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United States v. Lopez-Casillas

United States District Court, D. Utah

May 3, 2017



          Jill N. Parrish United States District Court Judge

         Before the court is Defendant Guillermo Lopez-Casillas' motion to suppress evidence obtained from a search of his car after a traffic stop. (Docket No. 32). The court held an evidentiary hearing on the matter on January 4, 2017. (Docket No. 51). The transcript of that hearing was filed on January 12, 2017. (Docket No. 53). Defendant submitted a memorandum in support of the motion on February 22, 2017. (Docket No. 58). The government responded with its own memorandum in opposition on March 8, 2017. (Docket No. 59). Defendant did not file a reply. Both parties filed proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law for the court's consideration. (Docket Nos. 60, 61). The court held oral argument on the matter on April 4, 2017. As explained below, the court DENIES Defendant's motion.


         I. The initial traffic stop.

         At around 10:00 AM on August 14, 2015, Trooper Jared Withers of the Utah Highway Patrol was parked on the median of Interstate 70 (“I-70”) near milepost 140 and about twenty miles west of Green River, Utah. (Tr. 11:14-19). Trooper Withers was monitoring the speed of passing motorists with radar. (Tr. 11: 18-19). At 10:18 AM, he noticed a darkly colored BMW car approaching. (Tr. 12:3-4). He clocked the car travelling at sixty-five miles per hour despite the posted speed limit of sixty. (Tr. 11:25; 12:5). As the car approached Trooper Withers' position, it slowed to fifty-five miles per hour. (Tr. 12:5-7).

         As the car drew closer, Trooper Withers observed a dark strip of window tint running along the top of the windshield and extending below the AS-1 line, [1] which he knew to be a violation of Utah law. (Tr. 12:8-10; 21:24 - 22:3). He also noted that the car's side windows were so darkly tinted as to prevent him from seeing inside the passenger compartment. (Tr. 12:8-13). Having previously tested the light transmittance of “a couple thousand windows, ” Trooper Withers concluded this was also “an obvious violation” of Utah law. (Tr. 23:15-20). Accordingly, Trooper Withers left the median, pulled up behind the car, and initiated a traffic stop. (Tr. 12:18-24). As the car was slowing to a stop near milepost 141, Trooper Withers observed that tinting on the rear windshield covered the center brake light-another violation of Utah law. (Tr. 12:21-23). At some point, Trooper Withers noted that the vehicle had a temporary license plate taped to the front windshield. (Tr. 24:6-9).

         II. Initial discussion with the car's occupants.

         Trooper Withers approached the vehicle on the passenger side. An adolescent passenger rolled down the passenger-side window as Trooper Withers approached. (Tr. 25:11-17). Trooper Withers leaned over, rested his arms on the passenger's door, and began to speak to Defendant, who was in the driver's seat. (Tr. 25:20-21; Gov. Exh. 1 at 10:18:15-21). Trooper Withers then informed Defendant that his vehicle's window tint violated Utah law, briefly leaned his head and inserted his arm into the passenger compartment, and pointed to the tint extending below the AS- 1 line. (See Tr. 25:11-17; Gov. Exh. 1 at 10:18:36-47). Defendant responded that the back windows were tinted when he bought the car, but the side windows and the front windshield were not. (Tr. 25:14-17). Trooper Withers then asked Defendant where he was from and whether he had a driver's license. Defendant responded that he was from Los Angeles, California, and admitted that his driver's license was currently suspended due to a 2008 DUI conviction. (Tr. 25:25 - 26:1; 26:5-8). Thus, neither Defendant nor his fifteen-year-old passenger was authorized to drive the car. (Tr. 26:9-18).

         As Defendant searched for his identification, Trooper Withers asked him where he and his passenger were headed. (Tr. 26:22). Defendant responded that he was taking the passenger back to Minnesota. (Tr. 26:13; 26:23 - 27:2). Defendant initially identified the passenger as his cousin, before saying the passenger was in fact his cousin's son. (Tr. 26:24 - 27:2). Trooper Withers noted that the passenger was “showing extreme physical signs of nervousness”-he observed sweat forming on the passenger's forehead and the “carotid artery in his neck [was] pounding.” (Tr. 27:4-7).

         Defendant eventually provided an identification card issued by the State of California that identified him as Guillermo Lopez-Casillas. (Tr. 27:20-23). After Defendant handed him the card, Trooper Withers requested registration and insurance information for the car. (Tr. 27:24-25). Defendant produced an insurance card and indicated that the only registration he had on hand was a temporary permit taped to the windshield. (Tr. 28:1-5). The insurance had an effective date of August 8, 2015, while the registration was issued in Minnesota on August 7, 2015. (Tr. 28:2; 28:6-11).

         As he gathered the requested documentation, Defendant explained to Trooper Withers that he had already driven to California and was heading back to Minnesota after less than a week. This quick turnaround from California, coupled with purchase of the vehicle only seven days prior in Minnesota, piqued Trooper Withers' suspicion. Trooper Withers estimated that the distance between Minnesota and Los Angeles was around 2, 000 miles-a trip that would require ten to twelve hours of driving over three days. (Tr. 28:17-24; 29:1-3). Trooper Withers also noticed a hat with a Ferrari symbol on the passenger's seat, which he identified as a common signifier “specifically used by Mexican drug organizations as a symbol to represent themselves.” (Tr.29:7-9, 11-12).

