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United States of America v. Oscar Lopez Hernandez

February 4, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: U. S. District Judge Honorable Edward J. Lodge


Pending before the Court in this matter is Defendant's Motion to Suppress all evidence obtained as a consequence of a traffic stop and the resulting search of the vehicle and containers therein and/or any statements made by the Defendant following his arrest. The Government opposes the motion. On January 10, 2011, the Court held a hearing on the Motion and took the matter under advisement, directing the parties to submit supplemental briefing on the Motion. The parties have now filed their supplemental briefing and the matter is ripe for the Court's consideration.

Factual Background

On April 17, 2010, at approximately 5:00 p.m., Idaho State Police Trooper Brady Barnes observed a black 1990 Honda Accord traveling on Interstate 15 just north of Pocatello, Idaho. The vehicle's window tinting appeared to Trooper Barnes to exceed that allowed by Idaho Code § 49-944 which is a civil traffic infraction. Trooper Barnes executed a traffic stop on the vehicle which was being driven by the Defendant, Oscar Lopez Hernandez, and occupied by a female passenger, the Defendant's wife, who was pregnant at the time. Upon initial contact, Trooper Barnes testified that he observed the Defendant's eyes were bloodshot and glossy, his speech was excited, and he appeared to be nervous. The officer further testified that the Defendant gave changing and conflicting stories regarding the vehicle's ownership and his path of travel. Corporal Barnes testified he noticed the internal paneling in the vehicle appeared to have been removed and replaced which, based on his training and experience, he knew to be an indication that the vehicle was used for drug trafficking. Ultimately, the Defendant was unable to produce a valid identification or driver's license and admitted that his driver's license was suspended. The Defendant did give the Trooper his social security number. Trooper Barnes returned to his patrol car and confirmed through dispatch that the Defendant had an invalid driver's license.

Trooper Barnes reapproached the car asking the Defendant to exit the vehicle and told him he would be cited for driving on an invalid driver's license. Trooper Barnes engaged in further inquiry of the Defendant including having him perform a field sobriety test. Trooper Barnes then asked if he could search the vehicle. Trooper Barnes testified the Defendant verbally consented to the search. In following department protocol, Trooper Barnes then called for a second officer to respond to the scene.

While waiting for the second officer, Trooper Barnes performed the pat down search of the Defendant and continued talking with the Defendant. Once the second officer arrived, they commenced a search of the vehicle and ultimately found methamphetamine in a tool box located under the passenger seat of the car. The Defendant was placed under arrest and read his Miranda rights. The Government has filed a Superseding Indictment charging the Defendant with Conspiracy to Distribute a Controlled Substance, Possession with Intent to Distribute a Controlled Substance, and lists a Criminal Forfeiture Allegation. (Dkt. No. 25.)


I. The Traffic Stop

The Defendant does not question the legality of the traffic stop itself as it was made with the requisite reasonable suspicion of an actual traffic infraction; i.e. violation of Idaho Code § 49-944. (Dkt. No. 33, p. 7.) Instead, the Defendant asserts the scope and duration of the stop were excessive and in violation of his constitutional rights. The Government counters that the stop was lawful, the scope of the stop was not impermissibly expanded, and the stop was of a reasonable length given the totality of the circumstances.

A. Scope of the Traffic Stop

The constitutionality of an investigative detention is judged under the framework established in Terry v. Ohio, requiring that the scope of an investigative detention "must be carefully tailored to its underlying justification ..., and [may] last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop." 392 U.S. 1, 19 (1968). Questions prolonging the detention must be "reasonably related in scope to the justification of [the] initiation," unless additional suspicious factors supported by reasonable suspicion justify a broadening of that scope. United States v. Mendez, 476 F.3d 1077, 1080 (9th Cir. 2007). "Reasonable suspicion" requires a minimal level of objective justification, more than an inchoate or unparticularized suspicion or "hunch," but less than probable cause. United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7, (1989). In assessing the existence of reasonable suspicion, the court considers the totality of the circumstances. United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273, 122 S.Ct. 744, 151 L.Ed.2d 740 (2002).

The events leading up to Corporal Barnes' questions in this case require the Court to decide whether the suspicious factors noted by the officer -- the Defendant's bloodshot/glassy eyes, excited speech, nervousness, and conflicting story -- were sufficient to justify the officer's further investigation and inquiry into criminal activity other than the traffic infraction. Permissible deductions and rational inferences drawn from an officer's experience, training, and expertise form a part of the officer's "collective knowledge," as long as rooted in "objective facts" and as long as amenable to "rational explanation." United States v. Michael R., 90 F.3d 340, 346 (9th Cir. 1996) (a "gloss on this rule prohibits reasonable suspicion from being based on broad profiles which cast suspicion on entire categories of people without any individualized suspicion of the particular person to be stopped.") (citation omitted).

Having viewed the video of the stop, considered the testimony of the witnesses at the hearing, and reviewing the record herein, the Court finds the stop and subsequent inquiry were proper and supported by reasonable suspicion. It is undisputed that Corporal Barnes had a valid basis for the initial stop. See Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 810 (1996) (holding no Fourth Amendment violation occurs when an officer stops a driver if the officer has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.). Corporal Barnes limited his initial inquiry of the Defendant to standard questions regarding driver's licenses and vehicle registration which were properly tailored to the reason for the stop, the traffic infraction, and therefore did not exceed the scope of the stop. See United States v. ChavezValenzuela, 268 F.3d 719, 724 (9th Cir. 2001), amended by 279 F.3d 1062 (9th Cir. 2002) ("An officer must initially restrict the questions he asks during a stop to those that are reasonably related to the justification for the stop."). During this initial contact with the Defendant, Corporal Barnes noticed suspicious factors which were particularized and objective. Corporal Barnes testified that the Defendant had glassy and bloodshot eyes, was more nervous than the average citizen, and his "story" did not make sense.*fn1 Based on his initial observations of the Defendant as well as the fact that the Defendant was driving with an invalid license, the conflicting description for his route of travel, his explanation for possessing a vehicle owned by another individual, and his observations regarding the suspicious paneling inside the vehicle, Corporal Barnes was justified in expanding the scope of his questioning.

The defense questions the credibility of Corporal Barnes' testimony at the hearing noting he did not reference the appearance of the Defendant's eyes or nervousness on the video at the time of the stop. (Dkt. No. 33, p. 3.) The Court does not find the fact that Corporal Barnes did not specifically mention these factors on the video at the beginning of the stop to render his testimony untrustworthy. These observations were made during the course of Corporal Barnes initial questioning. It would be counter-productive for Corporal Barnes to reveal to the Defendant all of his suspicions during his inquiry as it might tip off the Defendant or otherwise compromise Corporal Barnes' investigation. Notably, after he asked the Defendant to step out of the car, Corporal Barnes told the Defendant he noticed his "eyes were glassy and real bloodshot" and asked him if that was typical. (Govnt. Ex. 1, Video at 18:33.) Corporal Barnes informed the Defendant that he was concerned about alcohol or marijuana use because of the appearance of his eyes. (Govnt. Ex. 1, Video at 19:15.) The officer then performed the field sobriety test. Corporal Barnes ...

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