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United States v. Martinez-Torres

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 4, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA Plaintiff,
v.
GUILLERMO MARTINEZ-TORRES, and JESUS GOMEZ-ARZATE, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO SUPPRESS

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant Jesus Gomez-Arzate's Motion to Suppress Evidence, filed August 17, 2018 (Doc. 29), joined by his co-Defendant Guillermo Martinez-Torres (Doc. 31). Having considered the parties' arguments and applicable law, the Court finds that Defendants' motion is not well-taken and, therefore, is DENIED.

         BACKGROUND

         On June 13, 2018, Defendant Martinez-Torre and Defendant Jesus Gomez-Arzate were indicted with possession with intent to distribute 500 grams and more of a mixture containing methamphetamine, in violation of 21 USC §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A), and 846. Doc. 15.

         The Court makes the following factual findings following an evidentiary hearing.[1] The Court finds the deputies' and trooper's testimony to be credible.

         A. Initial Traffic Stop.

         On May 17, 2018, Defendants were traveling eastbound on Interstate 40 in a 2012 white KIA Soul. After a line of cars passed him, Deputy Mora pulled out from a median. Around mile marker 133 he spotted the Defendants' vehicle. He observed the Kia Soul swerving within the right-hand lane, and also straddling the right-hand white solid line twice. Deputy Mora also observed that the front driver's side tire appeared to be angled or out of alignment. Deputy Mora did not observe any external explanation for why the Kia Soul was swerving, aside from the front tire being “bent.” At around mile marker 132, Deputy Mora pulled over the Kia Soul. He approached the front passenger side window, and immediately noticed an “overwhelming odor of air freshener”, from multiple air fresheners. Based on his experience and training, Deputy Mora knew that an air freshener can be used to mask the smell of drugs or contraband. Defendant Martinez-Torres was the driver, and the passenger, Defendant Gomez-Arzate, purported to be the owner of the car.

         Deputy Mora explained to the Defendants that he pulled them over because they were swerving, and that the axle or wheel appeared to be bent. Deputy Mora asked for and obtained Defendant Martinez-Torres' driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance. Defendant Martinez-Torres produced a California driver's license. The car had Texas plates, and was registered to an absent third party.

         Although Deputy Mora attempted to speak with Defendants, Defendant Martinez-Torres stated he didn't understand him. At approximately 3 minutes and 38 seconds into the stop, Deputy Mora called for Deputy Mauricio, who spoke fluent Spanish, to come and translate. Calling other deputies who are bilingual and fluent in Spanish to translate is common practice within the department. At around this time, Deputy Mora began filling out a warning citation.

         It is also clear that a Spanish translator was necessary. Defendants - multiple times - expressed that they couldn't understand Deputy Mora. Therefore, it was reasonable and necessary for Deputy Mora to wait for a translator to arrive. Without a translator, he could not even explain the citation or the reason for the traffic stop.

         Defendants tried to speak with Deputy Mora, while Deputy Mora suggested they wait for Deputy Mauricio to arrive. Defendants asked Deputy Mora whether he wanted to know their “motive of the trip.” Gov. Ex. 3, p. 6. They also asked about the speed limit. While waiting, Defendant Martinez-Torres stated that he lived in Santa Ana, California and that he would like to move to Texas because the rent is cheaper and there is more work.

         B. Deputy Mauricio arrives during traffic stop (Minute 10:00 to Minute 16:00).

         Deputy Mauricio arrived at around ten minutes into the stop. It took him approximately seven minutes to arrive after he was called. After Deputy Mauricio began translating, there was no indication that Defendants had any further difficulty in understanding the deputies.

         Deputy Mauricio asked for permission to search the VIN number of the car and both Defendants consented. The deputies checked the VIN on both the dashboard and the door. This process took a “couple minutes.”

         At the same time, the deputies also asked permission to ask questions about Defendants' travel plans. This took approximately two minutes and fifteen seconds, but overlapped with the VIN search. Defendant Gomez-Arzate said that they were coming from California, and were going to Dalhart first, then Dumas, Texas.

         At around 13 minutes and 17 seconds, the deputies asked who owned the car, because neither Defendant was on the registration. Defendant Gomez-Arzate said the car belonged to a man in Texas who let them borrow it. They stated the owner lives in Dumas, and they were going to his house to “clean it up”, live there, and possibly raise cattle.

         Defendants stated they were traveling to Texas, from California, to clean up a house to make it habitable. They also stated they were only staying for three or four days. Then, they were going back to California for their family, to move to Texas.

