). “[T]his principle is based on the assumption that more evidence should be included in a pretrial hearing because the judge, unlike a jury, can give the evidence such weight as his judgment and experience counsel.” U.S. v. Conner, 699 F.3d 1225, 1227-28 (10th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The Court makes the following factual findings based on the evidence in accordance with Rule 12(d). Importantly, the Court found the testimony of both hearing witnesses, Deputy Eric Castaneda and Deputy Leroy Chavez, to be clear and credible.

         Around 12:13 a.m. on January 8, 2018, Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office (BCSO) Deputy Eric Castaneda observed a brown sedan that Defendant[6] was driving run through a stop sign in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Doc. 26 at 1; Doc.32 at 2; Tr. 11:23-25; 12:12-25). After clearing another traffic stop, Deputy Castaneda caught up to the sedan and engaged his patrol unit's lights to initiate a traffic stop. (Tr. 13:16-18; 14:10-16). The vehicle did not immediately pull over, but continued northbound at a slow rate of speed until finally entering a gas station plaza and parking by a gas pump. (Tr. 15:1-8, 19-21; 17:4-6). Deputy Castaneda parked his vehicle behind the sedan, and began walking toward it. Deputy Castaneda observed the driver of the vehicle to be a Hispanic male wearing a camouflage jacket, a red and white beanie, jewelry around his neck, and an earring in his left ear. (Tr. 20:14-17; 21:5). There was also a small brown and white dog moving about inside the vehicle. (Tr. 21:7-13).

         Deputy Castaneda noticed Defendant continually looking at him through the rear and side view mirrors and observed Defendant roll his shoulder, leaning forward, as though he “was reaching down underneath his seat or towards the floorboard.” (Tr. 17:14-22; 23:6-14; 78:22-79:1). Deputy Castaneda testified that Defendant's “shoulder roll” “was a great safety issue for me because I didn't know if the driver was reaching for something, a weapon, trying to hide narcotics, contraband, or weapon.” (Tr. 24:23-25:5). He was concerned about whether “there were weapons or what were the [driver's] intentions” based on the amount of time it took for Defendant to pull over, the Defendant's “furtive” movements, “the manner he was looking back, how he was again leaning forward, ” and how he “appeared to be reaching down.” (Tr. 25:8-18; 108:1-13). Deputy Castaneda had all of these behaviors in mind as he exited his patrol unit and approached Defendant's vehicle. (Tr. 108:14-15). As Deputy Castaneda reached the back of the car, he touched the trunk and paused briefly. (Tr. 108:15-20). Deputy Castaneda then took his hand off of the trunk, unfastened his holster, and placed his hand onto his gun, prepared to draw the gun if necessary. (Tr. 108:20-109:6). He took one or two steps, at which point Defendant drove off at an accelerated rate of speed. (Tr. 26:19-27:12; 108:14-23).

         Deputy Castaneda observed Defendant drive through the parking area, run a red light as he approached Central Avenue, and continue eastbound. (Tr. 28:19-25). He also observed Defendant, who was traveling over the posted speed limit, swerve onto the right lane, causing an ambulance also traveling eastbound to move outside of its lane to avoid a collision. (Tr. 30:8-15; 31:17-32:6). Deputy Castaneda engaged his emergency equipment to initiate a second traffic stop, but rather than pull over, Defendant turned north onto 60th Street from Central Avenue. (Tr. 32:20-25; 34:5-15). Deputy Castaneda briefly lost sight of Defendant, but noticed a lot of dust on a dirt street named Knotts Landing Court. (Tr. 34:10-21). Deputy Castaneda turned onto the dirt road and through the dust was able to make out a house, a white trailer, and vehicle brake lights or taillights. (Tr. 35:2-8). He exited his patrol unit and began to approach the B pillar[7] of the vehicle with his firearm drawn. (Tr. 38:7-18). Deputy Castaneda could see the small dog in the back seat but there were no other occupants in the vehicle. (Tr. 41:11-13). Having determined that no person was in the vehicle, Deputy Castaneda believed the driver had fled on foot, so he moved to the area between his car and the sedan to wait for assistance. (Tr. 44:5-9; 16-20).

