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United States v. Vasquez-Rodriguez

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

June 25, 2015

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
Richard VASQUEZ-RODRIGUEZ, Defendant.

OPINION & ORDER

KEVIN McNULTY, District Judge.

The defendant, Richard Vasquez-Rodriguez, is accused in a two-count indictment of distributing and possessing with intent to distribute at least five kilograms of cocaine and one kilogram of heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. ยง 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A). He has filed a motion to suppress physical evidence- primarily, a metal air tank that contained 19 kilograms of cocaine and 8 kilograms of heroin that were seized from his Chevrolet Tahoe. (ECF Nos. 16, 18) The defendant disputes certain facts-for example, whether he drove recklessly or whether he truly consented to a search of his car. I will not order an evidentiary hearing, however, because those issues are ultimately immaterial to the suppression issue. The officers' actions, and their "discovery" of the air tank in the Tahoe, rested on separate and independent grounds. Because one of the participants in the drug trafficking organization was cooperating with the authorities, officers on surveillance saw Vasquez-Rodriguez take possession of the air tank and place it in the Tahoe, and followed him when he drove off with the drugs. From that moment, the officers possessed probable cause to pull him over, arrest him, and search his car. None of these grounds depend on the resolution of the issues of fact identified by defense counsel. Defendant's motion to suppress evidence will be denied.

BACKGROUND

Investigative reports turned over in discovery disclose the following facts:

In January 2014, a confidential source ("CS") informed agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA") that members of a drug trafficking organization had engaged him[1] to transport narcotics from Texas to New Jersey. Specifically, he was to drive to New Jersey with a metal air tank that contained narcotics. Once in New Jersey, he was to deliver the tank to a person who would transport it to its ultimate destination somewhere in the New York City area.

On January 14, 2014, in Texas, the traffickers loaded the air tank into CS's vehicle, and he set off for New Jersey. Unbeknownst to the traffickers, while still in Texas, CS delivered the air tank to the DEA, who transported it to New Jersey by airplane. Meanwhile, CS drove to New Jersey without the tank.

On January 16, 2014, DEA agents and New Jersey State Police ("NJSP") officers[2] met up with CS in New Jersey. They placed the air tank back into CS's vehicle, where the traffickers had placed it earlier. Their intention was to make it appear that CS had, as agreed, driven the tank containing the drugs to New Jersey. CS then contacted members of the trafficking organization by telephone. He agreed to meet them at a location in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and to deliver the air tank to them there. DEA and NJSP officers set up surveillance at the meeting location.

The officers on surveillance saw a green Chevy Tahoe pull up. It was occupied by two men, one of whom was later identified as the defendant, Richard Vasquez-Rodriguez. CS drove to the meeting location. The Tahoe pulled in front of CS's vehicle, and then both vehicles drove into a nearby fenced-in yard. The officers saw CS, Vasquez-Rodriguez, and a third person remove the air tank from CS's vehicle and place it in the rear of the Chevy Tahoe.

Vasquez-Rodriguez got into the driver's seat of the Tahoe and drove off. NJSP officers in an unmarked car followed him as he drove north on the New Jersey Turnpike. According to the officers, he drove erratically, exceeded the speed limit, and failed to signal when switching lanes. The Tahoe left the New Jersey Turnpike and entered the city of Jersey City, New Jersey. There, according to the officers, Vasquez-Rodriguez continued to drive in violation of local traffic laws.

Apparently afraid of losing surveillance in the city, the NJSP officers pulled the Tahoe over. The ostensible basis for the stop was a violation of the traffic laws. The officers asked Vasquez-Rodriguez for his license and registration. He could not identify the owner of the vehicle or state his destination. To the officers, he appeared nervous. The air tank was in the back of the Tahoe. It was in plain view (though of course its contents were not).

The officers ordered Vasquez-Rodriguez out of the Tahoe. They presented him with a consent-to-search form in English and Spanish, which he signed. Vasquez-Rodriguez said he was cold, and asked for his jacket. Before handing him the jacket, the officers patted it down. They discovered a bundle of heroin in the pocket. Vasquez-Rodriguez was then placed under arrest.

A search of the car yielded the air tank, a circular handsaw, and six cellular telephones. The air tank-which had apparently been cut and welded back together-was found to contain 19 kilograms of cocaine and 8 kilograms of heroin, wrapped in plastic.

DISCUSSION

Vasquez-Rodriguez has filed a motion for suppression of evidence. The motion speaks in somewhat general terms and cites Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). But the emphasis of the motion, very understandably, is suppression of the seized drugs. Thus the brief does not identify any statement that must be suppressed, but states that the drugs seized from the car must be suppressed as "fruits" of defendant's custodial interrogation. Routine questioning in connection with a traffic stop does not require Miranda warnings. United States v. Anderson, 859 F.2d 1171, 1177 (3d Cir. 1988) (citing Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 439-40 (1984) (questioning of driver, where detention has not ripened into "custody, " is permissible and does not require Miranda warnings)). And at any rate, for the reasons discussed below, the permissibility of the search did not depend on any statement of the defendant.

At oral argument, defense counsel clarified the focus of the motion: defendant sought, not to suppress statements as such, but to suppress the physical evidence taken from the car-most critically, the metal air tank containing the drugs. Counsel requested an evidentiary hearing, at which, he said, his client might or might not testify. The need for a hearing, according to counsel, was established by counsel's own certification, as well as counsel's proffer at oral argument, discussed further below.

A. Standard For Granting Evidentiary Hearing

On suppression motions, "[e]videntiary hearings are not granted as a matter of course...." United States v. Thompson, 540 F.Appx. 445, 446 (5th Cir. 2013) (quoting United States v. Harrelson, 705 F.2d 733, 737 (5th Cir.1983)). A suppression hearing is not a discovery device. Nor will a hearing be ...


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