This tailgating wasn't party time

Can an officer follow search and seizure procedures during a wall stop? The court decides in this recent case


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UNITED STATES V. REYES, 2022 WL 168320 (1st Cir. 2022)

Postal inspectors and state troopers began investigating a drug distribution operation after learning of suspicious packages being sent to several persons associated with suspected drug kingpin Pablo Santiago-Cruz. The parcels featured fictitious sender information (either a fake sender name or undeliverable return address, or both); deliverable, but slightly incorrect, addresses for recipients; postage paid in cash; and handwritten mailing labels all in the same handwriting but listing different senders’ names. Five of the packages were sent to Carlos Reyes, Jr. and delivered in controlled deliveries by postal inspectors posing as mail carriers.

When the investigators decided to make a final controlled delivery to Reyes, a postal inspector delivered the package to 45 Winthrop Street. Reyes lived in a duplex at 47 Winthrop Street, which shared the porch with 45 Winthrop Street. Approximately 10 minutes after delivery, someone came out and carried the parcel into the home at 47 Winthrop Street.

Several hours later, Reyes arrived home. He soon came back out with the parcel, got into his car and pulled into the street. A large surveillance team began to follow him. After 30 minutes of mobile surveillance, a trooper broadcast that Reyes had committed a tailgating violation and another trooper broadcast that Reyes had exceeded the speed limit. A single trooper in a marked cruiser stopped Reyes and conducted the stop as if he was not aware of the suspected drug trafficking.

When asked where he was going, Reyes could not identify his destination beyond “Boston.” The trooper was aware Reyes had prior convictions for firearms and assault, including assault and battery on an officer and, over the course of the conversation, Reyes acknowledged he had previously served time in prison for a drug violation. The trooper observed Reyes was “extremely nervous and was crumpling something in his left hand.” When the trooper asked to see the object, he saw the Priority Mail label from that day’s controlled delivery of cocaine.

The trooper asked Reyes for his consent to search the car for drugs and weapons and Reyes agreed. The trooper then asked Reyes get out of the car and called for a drug detection canine team. When the detector dog team arrived, the trooper handcuffed Reyes and placed him in the back-passenger seat of the patrol car, telling Reyes he was not under arrest, but that the handcuffing and placement in the car were for his safety during the dog sniff.

The dog sniffed the passenger areas and trunk. When the handler opened the trunk, the dog jumped into it, immediately focusing on a box containing a Girl Scout Cookie Oven and gave a positive final response to the odor of controlled substances.

Reyes gave inconsistent explanations about the box, ultimately saying a girl had given him the box and that he did not know what was inside of it. The trooper opened the box and looked inside the toy oven, finding a kilogram of cocaine inside. He arrested Reyes.

Reyes asked the trial court to suppress the physical evidence, claiming there was no valid basis for the stop and search. He denied that he committed any traffic violations to justify the initial stop and claimed he did not consent to the search. He told the court his statements should be suppressed because the stop was a de facto arrest that required Miranda warnings (which were not given). The trial court observed, “There is a difference between giving consent happily and giving it voluntarily.” The judge concluded that Reyes twice voluntarily consented to the search of his vehicle and that “the actual search conducted did not exceed the scope of the consent that was given.” The trial court denied the motion and Reyes appealed.

Reyes argued the trooper made numerous inconsistent statements about the details of the stop and arrest. The trial court ruled the trooper was credible and the court of appeals held that Reyes failed to marshal any evidence against the court’s determination that the trooper was credible. Further, the court of appeals held that the minor discrepancies in the trooper’s testimony (if indeed there were any) were not adequately challenged in Reyes’ testimony. The appellate court also rejected Reyes’ claim that the trial court erred in ruling that the trooper was “effectively alone,” thus supporting the safety measure of handcuffing Reyes, because additional officers covertly monitored the stop from a parking lot nearby.

Reyes also invoked the rule established in Rodriguez v. United States (575 U.S. 348 (2015)) that a stop may “last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the initial purpose of the stop. Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are – or reasonably should have been – completed.” Reyes claimed the traffic stop “became an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment when the trooper detoured from the mission of traffic enforcement in pursuit of evidence to further an unrelated criminal investigation without reasonable suspicion.” However, although the stop was conducted as a “wall stop,” as if the trooper knew nothing about Reyes’s suspected involvement in drug distribution, the trooper did know about the controlled delivery earlier that same day. Moreover, the trooper knew of Reyes’ criminal history and his suspected involvement in a much larger drug dealing conspiracy. That information, coupled with the trooper’s observation about Reyes’ extreme nervousness, his inability to give details about his destination, and possession of the priority mail label from a package known to contain drugs, all provided reasonable suspicion for extending the duration and scope of the traffic stop.

The trooper performed his part of the investigation well. He articulated an independent basis for the stop, carefully obtained consent to search (which would have been enough to defeat Reyes’ Rodriguez claim on an alternative basis) and explained that Reyes was not under arrest but was handcuffed and placed in the car for his own safety. Knowing the rules about traffic stops and following them leads to an unhappy ending for Reyes.

NEXT: Paint by the numbers in traffic stops

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