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United States v. Alcide Fraguela-Casanova and Juan Carlos Almaguer

March 12, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Judge Conner)


Presently before the court is a motion (Doc. 61) to suppress evidence filed by defendants Alcide Fraguela-Casanova ("Fraguela") and Juan Carlos Almaguer ("Almaguer"). Fraguela and Almaguer contend that Pennsylvania State Police Corporal Manueal DeLeon ("Corporal DeLeon") violated their Fourth Amendments rights by unlawfully seizing them on October 25, 2010. For the following reasons, the court will grant the motion.

I. Factual Findings*fn1

On October 25, 2010, at approximately 11:20 a.m., Corporal DeLeon observed a vehicle driving in reverse on an entrance ramp at the Interstate 81 interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. (Sept. Hr'g Tr. at 5-6). Corporal DeLeon exited his squad car to resolve the traffic hazard and witnessed a tractor-trailer almost collide with the vehicle driving in reverse. (Id. at 6). Corporal DeLeon testified that tractor- trailer's driver did not in any way acknowledge his presence and that he observed a man hunched over in the passenger's seat.*fn2 (Id. at 6-7). The tractor-trailer entered the Pennsylvania Turnpike traveling eastbound. (Id. at 8).

Corporal DeLeon decided to follow the tractor-trailer. (Id.) Corporal DeLeon witnessed the tractor-trailer improperly change lanes without using its turn signal. (Id.) At approximately 11:25 a.m., Corporal DeLeon activated his lights and sirens and initiated the traffic stop. (Id. at 9); (Vid. R. at 11:25). At 11:26 a.m., Corporal DeLeon approached the tractor-trailer at mile marker 228.4 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. (Vid. R. at 11:26). The tractor-trailer contained Almaguer, the driver, and Fraguela, the passenger. Corporal DeLeon obtained Almaguer's commercial driver's license, registration, and logbook. (Sept. Hr'g Tr. at 10); (Vid. R. at 11:26). Almaguer appeared to be nervous. (Sept. Hr'g Tr. at 15). Corporal DeLeon directed Almaguer to move the tractor-trailer to wider area of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. (Id. at 10). Almaguer proceeded to mile marker 229.5 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and pulled over to the shoulder. (Id.) Corporal DeLeon followed Almaguer to mile marker 229.5 and at 11:30 a.m., he re-approached the tractor-trailer. (Id. at 11); (Vid. R. at 11:30). Corporal DeLeon collected additional documents from Almaguer and Fraguela including the bill lading, Almaguer's and Fraguela's medical cards, and Fraguela's commercial driver's license. (Sept. Hr. Tr. at 11). Corporal DeLeon engaged Almaguer and Fraguela in conversation and discussed, inter alia, the presence of Fraguela, that Fraguela did not have a logbook despite being listed as a secondary driver in Almaguer's logbook,*fn3 Almaguer's failure to use a turn signal, the bill of lading, and the origin and destination of their trip. (Id. at 12-17). Corporal DeLeon noticed that Fraguela could not converse in English, a requirement for all commercial drivers. (Id. at 14).

At 11:37 a.m., Corporal DeLeon returned to his vehicle and reviewed Almaguer's and Fraguela's documents. (Vid. R. at 11:37). Corporal DeLeon noticed that Almaguer's logbook did not document how he arrived in Kentucky, where Almaguer claimed to have picked up the trailer. (Sept. Hr'g Tr. at 14-15). Corporal DeLeon found it suspicious that the bill of lading only listed the load "general merchandise," contained a distorted bar code and was not signed by either the shipper or the driver/carrier.*fn4 (Id. at 17, 20-21). Corporal DeLeon also found it suspicious that Almaguer claimed that he picked up the trailer after it had already been sealed.*fn5 (Id. at 17). Finally, Corporal DeLeon stated he found Almaguer's and Fraguela's route to New York suspicious because it avoided truck checkpoints utilized by the Pennsylvania State Police on Interstate 81, and noted that could not verify the existence of the destination listed on the bill of lading, Elmsford, New York. (Id. at 22-23, 28).

During the stop, Corporal DeLeon prepared a written warning for Almaguer for improper lane change and Fraguela's missing logbook. (Gov't Ex. 3). Corporal DeLeon testified that he handled the traffic stop and written warning "relatively quickly."*fn6 (Dec. Hr'g Tr. at 38). At approximately 11:50 a.m., Corporal DeLeon started to run a criminal history, warrant, and driver's license check on Almaguer from his squad car. (Sept. Hr'g Tr. at 25). At 11:52 a.m., Corporal DeLeon contacted Corporal Kenny Brown ("Corporal Brown") at the Pennsylvania State Police communications center to assist him in checking Almaguer's and Fraguela's criminal history and run the license plates of the tractor and trailer.*fn7 (Vid. R. at 11:52-11:59).

