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United States v. Minaya

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 16, 2019


          OPINION & ORDER


         Defendant Yasmil Minaya filed an omnibus set of motions. (DE 84) Most I decided by a prior order, entered after full briefing, multiple supplemental submissions, and oral argument. (Order, DE 101, entered April 1, 2019)[1] I reserved decision, however, as to two motions:

(1) Defendant's motion to suppress a false driver's license allegedly seized from his person during an automobile stop.
(2) Defendant's motion for discovery and an evidentiary hearing to determine whether certain wiretap intercepts in the Dominican Republic should be suppressed.

         After oral argument on April 1, 2019, the government submitted an additional letter brief (DE 106), and defense counsel submitted a supplemental reply (DE 107). On April 10, 2019, I convened an evidentiary hearing on the two reserved motions. (See DE 110.) This opinion and order constitute my resolution of those motions.


         According to State police reports and exhibits attached to the government's papers (DE 90), the background of this motion is as follows.

         On January 5, 2015, the New Jersey State Police had Minaya under surveillance. Minaya switched a single set of dealer license plates between automobiles, eventually placing them on a black Honda Civic. He then drove the Civic in a manner that suggested he was attempting to evade surveillance. After a stop at a New Jersey dealer, he drove off in an Acura TL, bearing the same dealer plates that had been on the Civic. Stopping at a pizzeria, he made a cellphone call. His car was approached by four individuals who, in the officers' estimation, spotted the surveillance car and abruptly walked away. Minaya entered and later exited from the pizzeria and got into the parked Acura, at which point the NJSP officers approached him.

         Minaya identified himself as "Freddie" and displayed a Pennsylvania photo driver's license in the name of "Freddie Garcia Ramos." He consented to a search of the car. The car was temporarily impounded so it could be searched; despite Minaya's consent, the officers obtained a search warrant the following day. The car was returned to Minaya on January 8, 2015.

         The premise of Minaya's motion to suppress-understandably, given the manner in which the government had presented the facts-was that the fake driver's license had been taken from him during the encounter outside the pizzeria. His motion focused on the voluntariness, or not, of that encounter. The government's responding papers, too, focused on that issue. The defendant's motion presented very little to suggest a triable evidentiary dispute as to the officers' possession of reasonable suspicion, assuming that was necessary. I nevertheless ordered an evidentiary hearing to establish the facts about the encounter between the NJSP and Minaya on January 5, 2015.

         On April 5, 2019, however (Le., after oral argument, but several days before the scheduled evidentiary hearing), the government filed a supplemental letter suggesting that the entire premise of the motion and their opposition to it had been incorrect. (DE 106) The government acknowledged that it intended to introduce in evidence a copy of the fake driver's license, and that the officers had seen it during the encounter on January 5, 2015. The license, however, had not been seized or copied during the police encounter on January 5, 2015.

         Rather, the police had obtained a copy of the license three days later, on January 8, 2015. The government submitted copies of the paperwork by which Minaya recovered the impounded vehicle from the State police precinct on January 8, 2015. (Ex. A to letter, later introduced as Exhibits Gl and G2 at the evidentiary hearing.) The Vehicle Release Form states that the car was "Released to Freddie Garcia 1/8/2015." Attached to the Vehicle Release Form is a photocopy of the fake driver's license in the name of "Freddy Garcia." The photo on the license is readily identifiable as that of defendant Minaya. That, said the government, was the source of the photocopied driver's license that is now in its possession.

         It follows, the government argued, that there had been no relevant seizure of the defendant or his driver's license. The license was not taken from the defendant during the police encounter on January 5. He voluntarily presented the license as identification on January 8, so that he could recover the impounded vehicle. So, even assuming for purposes of argument that the earlier police encounter had constituted an illegal seizure of Minaya, it would make no difference.

         At the evidentiary hearing, I heard briefly from the government's witness on this issue, NJSP Det. Sgt. Vittorio Flora. Flora confirmed the government's description of the events. In particular, he testified that he did not seize the driver's license on January 5, 2015. (Tr. 86) He confirmed that Mr. Minaya came to the State police barracks to pick up the seized vehicle on January 8, 2015. It was then that Minaya filled out the Vehicle Release Form and identified himself with the fake "Freddie Garcia" driver's license, which the police then photocopied. This photocopy, Flora testified, was the one now in the government's possession.[2] (Tr. 87-89; Exs. Gl, G2)

         Questioned about police procedures, Det. Sgt. Flora testified that the person picking up the car did not need to be Mr. Minaya:

Q. When [Minaya] provided you the license and signed that form, did he do so voluntarily?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. Was it possible for someone else other than Mr. Minaya to pick up the car that day at the state police barracks?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. Okay. Who else could have picked up that car?
A. Usually it's the owner or a representative of the owner with a document stating that they're releasing that vehicle to that person.
For example, in this case, if it's a dealership or whatever, it would be a representative from that dealership, if it's the insurance company.
In this case it's - it was a dealer plate on the vehicle, so it would be a representative of the dealership - . . . - who had proof of ownership.

