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United States v. Shelton

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 20, 2018



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant's Motion to Suppress Evidence and Statements (“Motion”), filed August 23, 2018. (Doc. 26). The United States responded on September 11, 2018. (Doc. 31). Defendant replied on September 25, 2018. (Doc. 32). On October 9, 2018, the Court held an evidentiary hearing on the Motion. Assistant United States Attorney Mark Saltman appeared for the United States, and Assistant Federal Public Defenders Jane Greek and Megan McLoughlin appeared on behalf of Defendant Brannon Shelton, who was present. Having considered the briefing, the oral arguments of counsel, the applicable law and the evidence, the Court DENIES the Motion.

         I. Procedural Background

         On February 23, 2018, the United States charged Defendant with violating 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(e)(1), for allegedly possessing a firearm after being convicted of a felony. (Doc. 1) at 1. On June 20, 2018, Defendant was indicted for allegedly violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) by knowingly possessing a firearm and ammunition after having been convicted of felony crimes. (Doc. 16). The evidence adduced at the evidentiary hearing on Defendant's Motion included testimony from Roswell Police Department (“RPD”) Officer Johnny Estrada, RPD Sergeant Ryan Craine, RPD Sergeant Jeffrey Prince, Penny Cherry, Federal Public Defender Investigator Gilbert Apodaca, and Chaves County Detention Officer Gabriel Mauldin, who testified telephonically.[1] The evidence also included United States' Exhibits 1 through 3 and 5 through 15, all admitted without objection.[2] Tr. at 31.[3] Exhibit 1 is an audio/video recording from Officer Estrada's lapel camera.

         II. Findings of Fact

         On January 4, 2018, Estrada was on patrol during the 4:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. shift. Tr. at 17. He was wearing his duty uniform, displaying his badge of office, and driving a marked patrol car. Tr. at 17-18. At the time, Estrada had been working for the RPD for approximately 10 months. Tr. at 13, 63, 77. His duties included patrolling designated areas in Roswell. Tr. at 13-14.

         At 11:58 p.m., Estrada was traveling northbound on South Richardson Avenue when he looked over at West Tilden Street. Id. Estrada observed several subjects standing around a vehicle with what appeared to be flashlights, looking through the vehicle while one of the doors was open. Id. The vehicle, a blue Saturn, was parked in the driveway of 205 West Tilden. Id.; (Doc. 26-1), at 1.

         Based on these observations, Estrada suspected there was a vehicle burglary in progress. Tr. at 18. Moreover, this address is located in a residential area with heavy foot traffic and is a high crime area. Id. Crimes that have occurred in that neighborhood include property crimes, shootings, and vehicle burglaries, among others. Tr. at 19. Estrada estimated he had investigated five vehicle burglary cases before January 4, 2018. Tr. at 63. Estrada testified that vehicle burglaries commonly occur at night in driveways and involve the use of flashlights. Tr. at 15-16.

         As a result, Estrada turned his vehicle around on Richardson and drove to West Tilden. Tr. at 19. Estrada reported to dispatch he would be out with three subjects. Tr. at 68. Approximately 15 to 25 seconds elapsed from the time he first observed the subjects until he arrived at 205 West Tilden. Tr. at 19. Estrada parked his car on the street at the entrance of the driveway and behind the Saturn, positioning his car to shine his spotlight on the Saturn in the driveway. Tr. at 19-20. The driveway was open and accessible to Estrada. Tr. at 26. Estrada did not see any lights inside the Saturn, and he noticed that all of the car doors were closed. Tr. at 20. He also noted that the subjects no longer were visible outside the Saturn, suspecting they were attempting to conceal themselves inside the vehicle. Tr. at 20. He further noticed the Saturn's headlights and tail lights were on, indicating the subjects may have been attempting to burglarize or steal the vehicle. Tr. at 21. Estrada additionally noticed that the light on the exterior of the house at the porch was lit. Tr. at 22. That did not dispel his suspicion that a burglary was occurring because vehicle burglaries are a crime of opportunity that occur regardless of the time of day or whether the area is illuminated. Id.

         Estrada activated his emergency lights and exited his patrol car. Id. As he stepped out of his vehicle and started walking toward the driveway, he observed the subjects get out of the Saturn, including Defendant, who had been in the driver's seat. Tr. at 22-24. All three subjects walked away from Estrada and toward the backyard of 205 West Tilden. Tr. at 23. Estrada suspected that the subjects were attempting to flee. Tr. at 24.

