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United States v. Mendoza

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 2, 2019



         On July 10, 2018, a federal grand jury indicted Defendant Eric Madrid Mendoza with three counts of transporting an alien in violation of 8 U.S.C. §§ 1324(a)(1)(A)(ii) and (a)(1)(A)(v)(II). (Doc. 21). On January 23, 2019, Defendant filed a Motion to Suppress (Doc. 35), asking the Court to suppress all evidence and statements that officers obtained from Defendant's detention and subsequent arrest on June 18, 2018. The United States opposes the Motion, and it is fully briefed.[1]The Court heard evidence and argument from counsel at a hearing on March 12, 2019. Assistant United States Attorneys Jason Wisecup and Sarah Mease appeared on behalf of Plaintiff, United States of America. Defendant was present in the courtroom and represented by Assistant Federal Public Defender Amanda Lavin. Having considered the parties' briefs, arguments, evidence, and relevant case law, the Court will deny Defendant's Motion.


         On the morning of Monday, June 18, 2018, New Mexico State Police Officer Hermilo Lucero was driving eastbound on Interstate 40 in Bernalillo County, New Mexico. Officer Lucero has worked as a New Mexico State Police officer since around 2015. He previously worked for the New Mexico Motor Transportation Division from 2002 until it was subsumed by the New Mexico State Police in 2015. (Tr. 4:12-20).[2] For the past two years, Officer Lucero has participated in the Homeland Security Investigations' (HSI) Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST), which he describes as assisting in investigation of crimes involving drugs, weapons, and human smuggling. (Tr. 5:1-5). Throughout his career, Officer Lucero has encountered numerous vehicles during traffic stops where he suspected human smuggling. (Tr. 5:6-19). Officer Lucero described I-40 as a “major highway for criminal activity” and testified that based on his training and experience he knows Interstate 40 to be a major route from the west coast to the east coast for gun, drug, and human smuggling. (Tr. 6:5-10; 35:4-5; 35:21-36:3).

         Officer Lucero began pacing a Honda SUV on eastbound Interstate 40 that was driving five miles per hour above the 65 mile per hour (mph) posted speed limit.[3] (Dash Cam, 7:57:57-7:59:10). At approximately 7:59 a.m., Officer Lucero engaged his patrol vehicle's lights and pulled the Honda SUV over near mile marker 155 in the city of Albuquerque. (Dash Cam, 7:59:10-7:59:46). Officer Lucero approached the passenger side window of the vehicle, informed the driver that he stopped the vehicle for driving 70 mph in a 65-mph zone, and requested the driver's license and the vehicle registration and insurance. (Dash Cam, 8:00:07; Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 1). The driver, Luis Alberto Salazar, informed Officer Lucero that he did not have a driver's license, but he had a Mexican voter identification card. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 1). Officer Lucero observed that Mr. Salazar's hand was shaking “uncontrollably” when he handed Officer Lucero his identification. (Tr. 7:7-9). While requesting this information, Officer Lucero noticed that the vehicle's seats were full with a total of seven occupants. (Tr. 11:8-11; 20:21-22). The occupants in the back appeared to be very nervous and scared with a “deer in headlights” look on their faces. (Tr. 7:25; 8:23-25). The occupants in the back of the vehicle appeared very young, causing Officer Lucero to wonder why they were not in school on a Monday morning or with a parent or guardian. (Tr. 7:23-8:7; 16:23-17:2). Officer Lucero also detected a “bad body odor” in the vehicle that he testified was consistent with people being smuggled who do not have the ability to take care of their personal hygiene. (Tr. 7:1; 9:9-14; 10:18-25). Finally, Officer Lucero observed that there was lot of luggage in the cargo area. He testified that a large amount of luggage was consistent with trafficking victims who often have their whole lives with them in suitcases. (Tr. 9:15-19). Officer Lucero testified that he suspected human trafficking as soon as he saw the men sitting in the back of the vehicle. (Tr. 36:6-9).

         Officer Lucero asked Mr. Salazar to step out of the vehicle and back to Officer Lucero's patrol unit where he normally conducts business. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 2; Dash Cam, 8:00:45-8:01:02). Believing there were indications of human smuggling, Officer Lucero had Mr. Salazar wait at the front of his patrol vehicle while he called his supervisor and asked for guidance. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. 2; Dash Cam, 8:01:03; Tr. 11:12-19). Officer Lucero's supervisor advised Officer Lucero that he was going to send HSI to the scene to investigate further. (Tr. 11:16-19). The dashcam video reflects an approximately forty-second period during which Officer Lucero appears to be inside of his patrol vehicle with some radio chatter before exiting the vehicle to return to Mr. Salazar. (Dash Cam, 8:01:10-8:01:53). While waiting for immigration officials to arrive, Officer Lucero continued to address the speeding violation. Around 8:02 a.m., Officer Lucero asked Mr. Salazar a series of questions in Spanish regarding the men's travel. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 2; Dash Cam, 8:02:01-8:02:28). Mr. Salazar stated that the men were traveling from California to Amarillo, Texas for work. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 2). Officer Lucero also collected Mr. Salazar's identifying information such as address, height, weight, eye color, and date of birth. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 3-4). Mr. Salazar informed Officer Lucero that the vehicle belonged to his friend, the passenger Defendant Madrid Mendoza, but that because Defendant was tired Mr. Salazar helped him with the driving. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 4).

