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United States v. Vasquez-Algarin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

April 28, 2014

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
JOHNNY VASQUEZ-ALGARIN

MEMORANDUM

SYLVIA H. RAMBO, District Judge.

In this criminal case, Defendant was charged with two counts related to his alleged participation in a conspiracy to distribute cocaine hydrochloride in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. (Doc. 1.) Presently before the court is Defendant's motion to suppress, wherein he seeks suppression of the physical evidence seized from the residence at 142 North 13th Street, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and his statements made thereafter. (Doc. 170.) Because the court finds that the law enforcement officers made a constitutional entry into the residence and that Defendant's statement was made knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently, the court will deny Defendant's motion to suppress in its entirety.

I. Background

On June 8, 2011, Defendant and his two brothers, both of whom have already pleaded guilty, were charged in a two count indictment related to their participation in a conspiracy to distribute cocaine hydrochloride. ( See Doc. 1.)[1] Defendant pleaded not guilty to the charges on October 8, 2013 (Docs. 144 & 145), and a jury trial is scheduled to commence on May 5, 2014 (Doc. 167).

On April 16, 2014, Defendant filed the instant motion to suppress evidence (Doc. 170) and brief in support (Doc. 170), and the court scheduled a hearing on the matter to be held April 25, 2014 (Doc. 181). Defendant's motion is premised on his position that the evidence underlying the charges was found following an unconstitutional entry into his home and must therefore be suppressed. It is uncontested that law enforcement officers entered the residence at 142 North 13th Street without first securing a search warrant for the premises. However, because the credible evidence presented at the hearing satisfies the court that the law enforcement agents entered the home having probable cause to believe a fugitive was a resident of and present at the dwelling at the time of their entry, the court will deny Defendant's motion to suppress.

At the suppression hearing, the Government presented the testimony of three witnesses. Deputy United States Marshal Gary Duncan, a member of the Dauphin County Fugitive Task Force, testified that on October 18, 2010, he was attempting to apprehend a fugitive from justice, Edwardo Rivera, who had an outstanding arrest warrant to answer homicide charges. Marshal Duncan testified that he received reliable information from other law enforcement officers, which was corroborated by street informants, that Rivera resided at 142 North 13th Street, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Marshal Duncan was assisted by numerous local law enforcement officers, including Officer Dennis E. Morris of the Dauphin County Drug Task Force, for assistance in apprehending Rivera.

The officers surrounded the building located at 142 North 13th Street, which is multi-unit apartment building. The officers knocked on the doors and windows of the specific unit in which Rivera was believed to be located and identified themselves as police for several minutes. Despite no response, Marshal Duncan observed several indicators tending to support that someone was nevertheless inside the building. Specifically, Marshal Duncan testified that he saw movement inside the apartment, heard a phone ring twice but then be manually silenced, and heard a dog barking but then stop as if it was muzzled. Thus, Marshal Duncan reasonably formed the belief that the resident of the house, whom he believed to be Rivera, was inside but was refusing to answer law enforcement officers' demands that he surrender.

Based on the foregoing, Marshal Duncan breached the door and entered the apartment, at which time he saw the sole occupant of the apartment, who was ultimately identified as Defendant. Rivera was not present.

While performing a protective sweep, Officer Morris saw in plain view a kitchen plate with white powder that he suspected to be cocaine, a razor blade, and plastic sandwich bags. Officer Morris verbally gave Defendant Miranda warnings in English and Officer Ben Stewart, another officer of the Dauphin County Drug Task Force, gave Defendant Miranda warnings in Spanish. Defendant agreed to speak with the officers and never asked for an attorney. Defendant denied consent to search, and Officer Morris ultimately obtained a search warrant for the premises.

During the search pursuant to the search warrant, Marshal Duncan found a cellular phone in Defendant's bedroom.[2] Based on his training and experience, and upon consideration of the other evidence found at the residence pursuant to the search warrant, such as cocaine, glasseen bags, unused heroine bags, ammunition, and hundreds of small black bands used to package heroin, Officer Morris obtained a search warrant for the cellular phone. ( See Gov. Ex. 2, admitted at Hearing, April 25, 2014.)

Defendant testified on his own behalf. Defendant's testimony, which the court found far less credible than that of the Government's witnesses, was inconsistent. According to Defendant, despite his being on the lease, he no longer resided at the house located at 142 North 13th Street; however, he was unable to provide details regarding his address at the time. Defendant testified that, on the date in question, he received a phone call from the landlord, indicating there was a problem with the electricity. Defendant entered the house with a key he had for the back door, and was greeted by his dog that he had left at the residence despite allegedly moving. Defendant testified that he went directly to the basement and was there for ten to fifteen minutes. Defendant recalls hearing the dog bark upstairs. Despite testifying that he was unable to hear the numerous agents banging on the doors and windows, Defendant testified that he heard the drill used by Marshal Duncan to breach the door, which prompted Defendant to come upstairs thinking his landlord had arrived. Defendant confirmed that he was advised of his rights in English and Spanish before he was questioned. Defendant testified that he did not know Rivera and Rivera did not live in the house while he lived there. Defendant testified that he consented to the officers' request that they search the residence. This, of course, is belied by the testimony of the officers and the fact that the officers obtained a search warrant after they encountered Defendant.

II. Discussion

Defendant moves to suppress the items seized on October 18, 2010, as fruits of an illegal search. As noted, Marshal Duncan had an arrest warrant for Rivera and a reasonable belief that he resided at the 142 North 13th Street address. Defendant essentially contends that the Rivera arrest warrant could not have authorized the warrantless entry of Defendant's apartment absent consent or exigent circumstances, neither of which existed under the facts as Defendant presents them. The Government argues that the Rivera arrest warrant justified the officers' entry into Defendant's apartment because the officers had a reasonable belief that Rivera resided in the 142 North 13th Street apartment. The court agrees with the Government.

The issue presented herein is whether the arrest warrant for Rivera could have justified entry into the North 13th Street address where the officers reasonably, but mistakenly, believed Rivera resided there and was then inside. The court answers this question in the affirmative. The Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches forbids police officers from entering private homes without warrants in order to conduct searches or to make arrests absent consent or exigent circumstances. Payton v. New York , 445 U.S. 573 (1980). However, once armed with an arrest warrant, a police officer may enter a fugitive's residence in order to apprehend him, even without the authority of a search warrant, as "an arrest warrant founded on probable cause implicitly carries with it the limited authority to enter a dwelling in which the suspect lives when there is reason to believe the suspect is within." Id . at 603. "If there ...


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