(Tr. 89-90)

         Minaya's decision to appear and present the fake license, then, was voluntary:

Q. Okay. So when Mr. Minaya provided that - made the decision to come and provide you his license, that was not by any compulsion by you?
A. No, sir.

(Tr. 90)

         At the close of this direct examination, I obtained a firm representation from the government that it did not seek to introduce evidence that Minaya displayed the fake ID during the January 5, 2015 police encounter. Instead, the government would content itself with offering evidence that Minaya had presented the fake ID to recover the car from the police on January 8, 2015. (Tr. 90)

         With the suppression issue thus narrowed, defense counsel cross-examined briefly regarding the circumstances of the January 5 encounter. But the issue, as defense counsel acknowledged (Tr. 92-93), had evolved into one of (at most) taint: whether, assuming arguendo that the January 5 encounter violated the Fourth Amendment, the fake ID presented three days later should be suppressed as a "fruit of the poisonous tree." As to that, defense counsel was content to "leave the evidence as it is and let the Court make its decision." (Tr. 93) Although the government objected, in light of its shift of theories, I did permit the defense to argue that the January 5 encounter tainted the January 8 evidence.

Under the Court's precedents, the exclusionary rule encompasses both the "primary evidence obtained as a direct result of an illegal search or seizure" and, relevant here, "evidence later discovered and found to be derivative of an illegality," the so-called" 'fruit of the poisonous tree.'" Segura v. United States, 468 U.S. 796, 804, 104 S.Ct. 3380, 82 L.Ed.2d 599 (1984). But the significant costs of this rule have led us to deem it "applicable only ... where its deterrence benefits outweigh its substantial social costs." Hudson v. Michigan, 547 U.S. 586, 591, 126 S.Ct. 2159, 165 L.Ed.2d 56 (2006) (internal quotation marks omitted). "Suppression of evidence ... has always been our last resort, not our first impulse." Ibid.

Utah v. Strieff, 136 S.Ct. 2056, 2061 (2016). "The penalties visited upon the Government, and in turn upon the public, because its officers have violated the law must bear some relation to the purposes which the law is to serve." United States v. Ceccolini, 435 U.S. 268, 279 (1978). So even where a search has been unreasonable, the scope of the exclusionary rule has been confined to contexts where its deterrent effect justifies the systemic costs of excluding relevant evidence.

         Most pertinent here is the attenuation doctrine: "Evidence is admissible when the connection between unconstitutional police conduct and die evidence is remote or has been interrupted by some intervening circumstance, so that 'the interest protected by the constitutional guarantee that has been violated would not be served by suppression of the evidence obtained.™ Utah v. Strieff, 136 S.Ct. at 2061 (quoting Hudson, 547 U.S. at 593). The attenuation doctrine is concerned with the closeness, or not, of the causal connection between the alleged Fourth Amendment violation and the items to be offered in evidence. Where the constitutional violation consists in the seizure of the very items later offered in evidence, the exclusionary rule's efficacy as a deterrent is clear; the government, deprived of the very evidence it seized, forfeits the benefit of its unconstitutional conduct. Where, however, other acts and events intervene between the violation and the later, indirect development of evidence, the efficacy of the exclusionary sanction is less clear; the deterrent game may not be worth the exclusionary candle. In short, the attenuation inquiry embodies a balance of the costs and benefits of exclusion, and therefore "[n]o single fact is dispositive." Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590, 603, 95 S.Ct. 2254 (1975).

         Suppression therefore will not be ordered merely because a Fourth Amendment violation is a "but-for" link in the chain that led to the discovery of the evidence. United States v. Mendez, 885 F.3d 899, 909 (5th Cir. 2018) (citing Hudson v. Michigan, 547 U.S. 586, 592, 126 S.Ct. 2159, 2164 (2006); Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 487-88, 83 S.Ct. 407 (1963)). The key question is whether the evidence "has been come at by exploitation of that illegality or instead by means sufficiently distinguishable to be purged of the primary taint." Brown, 422 U.S. at 599, 95 S.Ct. at 2259 (emphasis added; citations omitted).

         A court's determination of whether intervening events are sufficient to "purge the primary taint" is governed by three factors:

1. The "temporal proximity" of the unconstitutional conduct and the discovery of the evidence.
2. The "presence of intervening circumstances."
3. The "purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct."

Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. at 603-04, 95 S.Ct. at ...

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