         At approximately 8:06 a.m., Officer Lucero advised Mr. Salazar that he was just going to give him a warning. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 5; Dash Cam 8:06:12). Officer Lucero stated that he was first going to check some numbers in the Honda SUV, noted that he would need to open the driver's side door, and asked Mr. Salazar if this was okay. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 5). Mr. Salazar consented, and Officer Lucero walked to the driver's side of the Honda and checked the VIN and the federal sticker which appeared to match with the other vehicle information Officer Lucero had. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 5; Dash Cam, 8:08:21). While looking at the numbers, Officer Lucero made contact with Defendant, who was seated in the front passenger seat. Defendant answered Officer Lucero's questions about vehicle ownership and the men's travel plans. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 6). Defendant confirmed that the vehicle was his, and stated that the men were heading to Amarillo to do construction work for about a month. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 6). Officer Lucero returned to the patrol vehicle at approximately 8:09 a.m. to finish processing the warnings - one for speeding and the other for driving without a license. (Dash Cam, 8:09:51). A printer problem delayed the process, but at 8:15 a.m. Officer Lucero began reviewing the two warnings with, and obtaining signatures from, Mr. Salazar. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 7-8; Dash Cam, 8:12:15-8:15:19; Tr. 29:25-30:2). Finally, at around 8:19 a.m., Officer Lucero returned Mr. Salazar's documents, advised Mr. Salazar that it was okay for him to continue driving in place of his sleepy friend, and told him to have a good trip. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 8; Dash Cam, 8:19:00-8:19:19).

         Mr. Salazar turned and took two steps towards the Honda SUV when Officer Lucero called out to him and asked if he could talk to Mr. Salazar a little bit. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 8; Dash Cam, 8:19:21). Mr. Salazar responded affirmatively and turned back to the patrol vehicle. (Def. Ex. A, tr. at 8). Officer Lucero testified that had Mr. Salazar responded that he did not want to answer any further questions, Officer Lucero would have detained him until HSI officials arrived. (Tr. 14:4-9; 31:4-8). However, because Mr. Salazar agreed to speak more, Officer Lucero proceeded to ask Mr. Salazar additional questions about the purpose of the men's travel to Amarillo. (Tr. 14:10-16). Mr. Salazar informed Officer Lucero that the men were planning to work on some apartments for a company called Canyon Placeres for what he thought would be a two to three-week time period. He noted that the company would pay for half of the hotel room and that he was responsible for the other half. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 8-10).

         At approximately 8:21 a.m., Officer Lucero told Mr. Salazar to stand by the patrol vehicle for a moment, and Officer Lucero approached the passenger side window of the Honda SUV once again. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 10; Dash Cam, 8:21:40). Officer Lucero stated to Defendant in Spanish, “Hey sir, you know, you're free to go but is it okay for me to speak to you a little?” Defendant answered “yes.” (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 10). Officer Lucero testified that had Defendant declined, Defendant would not have been free to leave because Officer Lucero was waiting for the HSI agents to arrive to conduct further investigation. (Tr. 16:7-13; 33:13-17). As he had with Mr. Salazar, Officer Lucero asked Defendant several questions about the purpose of the men's travel and their work. Defendant confirmed that the men were traveling to Amarillo for work but indicated that the name of the company was Triple A Roof and that he thought the work would last for about a month. Defendant also stated that the men did not yet know where they were going to stay, but that the company was going to provide a hotel or apartment. Officer Lucero then asked the occupants in the back of the vehicle for their ages. Several of the occupants responded. (Def. Ex. A, Tr. at 10-12).

         At 8:23 a.m., Officer Lucero returned to and briefly entered his patrol vehicle. (Dash Cam, 8:23:37). About two minutes later, he again exited his vehicle and asked Mr. Salazar additional questions. (Dash Cam, 8:25:41; Def. Ex. A, at 12-13). Officer Lucero returned to the patrol vehicle at 8:26 a.m., and approximately thirty seconds later an HSI agent arrived on scene. (Dash Cam, 8:26:42-8:27:07). The HSI official, joined shortly thereafter by a second HSI official, arrested Mr. Salazar, Defendant, and the other occupants of the vehicle, and transported them to the Homeland Security Office. Once in custody, Defendant, the driver, and three of the five backseat passengers admitted that they did not have lawful status in the United States. After being advised of his Miranda rights, Defendant made several incriminating statements.


         “The right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated[.]” U.S. Const. amend. IV. Suppression of evidence is an appropriate remedy only when the evidence is obtained in violation of a person's constitutional rights. United States v. Gama-Bastidas, 142 F.3d 1233, 1238 (10th Cir. 1998). In deciding a motion to suppress, the Court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the United States. United States v. Guerrero-Espinoza, 462 F.3d 1302, 1305 (10th Cir. 2006).


         The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures” by government officials. U.S. Const. amend IV. A traffic stop is a “seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Guerrero-Espinoza, 462 F.3d 1302, 1307 (10th Cir. 2006). The Government bears the burden of proving that a seizure was reasonable. United States v. De La Cruz, 703 F.3d 1193, 1196 (10th Cir. 2013). In considering whether an investigative detention was reasonable, the Court engages in a two-part inquiry, “asking first whether the detention was justified at its inception, and second, whether the agents' actions were reasonably related in scope to the circumstances initially justifying the detention.” Id.

         Officer Lucero stopped the vehicle in which Defendant was a passenger for driving above the posted speed limit, and Defendant does not dispute that the traffic stop was “justified at its inception.” Rather, the critical inquiry is whether Officer Lucero “appreciably prolonged” the stop in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 1203. Defendant claims that Officer Lucero asked a series of questions that exceeded the scope of the traffic violation and measurably extended the stop. (Doc. 35 at 16). Defendant further argues that, even if Officer Lucero's questioning of Mr. Salazar, Defendant, and the other passengers while issuing the warning citations was justified, Officer Lucero unlawfully prolonged the initial traffic stop beyond the time necessary for issuing the warning citations without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and without consent in order to await arrival of HSI officials. (Doc. 35 at 16-17). Accordingly, ...

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