         At around fifteen minutes into the traffic stop, Deputy Mora explained to Defendant Martinez-Torres that he was giving him all of his documents back and that he was giving him a warning citation for hitting the solid white line twice. The Deputies also explained this to Defendant Gomez-Arzate. See Gov. Ex. 3, p. 23-24. In his traffic citation, he noted that Defendant hit the shoulder solid line twice, and that he violated the careless driving statute (NMSA § 66-8-114). Gov. Ex. 1. Deputy Mora gave the citation to Defendant Martinez-Torres, who signed it.

         C. Further Questioning (minute 16:00 to approximately minute 33:00).

         After receiving his documents back and his warning citation, Defendant Martinez-Torres began walking back to his car. Deputy Mora said “Guillermo” and Defendant Martinez-Torres walked back to the patrol car, a distance of approximately 20 feet.

         Deputy Mora explained to Defendant Martinez-Torres that he was free to go, but that he had a couple more questions, “if that's okay.” His response was inaudible on the recording. The Deputies repeated a second time “do you understand that you are free to go?” Defendant Martinez-Torres responded “yes.” Defendant Martinez-Torres did not object or indicate he wanted to leave.

         At approximately twenty minutes into the encounter, the deputies received consent from Defendant Gomez-Arzate. Deputy Mauricio explained to Gomez-Arzate that they had only given a warning to Martinez-Torres for crossing the white line, and that they told him that he's free to go. They also told Gomez-Arzate that he was free to go and asked for consent to ask further questions. Defendant Gomez-Arzate consented.

         Defendant Gomez-Arzate stated they were going to Dumas, Dalhart, and Hartley, near Amarillo, to a ranch. They stated the ranch was forty minutes from Amarillo. They stated they were going there to clean a house, to work or live there.

         The deputies then asked where they got the car. They stated they got the car from the ranch. He stated the previous time he was there, his truck broke down and the owner lent the KIA Soul to him. Defendant Gomez-Arzate said he then took the KIA Soul with him back to California, and that he has had it for months.

         Defendant Gomez-Arzate did not know the name of the owner of the car, but that he knew the name of the owner's friend.

         Defendants affirmed that they were responsible for everything inside the car. Defendants denied having any large amounts of money, drugs, or weapons. Defendants then consented to the search of the car orally[2] and in writing. They affirmed that they understood the written consent form and could read Spanish. The transcript reflects that they also understood Deputy Mauricio's Spanish.

         After the Defendants consented to the search, the audio recording ended.

         D. Search of Car.

         As Deputy Mora was searching the vehicle, he saw tool marks on the right rear quarter panel. He slightly pulled back the rear quarter panel and saw a circular void. The rear quarter panel was held in place with plastic rivets. He then pulled off the rear quarter panel, and saw two round packages, wrapped in black tape, which he knew was consistent with contraband. The search lasted approximately one hour and 30 minutes.

         The Court credits Deputy Mora's testimony that he only had to pull back the quarter panel a slight degree before he saw a circular void. Based on his experience and training, once he saw that void, he had reasonable suspicion that the void contained drugs.

         The deputies apparently removed the air filter. A picture in evidence shows a toolbox on the car, with the hood open. There is no evidence in the record that anything else was done to the engine. Moreover, the Deputies removed the fender because it was not flush with the car, but also put it back on. Items were taken out of the trunk and placed on the ground. There is no evidence of any further “dismantling” of the car.

         DISCUSSION

         Defendants argue that evidence resulting from the traffic stop should be suppressed, because the traffic stop itself either (1) was not initially valid, or alternatively (2) became invalid because it was extended for too long. Even if the traffic stop was valid, Defendants argue either that the resulting consent to search the car was invalid or outside the scope of consent.

         “[A] traffic stop is reasonable if it is (1) justified at its inception and (2) reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.” United States v. Moore, 795 F.3d 1224, 1228 (10th Cir. 2015 (quoting United States v. Karam, 496 F.3d 1157, 1161 (10th Cir. 2007)).

         I. Initial Traffic Stop was Valid.

         Defendant argues that the initial traffic stop was not valid, because it was not supported by reasonable suspicion. The Government argues that there was reasonable suspicion to stop the car either for careless driving or for failure to maintain the vehicle in its lane. The Court agrees with the Government.

         To justify a traffic stop at its inception, “an officer needs only reasonable suspicion-that is, a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of breaking the law. [T]he government bears the burden of proving the reasonableness of the officer's suspicion.” United States v. Vance, 893 F.3d 763, 773 (10th Cir. 2018) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “For reasonable suspicion to exist, an officer need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct; he or she simply must possess some minimal level of objective justification for making the stop.” United States v. Winder, 557 F.3d 1129, 1134 (10th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         A. Care ...


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