         As a result, Estrada twice shouted at the subjects to stop, commanding, “Come here!” Id. When the subjects refused to stop and continued to walk away, Estrada became certain that he had happened upon a vehicle burglary, a felony offense in New Mexico. Tr. 25, 27. Consequently, he continued his approach onto the driveway and toward the subjects as they walked away. Tr. at 25.

         Estrada then observed one subject, Defendant, and a second male, identified as Thomas Dellavecchio, begin to run toward the backyard. Tr. at 26. As a result, Estrada gave chase. Id. The third subject, later identified as Lynette Burrell, and Dellavecchio stopped when Estrada started to pursue them. Tr. at 26-27. Estrada continued to pursue Defendant, ordering Burrell and Dellavecchio to remain where they were. Tr. at 27.

         Estrada ran into the backyard, initially losing sight of Defendant. Id. Defendant then ran toward and into Estrada. Id. Estrada commanded Defendant to stop and to get on the ground, briefly grabbing Defendant when he ran into Estrada. Id. Defendant then pushed Estrada away and ran into an adjacent yard, where he hid underneath a travel trailer until Estrada located him there. Tr. at 28-29. Defendant had a flash light in his hands when he came out from underneath the trailer. Tr. at 30. The entire chase lasted approximately one minute. Tr. at 29.

         Estrada arrested Defendant for resisting or evading arrest, and for battery on a police officer. Id. Estrada handcuffed Defendant and placed him in Estrada's patrol car. Id. When Estrada asked Defendant who owned the Saturn, Defendant responded that he did not know. Tr. at 30. Estrada then advised Defendant of his Miranda warnings. Tr. at 39. Without prompting from Estrada, Defendant stated that anything found in the vehicle did not belong to him. Id. Estrada testified this statement was significant to him because, “When [subjects] try to separate themselves or not claim ownership of an object, it's usually because there's something they don't want to get in trouble for.” Id.

         Meanwhile, at approximately 11:58 p.m., Sergeant Craine responded to the scene because he heard Estrada advising officers that multiple suspects were fleeing from him. Tr. at 90. Craine located Dellavecchio walking down West Tilden and arrested him for failing to obey Estrada's command to remain at 205 West Tilden. Tr. at 39-40, 90-92. Craine searched Dellavecchio and found an uncapped syringe in his pocket. Tr. at 91. Dellavecchio stated he forgot he had the syringe and told Craine he was “just a user.” Id. Dellavecchio did not make any statements about the Saturn, but stated he was just trying to get a ride. Id.

         Estrada arranged for the Saturn to be towed to the Roswell Police Department so a search warrant could be obtained. Tr. at 40. Before the Saturn was towed, the engine was running and the doors were not locked. Tr. at 56. Estrada was not able to make contact with the registered owner, further suspecting a vehicle burglary. Tr. at 41. Estrada also could not find anyone at 205 West Tilden to claim the vehicle. Tr. at 56. Estrada requested a warrant to search for “any drug paraphernalia, any illegal narcotics, any proof of ownership, proof of occupancy, any burglary tools (i.e., flashlights, gloves, entry tools).” Tr. at 45. The warrant was approved on January 8, 2018, by a Chaves County magistrate judge, and Estrada executed it the same day. Tr. at 43-46.

         Estrada found drug paraphernalia inside the Saturn, as well as a backpack, which was on the front passenger floor board. Tr. at 47, 52. The backpack contained a wallet with Defendant's identification, a firearm, drug paraphernalia, and a white crystalline substance. Id. After discovering that Defendant has a felony conviction in his record, Estrada sought and obtained an amended search warrant on January 11, 2018, to include a search for a firearm. Tr. at 48. Estrada executed the amended warrant the same day and seized the firearm. Tr. at 49-52.

         At the hearing, Defendant offered testimony from Penny Cherry, who said she had dated Defendant for approximately one year, including a period from October 2017 until January 2018. Tr. at 120, 122-23. She also said their relationship was off and on until his arrest on January 5, 2018. Id. Cherry testified Defendant had lived at 205 West Tilden for approximately three months prior to his arrest. Tr. at 121, 123. She stated Defendant had a female roommate at 205 West Tilden, but Cherry did not remember her name. Tr. at 122. The last time Cherry spent the night at 205 West Tilden was between Christmas 2017 and New Year's Day 2018, and at that time Defendant had his own bedroom in which he kept all of his possessions. Tr. at 125. Cherry said she picked up Defendant's belongings at 205 West Tilden after his arrest. Tr. at 122.

