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United States v. Mendoza

June 20, 2007

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
MICHAEL MENDOZA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conti, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Defendant Michael Mendoza ("Mendoza" or "defendant") was indicted on May 5, 2006, on one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine on or about May 2005, and continuing thereafter until December 2005, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846. Defendant filed a pretrial motion with this court on September 19, 2006. In his pretrial motion, defendant raised six suppression issues related to his detention and arrest. The government filed a response to this motion on October 22, 2006 and a supplemental response to defendant's motion to suppress evidence and statements on March 5, 2007. A suppression hearing was held on March 12, 2007.

At the hearing on defendant's motion for suppression, the court addressed the following arguments: 1) whether the traffic stop of defendant's vehicle was made without reasonable suspicion; 2) whether the searches of defendant's person, vehicle and residence were conducted pursuant to a valid consent; and 3) whether statements made by defendant were as a result of a custodial interrogation and in violation of defendant's Miranda rights. Essentially, although six issues were raised by defendant in his motion to suppress evidence, there were three main thrusts of defendant's arguments: whether there was reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop of defendant's vehicle; whether statements made by defendant were in violation of defendant's Miranda rights; and whether the consents to search his person, his vehicle and his residence were voluntary and, thus, valid.

The court heard testimony from Special Agent Brett Pritts, Task Force Officer Edward Walker and Task Force Officer Robert Veinovich. After hearing testimony and argument from counsel for both defendant and the government, the court ruled on two of defendant's challenges. Among other things, the court found that the government proved by a preponderance of the evidence that there was reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. Therefore, the patdown search of defendant was proper. The court also found that statements made by defendant following the initial traffic stop and the subsequent arrest of defendant were made after defendant was advised of his Miranda rights. The court found that these statements would not be suppressed. The only remaining issue relates to whether the handcuffing of defendant invalidated the verbal and written consents given for the search of defendant's person, vehicle and residence.

After the suppression hearing, defendant and the government each submitted proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law regarding whether defendant's consents to search his person, his vehicle and his residence were valid.

On this 20th day of June 2007, the court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect to the remaining issue raised in defendant's motion to suppress evidence.

I. Findings of Fact

1. On January 5, 2006, law enforcement officers conducted surveillance on a home located at 1213 Spring Garden Avenue (the "Spring Garden residence"). (Tr.12)*fn1 . Law enforcement officers knew the Spring Garden residence was a "stash house" for illegal narcotics because a confidential informant had previously purchased narcotics from the Spring Garden residence. (Tr.10-11 ). During the surveillance, officers saw defendant leave the Spring Garden residence and drive away in a vehicle that bore a Texas license plate. (Tr. 12 ). Task Force Officer Walker ("Walker") followed defendant when defendant left the Spring Garden residence. (Tr. 45 ). Defendant went to a different residence, located at 1108 Province Street, and emerged from the residence with a large plastic garbage bag. (Tr.13, 54 ). Defendant returned to his vehicle with the bag and proceeded driving through the North Side section of the City of Pittsburgh. (Tr. 54 ).

2. Less than one hour after defendant left the Spring Garden residence, a confidential informant entered the Spring Garden residence and purchased one kilogram of cocaine from two members of a drug trafficking organization in a second controlled purchase. (Tr.12). The confidential informant had previously executed a controlled purchase of a large amount of cocaine from the same two individuals, at the same location. (Tr. 8). The two individuals had previously informed the confidential informant that their cocaine source of supply was from Texas. (Tr. 12).

3. After the confidential informant made the controlled purchase, the two individuals were arrested by law enforcement officers. (Tr. 13). Immediately following the arrest, law enforcement officers executed a search warrant on the Spring Garden residence and discovered approximately six kilograms of cocaine and other drug trafficking materials. (Tr. 13-14).

4. Upon discovering the cocaine and other drug trafficking paraphernalia, law enforcement officers notified Walker and advised him of the results of the search. (Tr. 14). Walker immediately initiated a traffic stop of defendant's vehicle. (Tr. 45). The traffic stop of defendant's vehicle occurred at approximately 6:50 p.m. (Tr.45 ). Walker approached the vehicle with his weapon drawn and ordered defendant out of the vehicle. (Tr.46 ). Defendant complied with Walker's instructions. (Tr.46 ). Shortly after Walker stopped defendant's vehicle, back up officers, Task Force Officers Jeffrey Brautigam ("Brautigam"), Rick Szurley ("Szurley") and Daniel Soroczak ("Soroczak"), arrived to assist Walker. (Tr.47 ). Once the backup officers arrived, Walker holstered his firearm and asked defendant to accompany him to the rear of the vehicle. (Tr.47-48 ). Defendant complied with Walker's request. (Tr.48 ). Walker's tone of voice and interaction with defendant were cordial and professional. (Tr. 48). Walker's weapon was drawn for approximately ten seconds. (Tr.72 ).

5. Upon reaching the back of defendant's vehicle, approximately one minute after defendant exited his vehicle, Walker conducted a patdown search of defendant's person. (Tr. 48, 73). Walker asked defendant if he would mind emptying the contents of his pockets onto the roof of the car. (Tr. 49, 71-72). Defendant agreed to do so and emptied his pockets onto the car. (Tr. 49). Brautigam retrieved defendant's identification from his wallet and informed Walker of defendant's name. (Tr. 49). Upon hearing defendant's name, Walker remembered defendant from a previous arrest and conviction involving possession of one kilogram of cocaine. (Tr. 49-50).

6. Thereafter, defendant was handcuffed behind his back. (Tr. 50, 62). Walker informed defendant that he was being handcuffed for officer safety. (Tr. 50). Walker also informed defendant that he was not under arrest but that he was being detained as part of an on-going investigation. (Tr. 50, 68).

7. Five minutes after initiating the traffic stop, at approximately 6:55 p.m., Walker read defendant his Miranda warnings. (Tr. 51, 74). Defendant acknowledged that he understood his rights and agreed to speak with the officers. (Tr. 51-52). Defendant did not appear to ...


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