At 12:09 a.m., Corporal DeLeon ran a warrant check on Fraguela through the National Crime Center Information ("NCIC") database from his squad car. (Dec. Hr'g Tr. at 12, 21-22); (Fraguela-Casanova Ex. 3). At 12:10 a.m., the system returned a "hit" on Fraguela. (Dec. Hr'g Tr. at 12-13); (Fraguela-Casanova Ex. 3). The "hit" was a "probation or supervised release status record" from Miami Probation and Parole which indicated Fraguela had recently been placed on parole in Miami, Florida.*fn8 (Dec. Hr'g Tr. at 13); (Fraguela-Casanova Ex. 3). The record stated "DO NOT ARREST BASED ON THIS INFORMATION - PLEASE CONTACT SUPERVISING AGENCY VIA NLETS, TELEPHONE OR EMAIL TO ADVISE OF CONTACT WITH SUPERVISED INDIVIDUAL. PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT SUPERVISING AGENCY MAY NOT BE OPERATIONAL 24/7." (Fraguela-Casanova Ex. 3). Corporal DeLeon contacted Corporal Brown and requested him to determine whether Miami Probation and Parole would revoke Fraguela's probation for traveling to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. (Sept. Hr'g Tr. at 25); (Dec. Hr'g Tr. at 24-25). Corporal DeLeon did not know whether Fraguela's order of probation prohibited him from traveling to the Commonwealth Pennsylvania or whether Fraguela had permission to leave Florida. (Dec. Hr'g Tr. at 24-25). Corporal DeLeon testified that when a NCIC "hit" indicates an individual has an outstanding warrant, and the individual is not otherwise in custody, he must verify the validity of the warrant within ten minutes. (Dec. Hr'g Tr. at 28); (Fraguela-Casanova Ex. 4, at 47). Corporal DeLeon stated that he did not recall any training on what actions to take when encountering a parolee during a traffic stop, but that he always tries to make contact with the supervising parole agency. (Dec. Hr'g Tr. at 23). Corporal DeLeon testified that he learned at some point after 12:51 p.m. that Miami Probation and Parole would not revoke Fraguela's probation. (Dec. Hr'g Tr. at 50).

At 12:27 p.m., Corporal DeLeon spoke with Corporal Brown about Almaguer and Fraguela. (Vid. R. at 12:27-12:28). After speaking to Corporal Brown, Corporal DeLeon stated "that we are now waiting for a response back from Florida" and discussed Almaguer's and Fraguela's "rap sheets" (i.e. criminal histories). (Id. at 12:28-12:30). At 12:40 p.m., Corporal DeLeon again spoke to Corporal Brown. (Vid. R. at 12:40).

At 12:51 p.m., seventy-four minutes after returning to his squad car and eighty-six minutes after initiating the traffic stop, Corporal DeLeon exited his squad car and returned Almaguer's documents.*fn9 (Vid. R. at 12:51). Corporal DeLeon engaged Almaguer in further discussion about Almaguer's route and the tractor-trailer's load. (Vid. R. at 12:51-12:59). At 12:59 p.m., ninety-four minutes after the initial traffic stop, Almaguer orally stated that Corporal DeLeon could search his "truck." (Vid. R. at 12:59). At 1:02 p.m., Almaguer signed a written consent to search form.*fn10 At 1:11 p.m., one hundred and six minutes after initiating the stop, Corporal DeLeon and two other Pennsylvania State Police officers began to search the trailer. (Vid. R. at 13:11). Inside the trailer, the officers found approximately 22,500 cartons of untaxed cigarettes and the officers placed Fraguela and Almaguer under arrest.*fn11

(Sept. Hr'g Tr. at 39).

II. Procedural History

On November 17, 2010, a federal grand jury sitting in the Middle District of Pennsylvania returned a three-count Indictment charging Almaguer and Fraguela with (1) conspiracy to transport stolen goods in interstate commerce and conspiracy to transport contraband cigarettes in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371; (2) transportation of contraband cigarettes in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2342(a); and (3) interstate transportation of stolen goods in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2314. (Doc. 18). Almaguer and Fraguela pled not guilty to all counts. (Docs. 28, 32). Almaguer filed the instant motion (Doc. 61) to suppress evidence on May 6, 2011. On August 28, 2011, Fraguela filed an unopposed motion (Doc. 87) for leave to join and adopt Almaguer's motion to suppress evidence. The court granted Fraguela's motion on August 29, 2011. (Doc.88). The court conducted an evidentiary hearing on September 1, 2011. On December 13, 2011, the court conducted a supplemental evidentiary hearing.*fn12 The motion has been fully briefed and is now ripe for disposition. (See Docs. 69, 72, 86, 100, 122, 124).

