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United States v. Espinosa

United States District Court, D. Utah

April 26, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
JAMES LEE ESPINOSA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION & ORDER

          Clark Waddoups United States District Judge

         Before the court is Defendant James Lee Espinosa's Motion to Suppress evidence obtained as a result of Mr. Espinosa's detention on April 29, 2017. (ECF No. 15.) The court held an evidentiary hearing on February 9, 2018 (ECF No. 19), after which the parties filed post-hearing briefs (ECF Nos. 24-26.) The court then held oral argument on the Motion on April 11, 2018. (ECF No. 27.) Having consider the evidence and arguments before it, and based on the findings of fact and conclusions of law contained herein, the court determines that the detention of Mr. Espinosa was pursuant to officer safety concerns during a lawful traffic stop. Therefore, the court DENIES Mr. Espinosa's Motion.

         Background[1]

         On the night of April 29, 2017, detectives Douglas Dunbar and Kevin Shawn Grogan of the Ogden Metro Gang Task Force, [2] (Tr. 6: 7-8; 52:18-19), were in West Ogden, Utah patrolling an area near 2500 F Avenue (Tr. 7: 22-8: 4; 53: 3-8.) Both officers testified that around 10:00 p.m. circumstances arose that prompted them to go to an apartment complex at 2515 F Avenue. (Tr. 8: 22-9: 3; 54: 2-4.) Outside of the apartment complex, the officers observed a Nissan Altima that was parked curbside across the street from the apartment complex. (Tr. 10: 7-8; 54: 2-4, 19.) The officers were parked such that they were facing the rear of the Altima. (Tr. 11: 6-9; 54: 12-13.) The officers witnessed the Altima pull away from the curb without signaling. (Tr. 11: 2-3; 54: 12-14.) A woman, who the officers eventually learned was Renee Gallegos, was driving and there was a male passenger, Mr. Espinosa. (Tr. 54: 3-4.) The officers followed (Tr. 55: 2), and when they observed the Altima roll about a half a car's length past the white line next to the stop sign (Tr. 11: 19-6; 12: 8; 55: 9-19), they turned on their emergency red and blue lights to stop the vehicle. (Tr. 55: 23-56: 5.) The Altima pulled over, and the officers began the traffic stop at 10:45 p.m. (Tr. 41: 17-22; Exhibit H.)

         When the Altima came to a complete stop, the two officers exited their vehicle and approached from both sides, with Detective Dunbar approaching the driver-side window and Detective Grogan the passenger-side, where Mr. Espinosa was seated. (Tr. 56: 18-20; 57: 6-11.) The passenger-side window was rolled down, and Detective Grogan could hear Detective Dunbar's communication with the occupants. (Tr. 57: 15-20.)

         From the driver-side window, Detective Dunbar asked Ms. Gallegos for her license, registration, and proof of insurance. (Tr. 13: 25-14: 5-12.) Detective Dunbar observed that Ms. Gallegos “kept fumbling with her cell phone” and “kept trying to make phone calls.” (Tr. 14:12- 13.) For officer safety reasons, Detective Dunbar asked Ms. Gallegos to put down her phone, but “she just couldn't-couldn't get past what she was thinking about on her phone to get her information.” (Tr. 14: 17-19.) Ms. Gallegos explained that her actions were hurried because she needed to pick up her daughter, and she contradicted Detective Dunbar, saying that “he was kind of ignoring [her].” (Tr. 86: 18-25.) She did acknowledge, however, using her phone during the course of their initial interaction. (Tr. 87: 3-15.) Detective Grogan testified that Ms. Gallegos “said that she was in a hurry and that she had to pick up her children.” (Tr. 58: 7-8.) Nevertheless she eventually put her phone down and provided her documents. (Tr. 14: 23-25.) Detective Grogan testified that “later in the stop [she] continued to make more phone calls but initially she stopped.” (Tr. 58: 10-11.)

         While Ms. Gallegos was using her phone and retrieving her documents, Detective Dunbar observed that the passenger “was fidgeting a lot and . . . looking around. He was very nervous as [Detective Dunbar] was speaking with the driver.” (Tr. 15: 3-6.) Detective Dunbar testified that the passenger's nervousness was notable and that he asked the passenger for his name. (Tr. 15:6- 8.) The passenger responded that his name was Juan Rendon. (Tr. 15: 10.) Detective Dunbar testified that he “knew [the passenger's name] was not Juan Rendon, ” though he “couldn't think of it offhand.” (Tr. 15: 11-15, 24.) He had interacted with Espinosa on two previous occasions, one of which was “less than a year” before. (Tr. 15: 16-18, 16: 2-3.) On the most recent occasion, Detective Dunbar was present while Espinosa was arrested in another officer's case. (Tr. 16: 4-9.) Detective Dunbar communicated his knowledge of the passenger to Detective Grogan, telling Grogan that “he had arrested [the passenger] previously, had dealt with him on other occasions, believed that he was on parole, and knew that [Juan Rendon] was not his correct name.” (Tr. 60: 5-10.)

