United States District Court, D. New Mexico
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
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.The United States filed a response
opposing the Motion. 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,  arguments, and relevant case law, the
Court will deny Defendant's Motion.
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) and Fed.R.Evid. 1101(d)(1)). “[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.
12:13 a.m. on January 8, 2018, Bernalillo County
Sheriff's Office (BCSO) Deputy Eric Castaneda observed a
brown sedan that Defendant 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).
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).
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 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).
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).
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 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).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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.
Defendant Has Standing to Seek Suppression of the Evidence
Seized From the Vehicle
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).
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 ...