III. Discussion

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

U.S. CONST. amend. IV. Almaguer and Fraguela assert that Corporal DeLeon violated their Fourth Amendment rights by illegally seizing them on October 25, 2010. Almaguer's and Fraguela's motion to suppress raises three issues: (1) the legality of the initial traffic stop; (2) whether Corporal DeLeon possessed reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity to justify expanding the scope of his inquiry beyond the reason for the traffic stop; and (3) the reasonableness of the length and scope of the stop.*fn13

A. Initial Stop

Almaguer and Fraguela contend that Corporal DeLeon did not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to stop the tractor-trailer on October 25, 2010. When an officer has probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe that a traffic violation has occurred, the officer may stop the vehicle. Whren v. Unites States, 517 U.S. 806, 810 (1996); United States v. Delfin-Colina, 464 F.3d 392, 396 (3d Cir. 2006). For Fourth Amendment purposes, a traffic stop is a seizure of both the driver and any occupants of a vehicle. Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249, 257 (2007); Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653 (1979).

In the instant case, Corporal DeLeon testified credibly that he initiated the stop after he personally observed the tractor-trailer change lanes without signaling in violation of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code. (Sept. Hr'g Tr. at 8). See 75 PA. CON. STAT. § 3334. Almaguer and Fraguela argue that Corporal DeLeon could not have personally observed an improper lane change because Corporal DeLeon was assisting another motorist at the Interstate 81 interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and that the proffered reason was a "mere pretext." (See Doc. 69, at 4). Corporal DeLeon testified, however, that he witnessed the improper lane change after he resolved the incident with the other motorist. (Sept. Hr'g Tr. at 8).

Corporal DeLeon's subjective motivation for stopping the tractor-trailer is irrelevant. In Whren, the Supreme Court held that "[s]ubjective intentions play no role in ordinary, probable-cause Fourth Amendment analysis" and noted that "the fact that the officer does not have the state of mind which is hypothecated by the reasons which provide the legal justification for the officer's action does not invalidate the action taken as long as the circumstances, viewed objectively, justify that action." 517 U.S. at 813 (quotations and citations omitted). Based upon the record before it, the court finds that Corporal DeLeon had probable cause to initiate the traffic stop.

B. Investigative Detention

Almaguer and Fraguela assert that Corporal DeLeon did not have reasonable suspicion to detain them after effectuating the purpose of the initial traffic stop. If a police officer develops "a reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity," after a lawful traffic stop, then the police officer "may expand the scope of an inquiry beyond the reason for the stop and detain the vehicle and its occupants for further investigation." United States v. Givan, 320 F.3d 452, 458 (3d Cir. 2003) (citation omitted); see also Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21 (1968) (establishing the parameters of brief investigatory stops supported by reasonable suspicion). Reasonable suspicion is "a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the person stopped of criminal activity" viewed from the perspective of an objectively reasonable law enforcement official. Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 696 (1996) (citations and quotations omitted). The reasonable suspicion inquiry involves probabilities not certainties. See United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417-18 (1981); United States v. Valentine, 232 F.3d 350, 359 (3d Cir. 2000) (remarking that reasonable suspicion may be "based on acts capable of innocent explanation"). In assessing whether a police officer had reasonable suspicion to detain an individual for investigatory purposes, courts must consider the "totality of the circumstances, in light of the officer's experience." Givan, 320 F. 3d at 458 (noting that the Supreme Court has "accorded great deference to the officer's knowledge of the nature and the nuances of the type of criminal activity that he had observed in his experience"). To satisfy the Fourth Amendment, the officer must articulate "some minimal objective justification for an investigatory" beyond an inchoate hunch. Id. (citing United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 13 (1989)).

In the case sub judice, the court concludes that the totality of the circumstances provided Corporal DeLeon with reasonable suspicion to detain Almaguer and Fraguela for further investigation.*fn14 Corporal DeLeon justified the investigatory detention on the following circumstances: (1) Almaguer did not acknowledge his presence and Fraguela appeared to be hunched in his seat at the Interstate 81 interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike; (2) Almaguer appeared nervous during the initial encounter at mile marker 228.4; (3) Fraguela did not have a logbook despite being listed as a secondary driver by Almaguer; (4) Fraguela could not converse in English; (5) Almaguer's logbook did not document how Almaguer got from his stated origination point, Florida, to Kentucky where he stated he picked up the trailer; (6) the bill lading listed the load as "general merchandise" and Almaguer stated he received the trailer after the load had been sealed; (7) the bill lading contained a distorted UPC code and was unsigned; (8) Almaguer's and Fraguela's route; and (9) that he could not verify the existence of the destination listed on the bill of lading, Elmsford, New York in his trucker's atlas. Although Almaguer and Fraguela persuasively argue that some of the circumstances noted by Corporal DeLeon are subject to innocent explanations, it is not proper for the court to examine each ...

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