         At this point, Detective Dunbar continued with Ms. Gallegos. (Tr. 16: 13-15.) After she provided her information and while he was waiting for her records check to return, he asked her to exit the vehicle. (Tr. 16: 21-17:3.) Detective Dunbar testified that he asked her to exit because “she continued to get fidgety and nervous” and because of the false information the passenger provided about his identity. (Tr. 17:3-7.) He further testified that “as [he] was asking the passenger his name, he had placed a seat belt on, ” so Detective Dunbar instructed Ms. Gallegos to get out of the car to avoid a potential “vehicle pursuit.” (Tr. 17: 7-10; 87: 16-23.)

         While Ms. Gallegos was out of the car, Detective Dunbar used his “portable radio” to run Ms. Gallegos's driver's license “through . . . Weber dispatch” so that dispatch could “run her through the system to see if she ha[d] a valid driver's license, any warrants, any NCIC hits, anything like that” while he was standing near the vehicle. (Tr. 17: 15-22; 17: 25-18: 1; 40: 16- 18.) He testified that he believed he ran Ms. Gallegos's name through dispatch before Juan Rendon was reported to dispatch. (Tr. 40: 22-23.) But the dispatch log showed the name Juan Rendon was in fact reported before the name Rene Gallegos. (Tr. 41:20-25; Exhibit H.) Rendon was reported at 10:53 p.m., while Gallegos was not reported until 11:08 p.m. (Tr. 41: 20-25; Exhibit H.) Detective Dunbar asserted that he called in Ms. Gallegos's information before going around to the passenger side of the vehicle. (Tr. 49: 13-19.)

         Up to this point, aside from “concern of the passenger lying . . . about his name, ” Detective Dunbar was focused on Ms. Gallegos. (Tr. 18: 18-19: 1.) During this time Detective Dunbar asked Ms. Gallegos about the passenger's identity. (Tr. 19: 5-10; 59: 19-60:4; 88: 10- 13.) She told him that Juan Rendon was not the passenger's name. (Tr. 19: 11-13.) Detective Dunbar recalled that she told him the passenger's “name is not Juan Rendon but you'll figure it out” but that she did not tell him the passenger's real name. (Tr. 45: 12-17.)

         Meanwhile Detective Grogan had remained with the passenger. (Tr. 19: 2-3.) Detective Dunbar eventually left Ms. Gallegos to assist Detective Grogan with the passenger. (Tr. 19: 14- 16.) He did this because, after hearing the false name from the passenger and confirmation of its falsity from Ms. Gallegos, Detective Grogan had observed several items that caused him concern, including what he believed at the time to be a bat and some drug paraphernalia within the passenger's reach.[3] (Tr. 19: 17-24; Tr. 62: 5-22.) Detective Dunbar had also asked the passenger if he was on parole, and the passenger said he was not. (Tr. 20: 1-4.) Detective Dunbar had communicated, however, to Detective Grogan that he believed the passenger was on parole, and Grogan had told Dunbar about seeing the purported bat and paraphernalia, as well as that the back passenger window “was . . . smashed [and] looked like it was fresh damage.” (Tr.60: 18-22.). Detective Grogan believed the damage was fresh because “[t]here was clothing on the backseat . . . and [the glass] was on top of the clothing.” (Tr. 61: 1-4.)

         Having observed these items “along with the investigation of the false information, ” the officers asked the passenger to exit the vehicle. (Tr. 19: 23-24; 64: 1-2.) The passenger refused, and began shifting in his seat with his seatbelt off, acting as if he might get out of the car and then reaching around behind him. (Tr. 20: 10-13; 64: 11-14.) The passenger refused to voluntarily exit the vehicle, and eventually the officers each grabbed an arm and removed him. (Tr. 20: 14-20; 64: 14-17.) Once the passenger was out of the car and secured, the officers observed that he had been “sitting on a full sized pistol along with two cell phones.” (Tr. 20: 23- 21: 3.) Sometime after the officers took the passenger into custody, they found a Utah I.D. in his wallet that identified him as James Leroy Espinosa. (Tr. 23: 1-4.) Still later, they released Ms. Gallegos without issuing her a ticket or warning. (Tr. 25: 12-21; 49: 20-25.)

         Analysis

         Mr. Espinosa moves to suppress all evidence acquired as a result of the traffic stop, arguing that the officers “unlawfully detained and removed [him] from Ms. Gallegos's vehicle.” (Defendant's Memorandum 6, ECF No. 24.) Specifically, he contends that the officers “abandoned the initial purpose of the traffic stop and expanded the investigation without a warrant and without reasonable suspicion.” (Id.) The government responds that the officers' conduct was permitted because it did not extend the stop or if it did the delay was based ...


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