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United States of America v. Damien Hammonds

April 18, 2012


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


Before the court is defendant Damien Hammonds' motion to suppress evidence. (Doc. 185.) Hammonds contends that, on June 2, 2010, law-enforcement officers violated his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights when they detained and questioned him in the international airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico shortly after he arrived there by plane from Pennsylvania. The court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion on December 15, 2011. For the reasons that follow, the court will deny the motion.

I. Findings of Fact*fn1

Puerto Rico is considered a source area for drugs coming from South

America, Central America, and the Caribbean into the continental United States, particularly cities on the East Coast. (Hr'g Tr. 8:5--9.) Although most drugs entering the United States come through the country's southern border, Puerto Rico is nonetheless a major transit point for drug trafficking because of the way customs operates there. (Id. 8:9--15.) U.S. citizens that pass through customs upon arrival in Puerto Rico may return to the continental United States without passing through customs again, effectively creating a security gap that facilitates drug smuggling. (Id. 8:16--19.)

When drugs originating from Puerto Rico are sold in the continental United States, the proceeds typically return to Puerto Rico in the form of bulk cash smuggling-in other words, via Americans, traveling to Puerto Rico on commercial airline flights, concealing money on their person or in their carry-on luggage. (Id. 8:19--9:4.) The drug-trafficking economy in Puerto Rico thus consists primarily of cash flowing in and drugs flowing out, a pattern that holds particularly true in the case of cocaine and heroin. (Id. 9:5--10.)

On June 2, 2010, Special Agent Jason Staab-Peters of the Drug Enforcement Agency was acting supervisor of the airport interdiction group at Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Id. 5:7--12.) This interdiction group's general purpose was to investigate persons suspected of violating U.S. drug laws. (Id. 5:16--17.) At the airport, the group conducted interdictions for persons transporting drug proceeds or attempting to smuggle drugs or other contraband from the airport onto commercial flights and into the continental United States. (Id. 5:17--22.) Under Agent Peters' supervision in the interdiction group were two other special agents and four or five task force officers-local police officers who had been deputized and had the same responsibilities and powers as the special agents. (Id. 6:6--13.) Group members wore plainclothes rather than uniforms; Agent Peters typically wore a suit and the other group members wore "just normal street clothes." (Id. 7:13--21.) They carried firearms, but the weapons were concealed. (Id. 7:22--24.) Their office was inside the secured area of the San Juan airport behind the American Airlines baggage belts in an area that could be accessed only with proper identification. (Id. 6:18--7:12.)

On the morning of June 2, Agent Peters received information from an interdiction group at the Philadelphia airport that two individuals were en route to Puerto Rico aboard an American Airlines flight with "amounts of U.S. currency" concealed in their carry-on luggage. (Id. 9:21--10:3.) The Philadelphia group provided Agent Peters with detailed descriptions of the two individuals, including the lettering on their hats, the type of luggage they had, and their names: Marcelo Calderon-Ortiz and Richard Rondon-Diaz. (Id. 10:4--11, 11:18--12:2.) When asked why Calderon and Rondon were permitted to leave Philadelphia without being interviewed, Agent Peters responded:

My understanding is that the cash was discovered in the carry-on suitcases at the TSA security checkpoint. Somebody from TSA tried calling the airport interdiction group, but as frequently happens there wasn't enough time for the airport guys that work with DEA to get to that checkpoint before that plane was already supposed to be leaving.

So those two individuals were allowed to board the flight and were on their way to Puerto Rico at that point. (Id. 10:12--25.) When Agent Peters received the information about Calderon and Rondon, he relayed it to other members of his group, and they prepared to meet the two men as they disembarked from their flight. (Id. 11:1--4.)

Around 11:15 a.m., the American Airlines flight carrying Calderon and Rondon landed in San Juan, and a task force consisting of Peters and three or four members of his interdiction team identified the two men and approached them in the baggage area of the American Airlines terminal. (Id. 11:5--12, 28:10--22, 14:14--15.) Agent Peters remained present as other members of his task force spoke in Spanish to Calderon and Rondon, identifying themselves as officers of the DEA and asking if the two men would speak with the agents or task-force officers. (Id. 12:4--9.) At this juncture, defendant Damien Hammonds was unknown to the interdiction group; he had been neither identified nor approached by anyone in Agent Peters' task force. (Id. 11:13--17, 12:10--12.)

