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United States v. Rodriguez

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 29, 2019

UNITED STATES Plaintiff,
v.
KEITH RODRIGUEZ, Defendant.

          OPINION

          STANLEY R. CHESLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on the motion filed by Defendant Keith Rodriguez (“Defendant”), to suppress evidence seized in connection with his August 14, 2018 arrest and the search of his home. The United States of America (the “Government”) opposes this motion. The Court heard argument from counsel and held an evidentiary hearing on the suppression motion, including witness testimony, on April 23, 2019. For the reasons that follow, Defendant's motion to suppress is granted.

         I. Factual Background

         This action concerns a one-count Indictment stemming from Defendant's August 14, 2018 arrest. The Indictment charges that Defendant, having been convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year in a court in the State of New Jersey, knowingly possessed a firearm and ammunition, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). See ECF No. 11. The instant motion principally concerns the suppression of evidence seized during a warrantless search of Defendant's home, in connection with the arrest of a known fugitive and pursuant to a valid arrest warrant. Defendant contends that the search exceeded the lawful bounds of a limited protective sweep and violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment.

         On August 13, 2018, the New York/New Jersey Regional Fugitive Task Force (the “Task Force”) of the United States Marshals Service received a confidential tip regarding the location of an individual identified as Shannon Lewis Walker (“Walker”). Walker was a fugitive from justice on a warrant from Roanoke, West Virginia, charging first-degree Murder in violation of Virginia Criminal Code 18.2-32. According to the confidential tip, Walker was alleged to have been staying at 456 Hancock Street in Rahway, New Jersey (the “Subject Premises”), which the Task Force identified as a townhouse that was being rented by Defendant Rodriguez. The August 13, 2018 tip further provided that Walker's child's mother had taken the child to see Walker on the previous day, August 12, 2018.

         At approximately 8:30 a.m. the following day, August 14, 2018, members of the Task Force arrived at the Subject Premises. Upon their arrival, law enforcement officers knocked on the front door, which was answered by Defendant. At this time, officers were able to see Walker standing at the top of a staircase leading to the second floor. Defendant granted law enforcement permission to enter and was immediately detained and handcuffed for his own safety. While Defendant was escorted to a bench in front of the residence until he could be properly identified, Officers instructed Walker to come down the stairs to the front of the residence, and he complied. Walker was handcuffed and placed under arrest. According to testimony provided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Task Force Officer Shaun Tympanick (“Officer Tympanick”) at the suppression hearing, Walker was then secured in the house “somewhere to the left near the kitchen.” (Apr. 23, 2019 Hr'g Tr. at 33:15-17.)

         Following the arrest of Walker, officers conducted a room-to-room protective sweep of the townhouse. This protective sweep lead officers to notice a handgun holster in plain view on a desk on the first floor of the residence. During the course of this protective sweep, several officers, including Officer Tympanick, proceeded to the second floor of the townhouse. He entered the second-floor back bedroom of the Subject Premises, and observed a mattress lying flush on top of a box spring, which was lying flush to the carpet. (Apr. 23, 2019 Hr'g Tr. at 26:04-10; 27:12-19; 28:01-02.) He checked the closet, and then lifted the mattress- where he located a .40 caliber Black Taurus handgun (the “handgun”) bearing serial number SZ104490, between the mattress and box spring. (Apr. 23, 2019 Hr'g Tr. at 26:02-27:05); ECF No. 22 at 13 (Search Warrant Affidavit).

         Subsequent to Officer Tympanick's discovery of the handgun, Agent Rossi applied for a federal search warrant for the Subject Premises. The August 14, 2018 affidavit that Agent Rossi submitted in support of that application provided the following information as probable cause for the search:

3. After placing WALKER under arrest, law enforcement conducted a protective sweep on the SUBJECT PREMISES. During the sweep, a black .40 caliber Taurus handgun bearing serial number SZ104490 was located beneath a mattress in a second floor bedroom. The weapon was not reported stolen and is operable. After the weapon was located, RODRIGUEZ advised the officers that the weapon belonged to him. According to law enforcement databases, RODRIGUEZ has five prior felony convictions in New Jersey. Most recently, on or about September 25, 2015, RODRIGUEZ was convicted in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Hudson County, of possessing CDS on school property, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-7, a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year.

4. Also during the protective sweep, law enforcement located a safe on a small table in front of a crawl space. In an effort to access to the crawl space to ensure no other individuals were inside the residence, law enforcement moved the safe and heard an audible sound of metal scraping the inside of the safe. Based on my training and experience, I know that individuals often store handguns and other weapons inside safes or other concealed containers for safekeeping. I also know that individuals sometimes keep personal documents, objects, and other indicia of ownership in secure locations like a safe.
5. During the protective sweep, law enforcement additionally located a firearm holster in plain view on a first floor desk and several items consistent with narcotics distribution including small plastic baggies used to package narcotics and a scale used to weigh narcotics and prepare them for distribution. Both the baggies and scale were observed in plain view on a third floor desk and a second-floor bedroom dresser, respectively. These items were not seized by law enforcement during the arrest of WALKER. The requested Warrant will allow law enforcement to seize the said items and additionally test the baggies and scale for the presence of CDS. The requested warrant will further allow law enforcement to search for and locate indicia of ownership as it pertains to the above items and the firearm recovered from the second-floor bedroom, which will serve to corroborate the statements made by RODRIGUEZ prior to his arrest.
6. Further, based on information received from the Roanoke City Police Department, it is believed that the homicide committed in Roanoke City for which WALKER has been charged was committed using a silver .9mm Luger Winchester handgun. According to the Roanoke City Police Department, that weapon was never located. Further, the description of the murder weapon does not match that of the weapon located in the second floor bedroom of the SUBJECT PREMISES.

ECF No. 22 at 13-15 (Search Warrant Affidavit) (emphasis added). The Search Warrant was granted at 4:15 p.m. later that day; no other contraband at the Subject Premises was found.

         The Government provided testimony from three law enforcement Task Force Officers during April 23, 2019 evidentiary hearing: Michael Savnick, a Detective with the New Jersey State Police, who was assigned the Task Force and was lead investigator for the Walker case; Officer Shaun Tympanick, a Deportation Officer with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who was assigned as an officer to the Task Force and was a member of the “stack” entry team that entered the residence; and Agent Anthony Rossi, a Deputy United States Marshal, who was the assigned case agent for the Walker case.

         II. ...


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