         When additional deputies arrived, Deputy Castaneda directed them to establish a perimeter towards the northwest portion of the property where there was open space and a house. (Tr. 47:21-48:6). One of the responding officers was Deputy Leroy Chavez. (Tr. 137:23-138:7). Deputy Chavez testified that when he arrived at the Knotts Landing location, a number of other deputies were already on the scene. (Tr. 140:3-6). Deputy Chavez made contact with Deputy Castaneda who stated that he believed the male driver ran into the residence or in a western direction. (Tr. 141:21-24). He observed other deputies establishing a perimeter. (Tr. 142:5-7).

         Deputy Chavez testified that he approached the vehicle, saw that the headlights and taillights were on, noticed that the engine was still running, and heard the RPMs[8] fluctuating. (Tr. 142:15-17; 143:15, 144:25-145:1). Deputy Chavez also recalled the vehicle rocking slightly back and forth. (Tr. 145:10-11, 19-20). As he approached the B pillar, he confirmed that there was no human in the vehicle, but he observed a small unrestrained white and brown dog inside. (Tr. 146:16-24; 147:1-4). From his location at the B pillar, Deputy Chavez looked through the window at the dashboard and could see that the vehicle was in drive. (Tr. 147:11-13). He opened the unlocked driver's side door, grabbed the steering wheel with his left hand for balance, placed his right foot on the brake, and with his right hand grabbed the gear shifter and placed the vehicle in park. (Tr. 149:15-25). He does not recall turning the vehicle off. (Tr. 156:5-7). Deputy Chavez testified that his “sole purpose was just to make the vehicle safe and place it in park, ” concerned that at any time the vehicle could start rolling forward towards other deputies on the scene who were less than 20 yards in front of the vehicle. (Tr. 150:12-13, 150:20-151:2, 151:10-11; 152:21-153:1). As Deputy Chavez was exiting the vehicle, he “noticed a rubber grip which appeared to be a handgun in a black holster” located on the floorboard near the driver's seat. (Tr. 153:18-19, 154:3-5, 23). He shut the door without disturbing the firearm. (Tr. 155:3-7).

         Meanwhile, Deputy Castaneda and Deputy Heredia had been talking to residents of the RV. (Tr. 48:16-19). One of the RV residents indicated that he recognized the vehicle, described the dog, and advised that there was a woman and a man living in the house at 217 Knotts Landing. (Tr. 49:5-9). Upon leaving the RV, Deputy Castaneda heard Deputy Schlanger yell out several commands from the northwest corner of the property. (Tr. 49:22-50:5). He ran in Deputy Schlanger's direction and observed Defendant lying in a pit on his stomach. (Tr. 50:8-19). Deputy Castaneda identified Defendant as the driver he had stopped at the gas station, and Defendant was placed under arrest for aggravated fleeing from law enforcement and traffic violations. (Tr. 53:1-23). While Deputy Castaneda was talking to Defendant, Deputy Chavez approached and advised that there was a gun inside the vehicle Defendant had been driving. (Tr. 54:12-15). Deputy Castaneda then asked Defendant if he was a felon, to which Defendant responded “Yes, sir.” (Tr. 55:3-15; Gov't Ex. 6, Transcript of Deputy Schlanger's Belt Tape at 8). As Deputy Castaneda walked with Defendant by the vehicle's window en route to his patrol unit, he could clearly see the gun on the floorboard by the driver's seat in the area Deputy Chavez had described. (Tr. 59:16-20; 60:9-12).

