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United States v. Vallejos

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 22, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
ALBERT VALLEJOS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JUDITH C. HERRERA SENIOR. U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         Defendant moves to suppress gun and other evidence law enforcement officers found in the vehicle he was driving, arguing that officers conducted a pretextual inventory search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Court held a hearing on the motion on October 22, 2019. After carefully considering the motion, briefs, evidence and relevant law, the Court denies the motion.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         On February 13, 2019, officers had a warrant in hand for Defendant's arrest for a January 2019 shooting during which Defendant allegedly shot four rounds at a person named “F.C.” Suppression Hearing Motion Transcript, 12:20-22; 14:1-8; 25:11-13 (Mot. Hr.'g Tr.). Officers stopped Defendant as he was driving a car registered to his mother.[1] Id. 3:24-25; 49:12-25. Defendant pulled the vehicle over next to the entrance of the UNM Cancer Center in Albuquerque and in front of the fire lane and main entrance. Id. 49:22-25; 50:1-7. He was arrested on the spot without incident. Id. 50:11-12.

         As Defendant stood handcuffed outside of the vehicle he drove, officers peered into the vehicle's driver's side window. Def.'s Ex. A. At some point, Detective Koury Church began an on-the-scene inventory search of the vehicle. Def.'s Ex. B. He opened the driver's door, looked under the driver's seat, and saw a gun. Id.; Mot. Hr'g. Tr. 57:11-19. Church then stopped the inventory and asked his colleague, Detective Donald Piatt, for guidance on how to proceed. Id. 58:7-12. Following Piatt's recommendation, Church sealed the vehicle and towed it in preparation of a warrant to later search the car. Id. 58:12-14. Officers did not remove any items from the car at that time, except possibly the keys. Id. 58:25 - 59:1. Nor did they produce an inventory list. Id. 58:17-19.

         The next day, on February 14, 2019, Detective Piatt obtained a warrant to search the car for any firearms, ammunition, and related equipment. Govt.'s Ex. 3. Detective Piatt executed the search warrant that same day, leading to the discovery of the handgun at issue, two handgun magazines, .45 caliber bullets, and a firearm holster. Id.; Mot. Hr'g. Tr. 24:1-25. Piatt listed these items on the search warrant return and inventory, which the Government introduced into the evidentiary record. Govt.'s Ex. 3.

         Defendant challenges the seizure of the gun and gun-related evidence, saying that the first search of his mother's car did not qualify as an inventory search because officers: (1) undertook the search without following standardized criteria; (2) did not produce an inventory; and (3) decided to impound the truck only after seeing the gun, suggesting that they were motivated to find criminal evidence. At the suppression hearing, Defendant argued for the first time that a tow of the vehicle could have been avoided, but that police officers purposely arrested Defendant in a public place, knowing that they impound and inventory the vehicle without a warrant.

         II. FOURTH AMENDMENT OVERVIEW

         The Fourth Amendment provides in relevant part: “The right of the people to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. In general, law enforcement officers must obtain a warrant supported by probable cause before conducting a search or seizure. See Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 459 (2011). One exception to the warrant requirement is for inventory searches of lawfully seized automobiles. See Illinois v. Lafayette, 462 U.S. 640, 643 (1983). An inventory search of a lawfully impounded automobile is reasonable even if it is conducted without a warrant and in the absence of probable cause to believe that criminal evidence will be discovered. See South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976); United States v. Tueller, 349 F.3d 1239, 1243 (10th Cir. 2003) (“inventory searches need not be supported by a warrant or probable cause.”). “It is common practice for the police to conduct an inventory of the contents of vehicles they have taken into their custody or are about to impound.” Id. (citation and quotation marks omitted).

         However, if the administrative search is merely a pretext for a criminal investigation then evidence found during an inventory may be inadmissible. There are two criteria for inventory searches to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. See Tueller, 349 F.3d at 1243. First, such searches “are reasonable only if conducted according to standardized procedures.” Id. Second “[t]he policy or practice governing inventory searches should be designed to produce an inventory, [] in other words, an inventory search must be justified by the administrative purposes of such searches.” Id. (citations and quotation marks omitted). “[A]n inventory search must not be a ruse for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence.” Id. (quoting Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1, 4 (1990)). The government carries the burden of demonstrating reasonableness. See United States v. Taylor, 592 F.3d 1104, 1107 (10th Cir. 2010); see also United States v. Sanders, 796 F.3d 1241, 1244 (10th Cir. 2015) (“The government bears the burden of proving that its impoundment of a vehicle satisfies the Fourth Amendment.”). If “searching agents act in bad faith or solely for the purpose of investigation … [t]he fruit of the evidence, however, will be suppressed.” United States v. Haro-Salcedo, 107 F.3d 769, 772 (10th Cir. 1997).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Lawfulness of the Inventory Search

         Officers acted according to the Albuquerque Police Department's towing and impoundment policy, which the Government introduced into the evidentiary record. That policy required the impoundment of Defendant's mother's vehicle because a vehicle “will” be towed when “[t]he driver has been … arrested.” Albuquerque Police Department Procedural Orders, Towing and Wrecker Services, § 2-48-2(B)(1), ECF No. 23-2 (“SOP”). It is undisputed that Defendant was lawfully arrested on a warrant when officers peered through the car window and later looked under the driver's seat. Second, under Supreme Court precedent, officers could impound the vehicle because it was located in a public lot, in front of a fire lane and near the entrance and exit to a medical center. See Opperman, 428 U.S. at 369 (the “authority of police to seize and remove from the streets vehicles impeding traffic or threatening public safety and convenience is beyond challenge.”)

         At the suppression hearing, Defendant argued for the first time that officers purposely waited to arrest Defendant in public to skirt APD's policy prohibiting tows of vehicles at the driver's residence or registered address. See SOP § 2-48-2(B)(1) (“[o]fficers will not tow if the vehicle is parked at the driver's place of residence, or his/her registered address.”) Officers could have arrested Defendant in an apartment complex where they began their surveillance of him, Defendant says. Instead, they covertly followed him to yet another apartment complex where they also could have arrested him. ...


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