United States District Court, D. New Mexico
J. Villa Attorney for Mr. Trujillo
Mysliwiec Assistant United States Attorney
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
VÁZQUEZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Skroch: Yes, sir.
Q: You knew it was going to get towed?
Skroch: Yes, sir.
at 34:1-10. Defense ...