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United States v. Rodriguez

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

October 19, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
GONSALO ESTEBAN COLINA RODRIGUEZ, Defendant.

          ORDER

          DAVID C. NORTON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the court on a motion to suppress filed by Gonzalo Esteban Colina Rodriguez (“Rodriguez”). Based on the parties' filings and the evidence produced at the hearing on this matter, the court denies the motion to suppress.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On June 17, 2017, at about 12:37 A.M., Lance Corporal K.L. Bird (“Bird”) of the South Carolina Highway Patrol (“SCHP”) stopped a maroon BMW hatchback with Florida plates for improper lane violations as it headed south on Interstate 95. The government claims that, due to the lane violations and the time of night, Bird was concerned that the driver might be impaired by intoxication and/or lack of sleep. For several minutes at the beginning of the stop, Bird engaged in casual conversation with Rodriguez, which the government argues was part of his investigation into whether Rodriguez was impaired. During this conversation, Bird learned that Rodriguez was from Cuba, spoke some English, and was travelling with his brother who was sitting in the passenger seat. After several minutes of conversation, Bird went back to his patrol vehicle to transmit Rodriguez's information to the El Paso Intelligence Center (“EPIC”), a database containing information from different law enforcement agencies. It took about 20 minutes for Bird to give the pertinent information to EPIC and to receive the results. After finishing his search of the EPIC database, Bird got out of his car and returned to Rodriguez to briefly ask further questions about his trip, the items in his vehicle, and whether he had any illegal contraband. Bird then returned Rodriguez's personal documents to him and explained the warning that Rodriguez was receiving for the traffic violation. During this conversation, Bird had the written warning in his hand extended to Rodriguez, although Rodriguez did not take the warning. Bird then asked Rodriguez if he could search the vehicle. Rodriguez paused and then replied “Ok” and “Yeah.” For the next ten minutes, Bird and another trooper who had arrived on the scene searched the vehicle and found about $134, 500 in U.S. currency hidden under the backseat in heat-sealed plastic bags. The other officer then read Rodriguez and his brother Miranda warnings and placed them under arrest.

         Rodriguez was indicted on one count of aiding and abetting bulk cash smuggling into the United States, in violation of 31 U.S.C. § 5332 and 18 U.S.C. § 2. On December 21, 2017, Rodriguez filed a motion to suppress this evidence, claiming that he was unreasonably detained and that he did not validly consent to the search. On March 23, 2018, the government filed a response. The court held a hearing on June 20, 2018. The government and defense filed post-hearing supplemental briefs. The motion is now ripe for the court's review.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Rodriguez challenges the seizure of the evidence found in his car based on two grounds: (1) the traffic stop became an illegal detention when Bird impermissibly extended the stop; and (2) the search was not consensual.

         A. Was the stop impermissibly extended?

         The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right of the people “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. A traffic stop is a “seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and must be reasonable under the circumstances. See Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653-54 (1979). A warrantless search is “per se unreasonable” unless one of the specifically established exceptions, like consent, is present. Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 219, (1973). The constitutionality of a traffic stop is assessed under the two-prong standard in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). First, the articulated basis for the traffic stop must be legitimate. See United States v. Rusher, 966 F.2d 868, 875 (4th Cir. 1992). Second, the officers' actions during the traffic stop must be “reasonably related in scope” to the basis for the seizure. Id.

         This first prong is satisfied “whenever it is lawful for police to detain an automobile and its occupants pending inquiry into a vehicular violation.” Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323, 327 (2009). A “vehicular violation” includes a failure to comply with traffic laws. Id. In Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-810 (1996), the Supreme Court held that a traffic stop did not violate the plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights where the officer had probable cause to believe several vehicle code violations had been committed. The Whren court stated that “[a]s a general matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.” Id.

         Rodriguez does not question the validity of the initial stop. Bird testified that he initially stopped the vehicle because he observed it quickly change lanes and “extend[] on over into the emergency lane, crossing the white line to the right.” Tr. 52:5-10. Bird testified that swerving over the solid white line on a highway constitutes a traffic violation. Id. Thus, the traffic stop met the requirements of the first prong of Terry.

         The second prong of the Terry test asks if the officer took impermissible actions after initiating the traffic stop. “If a police officer wants to detain a driver beyond the scope of a routine traffic stop, [ ] he must possess a justification for doing so other than the initial traffic violation . . . [and] a prolonged automobile stop requires either the driver's consent or a reasonable suspicion that illegal activity is afoot.” United States v. Branch, 537 F.3d 328, 336 (4th Cir. 2008). “Authority for the seizure . . . ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are-or reasonably should have been-completed.” Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609, 1614 (2015). A stop exceeds “the permissible duration and scope of a routine traffic stop” when the officer “fail[s] to diligently pursue the purposes of the stop and embark[s] on a sustained course of investigation into the presence of [contraband] in the car that constitute[s] the bulk of the encounter between the officer and the defendant.” United States v. Guijon-Ortiz, 660 F.3d 757, 759 (4th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). A de minimis delay does not violate the Fourth Amendment; rather “the principal inquiry . . . is the officer's diligence-i.e., his persevering or devoted application to accomplish the undertaking of ascertaining whether the suspected traffic violation occurred, and, if necessary, issuing a ticket.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Officers may conduct certain safety-related checks such as requesting a driver's license and vehicle registration, checking for criminal records, and outstanding arrest warrants, “so long as” these unrelated inquires did not “measurably extend the duration of the stop.” Rodriguez, 135 S.Ct. at 615. “[A]n officer reasonably may search a computer database during a traffic stop to determine an individual's prior contact with local law enforcement, just as an officer may engage in the indisputably proper action of searching computer databases for an individual's outstanding warrants.” United States v. Hill, 852 F.3d 377, 379 (4th Cir. 2017). Further, an officer's decision to search databases beyond those of the Department of Motor Vehicles (“DMV”) and the National Crime Information Center (“NCIC”) does not violate a defendant's Fourth Amendment rights. Id.

         Having reviewed the dashcam footage from Bird's police vehicle, which began recording the moment that Bird turned on his blue lights, the court finds that his actions meet the requirements of the second prong of Terry. From the moment the dashcam video began recording until minute 2 of the dashcam video, Bird was pulling over Rodriguez and notifying South Carolina Highway Patrol dispatch of the stop. Tr. 56:18- 57:17. At 2:15, Bird approached the passenger side of the vehicle. From 2:30-3:50, Bird requested and received Rodriguez's license and registration and asked Rodriguez several times to step out of the vehicle. From 4:00-8:30, Bird conversed with Rodriguez and his brother about where they were coming from and where they were going. At the hearing, Bird explained that-because of the late hour and the fact that he observed the car quickly change lanes and swerve over the white fog line-he was concerned that the driver might be impaired, either due to intoxication or lack of sleep. Tr. 64:12-18, 65:1- 3, 69:14-18, 70:15-19, 70:7-19. Bird chose to spend several minutes making conversation with Rodriguez to determine whether he was impaired and whether he would be a danger to himself and others if he was allowed back on the road. Id. Bird also chose to have Rodriguez step out of the vehicle and have this conversation behind the car because it was safer for them both, it would be easier for Bird to determine any impairment, and it would be easier for the dashcam video ...


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