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United States v. Martinez

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

December 18, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,
DEON RAYMOND MARTINEZ, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Utah (D.C. No. 1:16-CR-00004-DN-1)

          J. Edward Jones, Heber City, Utah, for Defendant-Appellant.

          Felice John Viti, Assistant United States Attorney (John W. Huber, United States Attorney, with him on the brief), Salt Lake City, Utah, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Before PHILLIPS, EBEL, and MORITZ, Circuit Judges.


         During a traffic stop in Arizona, law enforcement discovered evidence linking Deon Martinez to a bank robbery in Utah. Martinez argues that the state trooper who pulled him over lacked reasonable suspicion to do so. For the reasons discussed below, we agree. We therefore reverse the district court's order denying Martinez's motion to suppress this evidence.


         The relevant facts unfold along a 130-mile stretch of the Interstate 40 (I-40) corridor in Arizona. At 11:41 one morning, a state police dispatcher reported a robbery at a Wells Fargo in Winslow, Arizona. Christian Phillips, an Arizona State Trooper, heard this report while patrolling I-40 about an hour east of Winslow. The dispatcher identified two suspects: (1) a man wearing a Bud Light hat and (2) a man running "from the bank in the alley wearing a blue-and-white checkered shirt[ and] blue jeans." R. vol. 2, 16. The dispatcher didn't identify any vehicle the thieves might have used to make their escape. Nor did the dispatcher identify the race, ethnicity, or physical features of either of the two robbery suspects.

         At 12:13 p.m. that same day, Phillips heard a second report of activity along the I-40 corridor, this time in Flagstaff, Arizona. This second report described an event that took place before the Winslow robbery and was far less serious; no robbery, or any other crime for that matter, occurred in Flagstaff. Instead, the second report alerted officers about a "suspicious" white Cadillac spotted outside a Wells Fargo branch earlier that morning. Id. at 36. The report also described the Cadillac's driver: a Native American man wearing "a light blue checkered hoodie" and a Bud Light hat. Id. at 17. And it said that the Cadillac headed east from Flagstaff at 11:00 a.m. The only other identifying detail Phillips recalled was that one of these reports (though he couldn't say which one) relayed that one of the suspects was wearing glasses.

         Once he heard the second report, Phillips ventured west on I-40 toward Winslow. Fewer than fifteen minutes later, Phillips saw a white Cadillac-a rare sight on that stretch of I-40, he later testified-driving east on the other side of the highway. He turned around to pursue it and asked dispatch to run its license plate. Phillips caught up to the Cadillac and pulled alongside to look into the driver's window. Although Phillips later explained that the windows "were excessively tinted . . . to the point that [he] could not see into the vehicle," he testified that he "was able to make out the outline of the driver." Id. at 23-24. From this outline, Phillips saw that the driver was wearing glasses and "had facial features that led [him] to believe" that the driver "was a Native American male." Id. After conducting this reconnaissance, Phillips dropped back to tail the Cadillac and called for an additional officer.

         But before Phillips's colleague could arrive and before Phillips received the result of the license-plate check, the Cadillac engaged its right turn signal, announcing its imminent exit from the highway and prompting Phillips to pull it over. In explaining his decision to stop the Cadillac, Phillips later testified that he did so solely because he believed it was involved in the Winslow robbery. Indeed, he specifically testified that the driver didn't commit any traffic violations. And he said that he stopped the Cadillac when he did because he didn't want to lose it in the dirt roads and small communities located off that part of the highway. Nor did he want to endanger innocent bystanders if the encounter took a violent turn.

         The Cadillac stopped for Phillips without incident. Phillips approached and asked the driver to get out. When the driver opened the car door, Phillips noted the overwhelming scent of marijuana. He further observed that the driver was a woman who, although wearing glasses, might not have been Native American; Phillips testified that he did "not know what her nationality or ethnicity was." Id. at 34.

         Martinez was seated in the front passenger seat, and Phillips detained him as well. A subsequent search of the Cadillac revealed evidence linking Martinez to an entirely different bank robbery-one that occurred in Utah.[1]

         A federal grand jury indicted Martinez for that Utah bank robbery, and Martinez moved to suppress the evidence seized from the Cadillac. The district court conducted an evidentiary hearing at which Phillips testified as described above. It then found that Phillips had reasonable suspicion to stop the Cadillac and accordingly denied Martinez's motion to suppress. Martinez entered a conditional guilty plea that preserved his right to challenge the district court's suppression ruling on appeal. He makes that challenge here.


         Martinez argues that the district court wrongly concluded Phillips had reasonable suspicion to stop the car. "'When reviewing the denial of a motion to suppress, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the government,' and 'accept the district court's findings of fact unless clearly erroneous.'" United States v. Moore, 795 F.3d 1224, 1228 (10th Cir. 2015) (quoting United States v. Katoa, 379 F.3d 1203, 1205 (10th Cir. 2004)). Nevertheless, we independently review "the ultimate determination of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment." Id.

         The Fourth Amendment prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. Because "[a] routine traffic stop is considered a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment," all traffic stops must be reasonable. Moore, 795 F.3d at 1228. And "[a] traffic stop is reasonable if it is (1) justified at its inception and (2) reasonably related in scope to the circumstances [that] justified the interference in the first place." Id. (quoting United States v. Karam, 496 F.3d 1157, 1161 (10th Cir. 2007)); see also Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). Here, Martinez only challenges the initial justification for the traffic stop, not its scope.

         Typically, a traffic stop is justified if the officer observes or reasonably suspects a traffic or equipment violation. See United States v. Botero-Ospina, 71 F.3d 783, 787 (10th Cir. 1995) (en banc). Here, of course, Phillips didn't see the Cadillac's driver commit any traffic or equipment violations. Nor did he reasonably suspect the driver had done so. But a law-enforcement officer may also stop a vehicle if the officer harbors "a reasonable suspicion that [other] criminal activity may be afoot." United States v. Whitley, 680 F.3d 1227, 1233 (10th Cir. 2012). ...

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