         At that point, Trooper Withers asked Defendant to accompany him to his patrol car while he ran Defendant's information. Defendant agreed and exited his vehicle. (Tr. 29:20 - 30:7). Trooper Withers observed that Defendant was wearing dress slacks, dress shoes, a button-up shirt, and “a nice hat, ” which Trooper Withers considered unusually formal for a cross-country traveler. (Tr. 30:10-14). Defendant explained that this was “just how he likes to dress” and nothing more than a reflection of “his [sense of] style.” (Tr. 33:2-3).

         III. Discussion with defendant in the patrol car.

         When they reached the patrol car, Trooper Withers conducted a brief consensual search for weapons on Defendant's person. He then allowed Defendant to sit in the front passenger seat of the patrol car. (Tr. 30:16-25). As Trooper Withers filled out a citation on his laptop, Defendant explained that he had moved from California to Minnesota three months prior and was in the process of making the move permanent. (Tr. 31:4-11). He told Trooper Withers that he stayed with the passenger's mother while in Minnesota. He also indicated that he worked installing radios and electronics for the passenger's mother. (Tr. 31:10-15). Defendant told Trooper Withers that he had been in California for “about a week” before Trooper Withers reminded him that it was only a week before that he had purchased the car in Minnesota. (Tr. 35:5-7). At this, Defendant amended his answer, saying that they had been in California for five days. (Tr. 35:9). As they talked, Trooper Withers observed that Defendant's breathing became heavy. (Tr. 33:3-5).

         At approximately 10:23AM, around five minutes after he initiated the stop, Trooper Withers contacted dispatch and asked them to run a driver's license check, a warrants and criminal history check, and a check of the VIN and registration for Defendant's car. (Tr. 33:9-16). Trooper Withers then asked Defendant “what [they] should do” to resolve the stop since neither Defendant nor his passenger were permitted to drive. They discussed whether Defendant knew anyone in the area. (Tr. 33: 21 - 34:1; 33:21 - 34:3). Defendant responded that he did not know what to do because his closest relative lived in Arizona. (Tr. 34:3-4).

         IV. Further investigation.

         At this point, Trooper Withers suspected that Defendant might be transporting narcotics. Thus, Trooper Withers deployed his K-9, Marco, while waiting for the requested information from dispatch. (Tr. 34:5-7). Marco made three passes on the vehicle but did not alert to the odor of narcotics. (Tr. 34:15-16). After he put Marco back into the patrol car, Trooper Withers retrieved the window tint meter to check the light transmittance on the side windows of Defendant's car. (Tr. 34:18-20). While testing the windows, Trooper Withers spoke to the passenger about the trip to Minnesota. (Tr. 34:23-25; 35:10-17). Contrary to the statements that Trooper Withers had elicited from Defendant just moments before, the passenger indicated that they had only been in California for about two days, and had left Minnesota just four days prior. (Tr. 35:16-19). As he questioned the passenger, Trooper Withers again observed signs of significant anxiety and asked the passenger why he was so nervous. (Tr. 36:12-19). The passenger responded that the dog made him nervous, but Trooper Withers explained that he had seen signs of anxiety even before the dog was deployed. (Tr. 36:16-21).

         After confirming that the window tint was not in conformance with Utah law, Trooper Withers returned to his patrol car where Defendant was waiting. (Tr. 37:2-12). Asked to confirm the length of his trip, Defendant again asserted that he had been in California for five days. (Tr. 37:14-15). Trooper Withers then asked if there was anything illegal in the vehicle, and Defendant responded that there was not. (Tr. 37:15-17). Defendant further denied that he had any “cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, [or] marijuana” when Trooper Withers asked him about each drug directly. (Tr. 37:17-20). Despite this denial and the earlier failure of the K-9 to alert, Trooper Withers still suspected that Defendant was transporting narcotics and asked Defendant for permission to search his vehicle. Defendant nodded his head and then verbally assented to the search. (Tr. 39:18-20; 41:7). At this point, Trooper Withers was still waiting for the requested information from dispatch.

         V. Search of the car.

         In order to safely conduct the search, Trooper Withers instructed Defendant to stand at a signpost about fifty feet ahead of Defendant's car. (Tr. 40:1-10). Defendant complied. Trooper Withers also told Defendant that he could yell from that position if he objected to any aspect of the search, but should not approach the car during the search. (Tr. 40:2-7). Trooper Withers explained that this prevented Defendant from “com[ing] up behind” him during the search. (Tr. 40:3-10).

         When he first approached the car, Trooper Withers asked the passenger if he had any luggage. (Tr. 40:14-15). The passenger indicated he had a backpack, which he allowed Trooper Withers to search. (Tr. 40:15-17). As he began to search the car, Trooper Withers asked the passenger to stand between the post where the defendant was waiting and the ...

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