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United States v. Trujillo

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 20, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
GABRIEL TRUJILLO, Defendant.

          Ryan J. Villa Attorney for Mr. Trujillo

          Paul Mysliwiec Assistant United States Attorney

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MARTHA VÁZQUEZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant Gabriel Trujillo's Second Motion to Suppress Evidence. Doc. 43. The government filed a timely Response in opposition [Doc. 47] and Mr. Trujillo filed a Reply [Doc. 48]. The Court then held an evidentiary hearing on the Motion on October 11, 2019 [Doc. 56] and the parties submitted supplemental briefing as requested by the Court. Docs. 58 and 59. Having considered the briefs, testimony, exhibits, relevant law, and being otherwise fully informed, the Court finds that the Motion is well-taken and will be GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND

         This Motion concerns the decision of a Bernalillo County Sheriff's deputy to impound a vehicle incident to arrest, a decision that allowed him to conduct a warrantless inventory search of the vehicle and eventually discover the drugs leading to the charges in this case. The legality of the inventory search is not at issue here; as explained below, the Court found it lawful in denying Mr. Trujillo's first Motion to Suppress Evidence. See Doc. 31. What the Court now finds unconstitutional is the deputy's prior decision to impound the vehicle pursuant to a Sheriff's Department policy that calls for the impoundment of all vehicles upon the arrest of the driver with only one limited exception. Because the deputy's application of that policy in this case foreclosed the consideration of reasonable alternatives, bypassed the issue of consent, and overrode the absence of a legitimate community-caretaking rationale, the impoundment was unconstitutional and the fruits of the resulting search must be suppressed.

         I. Facts

         The Court laid out most of the facts pertinent to this Motion in its Memorandum Opinion and Order denying Mr. Trujillo's first Motion to Suppress Evidence. Doc. 31 at 1-6. The Court now summarizes those earlier findings of fact, which it supplements with additional findings based on the testimony and exhibits from the October 11, 2019 evidentiary hearing on the instant Motion.[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. Doc. 31 at 1-2. The speed limit on that part of Central Avenue was 25 miles per hour. Id. at 2. The deputy notified dispatch about the car. Id. He then turned around and pursued the car, catching up at around Central Avenue and Unser Boulevard. Id. The car was traveling south on Unser, and Deputy Skroch followed. Id. The deputy first engaged his lights and then activated his siren in an attempt to conduct a traffic stop. Id. The car did not stop, but continued to drive at about the speed limit. Id. By this time, the deputy could tell that the vehicle was a Ford Mustang. Id.

         About a half mile south of Central, the car got into the left-hand turn lane to turn eastbound on Bridge Boulevard. Id. The driver rolled down his window, and Deputy Skroch saw him sprinkle something out of it. Id. The discarded object did not appear to be a cigarette or a cigarette butt, and based his training and experience, Deputy Skroch believed it to be a controlled substance. Id. The driver then turned eastbound onto Bridge, continuing to fail to yield to the deputy's emergency equipment. Id. Eventually, the car turned into the entrance to a gated community and came to a stop. Id.

         Precisely where the car was located when it came to a stop, and its position relative to the entrance to the gated community, is of central importance to the instant Motion. A picture taken by the defense shows that the entranceway to the community consists of an unmarked roadway leading up to a gate. Doc. 43 Ex. 1. The roadway is divided by a median into two sections as the gate approaches: a section on the right-hand side for vehicles to enter the community, and a section on the left-hand side for vehicles to exit. See id. From the picture, it appears that at least two cars can fit side-by-side on each the entrance and exit side of the roadway. See id. Because the median does not run all the way to Bridge, a section of the road farther back from the gate is undivided. See id. Although the picture taken by the defense shows that the curbs on both sides of the entranceway are now painted with the words “No Parking, ” those markings do not appear to have been present when Mr. Trujillo stopped there on the night he was arrested. See Doc. 57 at 53:12- 54:15.

         At the October 11, 2019 evidentiary hearing, the defense also submitted two pictures of Mr. Trujillo's vehicle taken on the night in question. One of the pictures shows that the Mustang was stopped on the right-hand entrance side of the roadway facing towards the gate. See Defendant's Exhibit B. The car was mostly parallel with the curb as it was stopped, although its tail end was angled slightly away from it. Id. The car was also set off from the curb by what appears to be a few feet. Id. The photographs additionally show that Mr. Trujillo had stopped far enough back from the gate such that the Mustang remained in the part of the roadway not yet divided by the median. Id.

         At the hearing, Deputy Skroch testified that the vehicle “was parked on the right side, but not all the way to the right curb.” Doc. 57 at 15:15-16. He further testified that the Mustang was “in the way of people trying to enter the gate” [Id. at 15:16-17] and that there would not have been enough room for another vehicle to enter the community even if it was moved to the curb [Id. at 20:21-24]. The credibility of that statement is called into question by the picture of the entranceway taken later by the defense. See Doc. 43 Ex. 1. Although it does not depict Mr. Trujillo's Mustang on the night in question, the picture clearly shows that the entranceway is wide enough to allow a vehicle to proceed into the community past another that was parked along the right-hand curb. Id. Deputy Skroch additionally testified that while traffic was on the lighter side at the time of the stop, it was “starting to pick up at that point in time because people were starting to leave that gated community, in particular, to head to work.” Doc. 57 at 20:10-12.

         After Mr. Trujillo turned into the entranceway of the gated community, Deputy Skroch conducted a felony traffic stop, drawing his service weapon and giving commands from his car window without approaching. Doc. 31 at 2. Mr. Trujillo complied and was placed into handcuffs by the deputy's partner. Id. at 3. After receiving Miranda warnings, Mr. Trujillo stated that he did not immediately yield to the deputies' emergency lights because he was looking for a safe place to pull over. Doc. 31 at 3. Not believing this explanation, Deputy Skroch decided to arrest him. Id. at 3-4. The deputy then approached the Mustang to visually clear it for other occupants. Doc. 57 at 33:13-16. When he looked through the window of the car, he noticed several firearms, including a Glock handgun, a Sig Sauer handgun, and what appeared to be a rifle case in the backseat. Doc. 31 at 3.

         Deputy Skroch expressed concern at the recent evidentiary hearing that Mr. Trujillo's car might have been burglarized had he left it unattended with the firearms in plain sight. Doc. 57 at 17:17-24. However, the deputy's testimony made clear that he had decided to tow the Mustang before he had visually cleared it and observed the firearms. He discussed the timing of his decision to impound the car during the following exchange with defense counsel:

Q: Okay. So it was at some point during the conversation you had with Mr. Trujillo that you decided you were going to impound this vehicle and tow it?
Skroch: It was-I knew that the vehicle was going to get towed.
Q: When did you know that?
Skroch: As soon as the handcuffs were on.
Q: So even before you visually cleared the car?
Skroch: Yes, sir.
Q: You knew it was going to get towed?
Skroch: Yes, sir.

         Doc 57. at 34:1-10. Defense ...


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