         Deputy Castaneda secured Defendant in the patrol unit and began to run Defendant's personal information, which reflected numerous arrests and a suspended driver's license. (Tr. 56:24-57:9). Because Defendant was under arrest and had a suspended license, in accordance with BCSO Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), the decision was made to tow the vehicle Defendant had been driving and to conduct an inventory prior to towing. (Tr. 57:10-14; Gov't Ex. 7, BCSO SOP 311-1 & 311-2). Deputy Heredia conducted the vehicle inventory, and when she finished taking photographs of the gun, Deputy Castaneda took possession of it. (Tr. 61:1-3). The tow company will not tow a vehicle when there is an unsupervised weapon inside. (Tr. 66:21-67:1). However, when the inventory prior to tow was “pretty much already done, ” a female emerged from the 217 Knotts Landing residence, claiming ownership of the vehicle. (Tr. 62:2-5). The female, identified as C.B., provided Deputy Castaneda with her driver's license. (Tr. 62:5-6). With that information, Deputy Castaneda was able to confirm that C.B. was the vehicle's registered owner permitting him to release the vehicle to her. (Tr. 62:5-20; Gov't Ex. 7, BCSO SOP 311-2). Deputy Castaneda gave the vehicle keys to C.B., and C.B. took possession of the dog. (Tr. 63:6-12). C.B. also informed Deputy Castaneda that she knew Defendant and was aware that he had been using her car, but she disclaimed any knowledge or ownership of the firearm. (Tr. 63:16-64:16). Because C.B. denied ownership of the gun, Deputy Castaneda did not release the gun to her. (Tr. 63:13-16).

         Deputy Castaneda subsequently drove Defendant to the South Valley Command Center where he ran Defendant's information through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) at which point he determined that Defendant was a convicted felon. (Tr. 66:2-15). The firearm seized from the vehicle, which was loaded with four rounds of ammunition, was tagged into evidence. (Tr. 61:12-21).


         “Suppression of evidence is an appropriate remedy only when the search violates a person's constitutional rights.” U.S. v. Gama-Bastidas, 142 F.3d 1233, 1238 (10th Cir. 1998). “The proponent of a motion to suppress has the burden of adducing facts at the suppression hearing indicating that his own rights were violated by the search.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). However, it is the government's burden to show the admissibility of the evidence it seeks to introduce. See U.S. v. Mikolon, 719 F.3d 1184, 1189 (10th Cir. 2013).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Defendant does not challenge the validity of the initial traffic stop or his subsequent arrest. Rather, Defendant argues that officers conducted an unlawful warrantless search of the vehicle he was driving and unlawfully seized the firearm in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The primary issues are: (1) whether Defendant has standing to challenge any search of the vehicle and seizure of the firearm; (2) whether the plain view doctrine applies; and (3) whether the inventory search of the vehicle was lawful, thereby invoking the inevitable discovery doctrine.

         A. Defendant Has Standing to Seek Suppression of the Evidence Seized From the Vehicle

         A defendant can challenge a search under the Fourth Amendment if “the defendant manifested a subjective expectation of privacy in the area searched and [if] society is prepared to recognize that expectation as objectively reasonable.” United States v. Eckhart, 569 F.3d 1263, 1274 (10th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The law is established that an individual who is the vehicle's driver but not the registered owner “plainly ha[s] a reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle and standing to challenge the search of the vehicle” if the driver establishes “that he gained possession from the owner or someone with authority to grant possession.” U.S. v. Valdez Hocker, 333 F.3d 1206, 1209 (10th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Here, Defendant asserts that the vehicle's owner is a friend who often allows him to use her car and had allowed him to use the car on January 8, 2018. (Doc. 26 at 3). Hearing testimony supports this assertion. (Tr. 72:22-73:7).

         The United States contests Defendant's standing to challenge the vehicle search, but not on the basis of whether Defendant had permission to drive the car. (Doc. 32 at 6-8, Tr. 201:24-203:3). Rather, the United States argues that Defendant lacks standing because he abandoned the vehicle. (Doc. 32 at 6). “Abandonment is akin to the issue of standing because the defendant lacks standing to complain of an illegal search or seizure of property which he had abandoned.” U.S. v. Garzon, 119 F.3d 1446, 1449 (10th Cir. 2006). “An expectation of privacy is a question of intent which may be inferred from words, acts, and other objective facts.” U.S. v. Austin, 66 F.3d 1115, 1118 (10th Cir. 1995) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). In addition to exhibiting a subjective expectation of privacy, a defendant's expectation of privacy must also “be one that society would recognize…as objectively reasonable for the search to have violated the Fourth Amendment.” Austin, 66 F.3d at 1118 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Finally, “[a]n abandonment must be voluntary, ” Au ...

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