While agents were talking to Calderon and Rondon in Spanish, Hammonds approached the group of officers and said, in English, "Hey, we're all traveling together." (Id. 12:14--20.) Once Hammonds had identified himself in this manner, Agent Peters, Agent Cruz, and task-force officer Rubino Rivera addressed Hammonds as well. (Id. 12:20--24.) The agents identified themselves as being DEA officers,*fn2 and Agent Cruz asked Hammonds if he had any identification on him. (Id. 31:7--15, 13:6--7.) When Hammonds reached into his pocket for a Pennsylvania identification card, Agent Cruz noticed "a large amount of currency in Mr. Hammonds' pocket, bundles of U.S. currency in his pants pocket." (Id. 13:7--12; see also id. 71:12--15 (Hammonds' testimony acknowledging that the money in his pocket was visible to the task force).) Agent Cruz said to Hammonds: "So you have large amounts of current currency on you? You have money on you?" and Hammonds replied that he did. (Id. 13:12--15.)

When Agent Peters was asked during the hearing what his initial thoughts were upon encountering Hammonds, Agent Peters answered: "Well, it was unusual to have a non-Spanish speaker traveling with two Spanish speakers to Puerto Rico without set travel plans. The whole thing . . . just didn't seem right." (Id. 54:16--24.)

After Hammonds verified that he was carrying large amounts of cash, Agent Peters and his task force asked Hammonds, Calderon, and Rondon if they would accompany the task force back to the DEA office. (Id. 13:12--17.) Agent Peters acknowledged that the purpose of the continued questioning was to determine the source and purpose of the money that Hammonds and his two companions were carrying, particularly to discern whether it was related to drug trafficking. (Id. 32:19--33:21.) The interdiction team indicated to the three men that they were free to leave, that they were not being arrested, and that the questioning was an administrative procedure, not a criminal investigation.*fn3 (Id. 13:18--22, 32:15--18.) All three men assented; the task force, escorting the men, headed toward the secured area where the DEA office was located. (Id. 14:7--10, 14--18.)

At hearing, Hammonds stated that he believed that he could not simply walk away from the task force or decline their request (id. 59: 5--19), but conceded that he was never handcuffed, that no one ever pulled a gun on him, that he was never told he was under arrest, and that nobody searched either his person or his luggage at any point during the initial encounter (id. 68:7--14, 75:10--15). When asked during the hearing which one of the agents grabbed his arm to escort him back to the DEA office, Hammonds answered, "None of them." (Id. 72:9--11.)

Agent Peters and his team reached the security checkpoint, produced their identification, and walked with Hammonds and his two companions into the secured area. (Id. 14:14--20.) They walked down a corridor to the DEA office, with Agent Peters in the rear, the three men in the middle, and at least one member of the task force in the lead. (Id. 14:20--21, 36:3--19.) Hammonds and his two companions, carrying their own luggage, retained possession of their airline tickets and ID cards. (Id. 14:22--15:8. See also id. 71:22--24 (Hammonds' testimony acknowledging that he was carrying his own luggage).) The bundles of currency that Agent Cruz had seen in Hammonds' pocket also remained in Hammonds' custody. (Id. 15:9--13. See also id. 71:16--18 (Hammonds' consistent testimony).) The task force placed the three men in separate rooms for questioning; Hammonds was place in a windowless room, about 120 square feet in size, used for evidence processing. (Id. 16:9--23; id. 40:18--25 (Agent Peters' estimate that the room was 15' × 8'); id. 62:5--6 (Hammonds' estimate of 10' × 12').) According to Agent Peters, there was no particular reason that Hammonds was placed in that specific room, which, based on testimony at the hearing, contained little to nothing other than a table and chairs. (Id. 16:22--17:10, 41:2--4 (Agent Peters' testimony); id. 62:5--10 (Hammonds').) Inside the room with Hammonds were Agent Peters, Agent Cruz, and task-force officer Pacheco. (Id. 41:5--9.) Hammonds was "sitting down at the table" (id. 41:12) and had his back to the door (id. 62:15).*fn4 The door was open the whole time that Hammonds was there; nobody was posted at the door to prevent Hammonds from leaving. (Id. 17:11--16.) When Hammonds took a seat at the table, Agent Peters advised him that he was not under arrest and that he could leave at any time.*fn5 (Id. 41:22--42:4.)

Officer Pacheco began to gather some basic biographical information from Hammonds. (Id. 17:25--18:3.) He asked for Hammonds' ID again, which was photocopied and returned to him. (Id. 18:3--5.) The team then focused the questioning on the source of the money, "trying to determine whether it was from a legitimate source or if [it] was indeed drug ...

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