         Defendant also offered testimony from Officer Mauldin, a county detention officer, who testified that he remembered booking Defendant into the detention center on January 5, 2018. Tr. at 141. Mauldin stated that 205 West Tilden “does ring a bell in my head” with respect to whether law enforcement records listed that address as Defendant's address, although he did not remember specifically how he obtained Defendant's address. Id.; (Doc. 32-1) at 1. The booking sheet identified Defendant's address as 205 Tilden. (Doc. 32-1) at 1. Mauldin testified that he has never put any information on a booking sheet that he believed to be false, and that he follows up with the person being booked about their contact information. Tr. at 139. Mauldin typically has a “hunch” when an inmate is lying about his or her address. Tr. at 143-44. Mauldin acknowledged inmates have an incentive to lie about their personal information when they are being booked, including their address. Id.

         Sergeant Prince testified he cleared the home at 205 West Tilden after Estrada arrested Defendant. Tr. at 109-10. He knocked on the front door at 205 West Tilden to find out whether the homeowner knew about the Saturn or knew Defendant, Dellavecchio, or Burrell. Tr. at 109. No. one answered the door, so Prince entered the home through a partially open side door. Id. He did not find anyone inside, nor did he observe any evidence Defendant lived in the home, though he conceded he was not searching for such evidence. Tr. at 110. Prince also checked the travel trailer parked in the backyard. Id. A man identified as Mike Chips answered the door of the travel trailer. Tr. at 110-11. When asked, Chips stated someone named “Valerie” lived at 205 West Tilden, and he did not mention Defendant as a resident of that home. Tr. at 111. Prince conceded he did not ask Chips if he was aware whether Valerie had rented a room to anyone. Tr. At 115.

         III. Analysis

         Defendant argues that his initial detention in the driveway was unreasonable, and that Estrada acted without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. (Doc. 26) at 5-6. Further, Defendant asserts that Estrada's search of the curtilage at 205 West Tilden without a warrant was unlawful, and that the RPD acted unlawfully by impounding the Saturn. Id. at 6-16. The United States responds that Estrada had reasonable suspicion to detain Defendant, which then ripened into probable cause to arrest him. (Doc. 31) at 5-13. The United States also contends that Defendant lacks standing to challenge Estrada's search of the curtilage at 205 West Tilden and Estrada's search and seizure of the Saturn. Id. at 13-17. The United States argues that Estrada's hot pursuit of Defendant justified his entry into the backyard, and that RPD's impoundment of the Saturn was proper because there was probable cause to search the vehicle. Id. at 17-21. Finally, the United States asserts that Estrada should benefit from the Leon good-faith exception if the Court concludes that the search warrants were not supported by probable cause. Id. at 21-23.

         “The purpose of a suppression hearing is ‘to determine preliminarily the admissibility of certain evidence allegedly obtained in violation of defendant's rights under the Fourth [ ] Amendment[ ].'” United States v. Maurek, 131 F.Supp.3d 1258, 1261-1262 (W.D. Okla. 2015) (quoting United States v. Merritt, 695 F.2d 1263, 1269 (10th Cir. 1982)). “The proper inquiry is whether the challenged action violated the Fourth Amendment rights of the criminal defendant making the challenge.” United States v. Allen, 235 F.3d 482, 489 (10th Cir. 2000) (alteration omitted) (quoting United States v. Erwin, 875 F.2d 268, 270 (10th Cir. 1989)). “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 challenged [action].” United States v. Eckhart, 569 F.3d 1263, 1274 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting Allen, 235 F.3d at 489). In the context of an allegedly unlawful search or seizure, the United States bears the burden of “proving the reasonableness of the officer's suspicion.” United States v. Hernandez, 847 F.3d 1257, 1263 (10th Cir. 2017) (quoting United States v. Simpson, 609 F.3d 1140, 1146 (10th Cir. 2010)). Finally, the Court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the United States. See, e.g., United States v. Turner, 2013 WL 5727404, at *9 (D. Kan.) (“While the Court is cognizant that it must view the facts in the light most favorable to the Government, it may not draw inferences that are not supported by the record, nor accept facts that are contrary to the record.”); United States v. Ortega, 2012 WL 12894242, at *4 (S.D. Fla.) (“viewing the facts adduced at the suppression hearing in the light most favorable to the government”).

         A. Defendant was Not Seized in Violation of the ...

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