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United States v. Trujillo

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

October 29, 2018


          Jack Mkhitarian Attorney for Mr. Trujillo

          Paul Mysliwiec Assistant United States Attorney



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant Gabriel Trujillo's Motion to Suppress Evidence, filed January 11, 2018 [Doc. 15]. The Court held an evidentiary hearing on May 8, 2018. Having reviewed the briefs, testimony, exhibits, and relevant law, the Court denies the Motion for the reasons below.


         This case concerns the inventory search of Gabriel Trujillo's vehicle and locked backpack subsequent to his arrest. The following represents the Court's findings of fact, based on the evidence submitted, as well as witness testimony.[1]

         On December 6, 2017, at approximately 2:41 a.m., Bernalillo County Sheriff's Deputy Mitchell Skroch was on patrol in the South Valley area of Albuquerque, near Central Avenue SW and 64th Street, when a dark-colored sedan traveling westbound passed him at an estimated speed of 60 miles per hour. [Complaint Doc. 2 at 2 (Affidavit of Special Agent Jeffrey Mauldin)]. The speed limit on that part of Central Avenue was 25 miles per hour. [Id.] The deputy notified dispatch about the car. [Transcript (Tr.)[2] at 9:20˗10:5]. He then turned around and pursued the car, catching up at around Central and Unser. [Tr. at 5:16-21]. The car was traveling south on Unser, and Deputy Skroch followed. [Tr. at 6:23-24]. The Deputy first engaged his lights and then activated his siren in an attempt to conduct a traffic stop. [Tr. 10-16]. The car did not stop, but continued to drive at about the speed limit. [Tr. at 7:2-7] By this time, the Deputy could tell that the vehicle was a Ford Mustang. [Tr. at 13:22].

         About a half mile south of Central, the car got into the left-hand turn lane to turn eastbound on Bridge. [Tr. at 7:8-9]. The driver rolled down his window, and Deputy Skroch saw him sprinkle something out the window. [Tr. at 7:15-17]. It did not appear to be consistent with a cigarette or a cigarette butt. [Tr. at 7:18-20]. Based on his training and experience, Deputy Skroch believed the substance was a controlled substance. [Tr. at 11:23-24]. The driver then turned eastbound onto Bridge, continuing to fail to yield to the Deputy's emergency equipment. [Tr. at 8:3-4]. Eventually, the car turned into the entrance to a gated community, and stopped at the gate. [Tr. at 8:4-7] The car was blocking the gate. [Tr. at 8:19-20].

         Deputy Skroch conducted a felony traffic stop, drawing his department-issue handgun and giving the driver commands from his car window without approaching. [Tr. at 8:22˗9:2]. Deputy Skroch testified that, based on his training and experience, felony traffic stops are conducted either in high-risk situations involving people who are fleeing from law enforcement or failing to yield, or when the officer believes could have the potential to do harm to the officer. [Tr. at 9:9-11].

         The driver of the car complied with Deputy Skroch's instructions, first sticking his hand out the window and opening the door, and then, pursuant to the deputy's instructions, walking backwards toward him. [Tr. at 9:12-19]. Another Sheriff's Deputy arrived at the scene, and Deputy Skroch's partner placed the driver in handcuffs. [Tr. at 10:9-19]. Looking through the window of the vehicle, Deputy Skroch could see a Glock handgun in a holster with what appeared to be a magazine, both tucked between the driver's seat and the center console. [Tr. at 14:1-4]. He could also see a Sig Sauer handgun with another magazine and a holster on the passenger seat in the front. [Tr. at 14:5-6]. In the backseat, the deputy could seek what looked like a rifle case. [Tr. at 14:6-7].

         Deputy Skroch arrested the driver for failing to pull over and sprinkling the substance out the window. [Tr. at 11:4-9]. In court, he identified the Defendant, Gabriel Trujillo, as the individual he pulled over during the December 6, 2017, traffic stop. [Tr. at 12:14-21].

         The deputy testified that Mr. Trujillo appeared to be wearing multiple layers of clothing, and the other deputy told Deputy Skroch it was a body armor vest. [Tr. at 12:25-13:2.] Deputy Skroch had never before encountered anyone driving around wearing body armor. [Tr. at 13:6-7].

         Deputy Skroch placed Mr. Trujillo under arrest and read him the Miranda warning, using his Miranda warning card. [Tr. at 14:20˗15:3, 22; Ex. 1, Miranda warning card]. Afterward, Mr. Trujillo agreed to speak to him. [Tr. at 15:4-6]. Mr. Trujillo told Deputy Skroch he did not stop because he was looking for a safe spot to pull over. [Tr. at 15:8-9]. He also told the deputy that he was wearing body armor because his ex-girlfriend's friends made threats against his life, and that he had the handguns for the same reason. [Tr. at 15:9-12] He stated that everything in the vehicle was his, including a green army backpack, and that the substance he had sprinkled out the window was a cigarette. [Tr. at 15:15-19]. The deputy testified that Mr. Trujillo did not appear to have been drinking. [Tr. at 15:22˗16:13].

         Deputy Skroch testified that he had decided to arrest Mr. Trujillo as soon as Mr. Trujillo said he had been looking for a safe spot to pull over, because the deputy knew there had been multiple safe spots to pull over. [Tr. at 16:16-18]. Specifically, Unser going southbound from Central to Bridge has a shoulder big enough for a vehicle to fit there with room left over, and the street is well lit. [Tr. at 16:21˗17:3].

         Deputy Skroch determined that, since he was going to arrest the Mr. Trujillo, Mr. Trujillo's car would have to be towed pursuant to Sheriff's Department policies. [Tr. at 17:6-14, 22:21-23:25; Ex. 2, Towing Procedures, § 311-2; Ex. 3, Search and Seizure without a Warrant, § 321-8]. He explained that the purpose of the inventory is to mark any high-value items to avoid theft and/or accusations of theft of items from the car either at the lot or wherever the car will be held. [Tr. at 19:2-3]. The deputy testified that the primary purpose of inventory searches is to protect law enforcement officers from potential lawsuits and wrongdoings. [Tr. at 34:24-35:5]. He viewed the faithful execution of an inventory search as requiring that he search the backpack. [Tr. at 21:13-15].

         The upper compartment of the green backpack, which the deputy described as the main compartment, had a small luggage lock securing its contents. [Tr. at 19:20˗20:3, 26:3-5]. Deputy Skroch did not have a key to the lock, so he “defeated” the lock by pulling on it with his hand. [Tr. at 20:6-7]. At the time, he believed he had broken the lock, so he noted that in his report. [Tr. at 37:15-38:2]. However, when presented with the lock and a key during the hearing, Deputy Skroch was able to open the lock using the key and, when the lock was closed, he could not pull the lock ...

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