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United States v. Correa

April 9, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Joseph H. Rodriguez

Opinion & Order

This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Frankie Correa's motion to suppress evidence [Dock. Entry 11] under the Fourth Amendment. Defendant contends that the firearm recovered on his person is fruit of an illegal seizure. The Government opposes. For the reasons expressed below, Defendant's motion is denied.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

In December of 2007, members of the Essex County Fugitive Task Force were vigorously searching for Jose Espinosa, an escaped inmate from Union County Jail. (Hr'g Tr. 46:6-22, Oct. 15, 2008.) The Task Force included various members of the F.B.I., U.S. Marshal's Office, Essex County Sheriff's Office, and Union County Sheriff's Office. (Tr. 14:3-6.) On December 19, 2007, members of the Task Force received information that Luis Luna and James Romero were at 41 Elm Street in Elizabeth, New Jersey. (Tr. 34:17-19.) Luna and Romero were known associates of Espinosa who, prior to his escape, had either telephone or in-person contact with him. (Tr. 19:8-11.) Luna and Romero had outstanding arrest warrants, plus criminal histories comprised of drug dealing, firearm possession, and suspected gang membership. (Tr. 19:9-15, 201-4.) With respect to the outstanding arrest warrants, Romero's was issued due to failure to appear on a traffic summons, (Def. Ex. B), while Luna's was issued due to failure to appear on a criminal complaint charging him with possession of marijuana. (Def. Ex. C.) Because of their prior contact and association with Espinosa, the Task Force had reason to believe that Espinosa was with Luna and Romero at 41 Elm Street. (Tr. 20:16-18.) Accordingly, officers prepared to execute the arrest warrants on Luna and Romero that evening. (Tr. 21:11-17.) A team of ten to fifteen men was assembled and equipped with firearms, handcuffs, and bulletproof vests. (Id.)

When the officers arrived at 41 Elm Street, they found a multi-unit apartment complex with a locked front entrance. (Tr. 36.) A sign posted at the front entrance read in English and Spanish, "No visitors are permited [sic] in this building, unless accompanied by a resident anyone not acvcompanied [sic] by a resident will be prosecuted as a trespaser [sic]." (Def. Ex. 1.) The front entrance was locked, so Inspector Marshal Daniel R. Potucek climbed through a partially opened window located in a stairwell. (Tr. 70:2-4.) Once inside, Inspector Potucek opened the front door of the building and let in the remaining officers. (Tr. 70:3-7.) They positioned themselves in the first-floor hallway. (Tr. 21:22-25, 22:1-5.)

Soon afterwards, at approximately 2:00 a.m., the officers heard male voices emanating from the basement. (Tr. 22:9-25, 23:1., 55:23-24.) As the voices grew louder, the officers discovered three men making their way up the stairwell. (Tr. 23:11-17, 24:4-10.) It was at that point when the Task Force officers encountered Luis Luna, James Romero, and a third person--Defendant Frankie Correa. (Tr. 24:4-10.) The officers identified themselves to the men. (Tr. 23:17-18.) Luna and Romero were recognized immediately, as the officers had reviewed photographs of the men prior to their dispatch. (Tr. 25:8-18.) Consequently, Luna and Romero were quickly secured on the first-floor. (Tr. 24:14-16.) Defendant was also secured. (Tr. 71:1-3.) After struggling a bit, Inspector Potucek positioned Defendant face-down on the stairs leading up to the first floor. (Tr. 71:5-14.) At that point, Defendant blurted out-- "I have a gun!". (Tr. 26:10-21, 71:16.) Inspector Potucek then retrieved a loaded firearm from Defendant's front pocket. (Tr. 71:25, 72:1.) According to Romero, he and Luna were visiting Defendant on the evening in question. (Tr. 91:9-21.) Defendant was staying with his mother--Jeanette Rodriguez--who was a tenant in the multi-unit apartment building. (Tr. 113-11-17.)

Defendant Frankie Correa was thereafter indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with unlawful possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) on March 27, 2008. (Dock. Entry 1.) Upon entering a plea of not guilty, Defendant moved to suppress the firearm as fruit of an illegal seizure. (Dock. Entry 11.) The Court held an evidentiary hearing on the instant motion on October 15, 2008. (Dock. Entry 18.) Both Defendant and the Government have since filed their written submissions. (Dock. Entry 20, 22, 23.) An appropriate discussion of law follows.

II. Standard

The Fourth Amendment provides:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

U.S. Const. amend. IV. The "capacity to claim the protection of the Fourth Amendment depends . . . upon whether the person who claims the protection of the Amendment has a legitimate expectation of privacy in the invaded place." See Minnesota v. Olson, 495 U.S. 91, 95 (1990) (quoting Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128, 143 (1978)). An expectation of privacy is deemed legitimate if the person challenging the search can show that he or she has "both a subjective expectation of privacy and that the expectation is objectively reasonable, that is, one that society is willing to accept." Warner v. McCunney, 259 Fed. Appx. 476, 477 (3d Cir. Jan. 8, 2008) (citing Olson, 495 U.S. at 96-97); see also Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 361 (1967) (Harlan, J., concurring).

III. Discussion

Defendant FrankieCorrea moves to suppress the firearm as fruit of an unlawful seizure. According to Defendant's Memorandum of Law, the firearm "must be suppressed because the fugitive task force officers violated Mr. Correa's Fourth Amendment rights when they surreptitiously entered his locked apartment building without authority or invitation." (Def. Mem. of Law 4.) Defendant contends that the Fourth Amendment does not "permit law enforcement authorities to enter a third person's home to serve an arrest warrant on a non-resident suspect, absent exigent circumstances." (Id. at 5 (citing Steagald v. United States, 451 U.S. 204, 213-14 (1981).) Here, Defendant contends, no exigent circumstances existed to justify the entry. (Def. Mem. of Law 5.)Secondly, Defendant contends that he had a legitimate "expectation of privacy in the hallways and stairwells of his locked apartment building." (Id. at 6.)

The Government does not address Defendant's reliance on Steagald. Instead, it contends that the cases cited by Defendant only concerned entrance into a residence or home; whereas here, entrance into a stairwell or common area is at issue, the Government contends that the situations are inapt. (Gov't Opp'n Mem. 15.) Even if the Court were to find that the hallway or common areas constitute a residence subject to a legitimate expectation of privacy, the Government contends that exigent circumstances warranted the entry into the apartment building. (Id. at 16.) The Government bases this exigency on threats to law enforcement and the general public, as evidenced by the totality of the circumstances. (Id.) Aside from these contentions, the Government primarily contends that Defendant has no ...

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