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United States v. Rodas

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Orlando Division

February 13, 2018




         This Matter comes before the Court after an evidentiary hearing on the Motion to Suppress (Doc. 24) and the Government's Response in Opposition (Doc. 26).

         I. Factual Background and Procedural History

         In the early morning of October 3, 2017, Jorge Rodas was driving a pick-up truck south on Tradeport Drive in Orlando, Florida. As he and his passenger approached a 7-Eleven gas station on the right, two Border Patrol agents, Edward Cardona and Ruben Martinez, were about to pull out of the 7-Eleven and onto Tradeport Drive. After observing the truck's occupants, the agents decided to follow the Defendant, eventually pulling up alongside him and later getting behind him and requesting a check of his license plate. The license plate check revealed that the vehicle was registered to a woman who had previously entered the United States without inspection, but at the time of the incident, possessed a valid work permit. After continuing to follow the Defendant along Tradeport Drive for about two miles, the agents stopped the Defendant just as he merged onto the entrance ramp to State Road 528. The Defendant was arrested and has been charged with illegal reentry (Doc. 11).

         The Defendant filed a Motion to Suppress on December 6, 2017, and the Government filed its Response on December 13, 2017. The Court conducted an evidentiary hearing on the Motion on February 1, 2018.

         II. Legal Standards

         Unless the seizure occurs along America's border or its functional equivalent, the Fourth Amendment applies to all seizures of suspected illegal aliens, including seizures that involve only a brief detention short of traditional arrest. United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, 878-80 (1975); see also Almeida-Sanchez v. United States, 413 U.S. 266, 272 (1973). In Brignoni-Ponce, the Supreme Court held that when a law enforcement officer's observations lead him to reasonably suspect that a particular vehicle may contain aliens who are illegally in the country, he may stop the car briefly and investigate the circumstances that provoke suspicion. Id. at 881. Specifically, the court held that “officers on roving patrol may stop vehicles only if they are aware of specific articulable facts, together with rational inferences from those facts, that reasonably warrant suspicion that the vehicles contain aliens who may be illegally in the country.” Id. 884. The officer's reasonable suspicion must be based on the totality of the circumstances surrounding the encounter. Id. at 885 n.10. Of course, “reasonable suspicion may even exist if each fact ‘alone is susceptible of innocent explanation.'” United States v. Bautista-Silva, 567 F.3d 1266, 1272 (11th Cir. 2009) (quoting United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 277-78 (2002)). District courts must evaluate the totality of the circumstances in order to determine whether there was “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting legal wrongdoing.” Id. (quoting Arvizu, 534 U.S. at 273).

         The Brignoni-Ponce Court laid out a number of factors that may be considered in deciding whether there is reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle, including its proximity to the border, the usual patterns of traffic on the particular road, and the officer's previous experience with alien traffic. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. at 885-86.

The driver's behavior may be relevant, as erratic driving or obvious attempts to evade officers can support a reasonable suspicion. Aspects of the vehicle itself may justify suspicion. For instance, officers say that certain station wagons, with large compartments for fold-down seats or spare tires, are frequently used for transporting concealed aliens. The vehicle may appear to be heavily loaded, it may have an extraordinary number of passengers, or the officers may observe persons trying to hide. The Government also points out that trained officers can recognize the characteristic appearance of persons who live in Mexico, relying on such factors as the mode of dress and haircut. In all situations the officer is entitled to assess the facts in light of his experience in detecting illegal entry and smuggling.

Id. at 885 (internal citations omitted). The Eleventh Circuit has since clarified that the appropriate objective inquiry concerns specific agent experiences based on testimony, “not the purported experiences of other agents who did not testify.” United States v. Bautista-Silva, 567 F.3d 1266, 1273 (11th Cir. 2009). That Eleventh Circuit opinion reversed an order by this Court. See United States v. Bautista-Silva, No. 6:08-CR-68-ORL31KRS, 2008 WL 2484203 (M.D. Fla. June 19, 2008), rev'd and remanded, 567 F.3d 1266 (11th Cir. 2009).

         III. Analysis

         Bautista-Silva was an illegal smuggling case involving factors not present here.[1] One of the factors relied upon by the government in that case was that when approached by the government's vehicle, the defendant stared straight ahead instead of acknowledging the officers' presence. Here, the opposite occurred-the Defendant looked at the officers and allegedly exhibited “surprise.” The question before the Court now is whether a finding of reasonable suspicion comports with current Eleventh Circuit law. To determine this and comply with Bautista-Silva, the Court must view all of the factors relied on by the agents together, rather than in isolation. First, the Court will assess the credibility of the agents' testimony as it relates to the factors they relied upon. In this case, there is a significant amount of testimony about which the Court has serious credibility concerns.

         A. The Reactions of the Defendant and his Passenger

          During a preliminary hearing, Cardona testified that the basis of the traffic stop was the Defendant's “continuously looking at [Cardona] through the rear-view mirror.” Doc. 32-3 at 10-11. However, when Cardona testified at the evidentiary hearing, he did not mention the Defendant doing any such thing, even when he summarized the bases for the stop. See Tr. 35:8-24. Instead, with respect to the Defendant's facial reaction to the ...

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