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United States v. Zamora-Garcia

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division

June 23, 2014



J. LEON HOLMES, District Judge.

Jorge Alberto Zamora-Garcia has been indicted on one count of possessing with intent to distribute more than 500 grams of a mixture and substance containing a detectible amount of methamphetamine. The methamphetamine was seized from a hidden compartment attached to the underbody of Zamora-Garcia's vehicle following a traffic stop on July 23, 2012. Zamora-Garcia has filed a motion to suppress. The Court conducted an evidentiary hearing on the motion at which a video-recording of the traffic stop was introduced into evidence. For reasons that will be explained, the motion is denied.

On the morning of July 23, 2012, Corporal Lowry Astin of the Arkansas State Police was on patrol on Interstate 40 east of Forrest City, Arkansas. As he was parked in the median watching the traffic, he saw a black Lincoln traveling east and dragging an object underneath the car. Because of the possibility that the object might constitute a hazard to the occupants of the car or others, Astin initiated a traffic stop.

Zamora-Garcia was the driver and the owner of the vehicle. He had two passengers - his sister and her daughter - with him. According to Astin, when he approached the driver's side of the vehicle, Zamora-Garcia had his wallet in his hands to retrieve his driver's license, but his hands were shaking so badly that he nearly threw the wallet out the window. Astin explained the purpose of the stop, showed Zamora-Garcia the object underneath his car, and invited him to sit in the patrol car while the two of them continued the conversation. While they were in the patrol car, Astin made a radio request that Zamora-Garcia's license be verified, and the response confirmed that the license was valid.

After Astin verified that Zamora-Garcia's license was valid, the following colloquy occurred:

Astin: Anything illegal in the car?
ZAMORA: No sir.
Astin: Do you mind if I search it? Can I?
ZAMORA: Yeah, if you want to.

Astin began the search in the trunk area of the car, and asked Zamora-Garcia to stand to his right, which he did. Zamora-Garcia then watched Astin conduct the search. A large bag in the trunk obstructed the search at one point, and Zamora-Garcia voluntarily removed that bag from the trunk and set it on the shoulder of the road to the rear of the vehicle.

While searching the car, Astin noticed that the carpet, which appeared to be factory-issue, was glued down. According to Astin, it is not a common practice for automobile manufacturers to glue the carpet in the trunk down. In Astin's experience, when the carpet in the trunk is glued down, a hidden compartment is often found underneath the trunk.

After searching the trunk, Astin crawled underneath the car with his flashlight and saw, among other things, an after-market metal box attached to the underbody of the vehicle. Based on his training and experience, Astin believed that the existence of a hidden compartment indicated a likelihood that a controlled substance or other contraband was present. Astin also believed, based on his training and experience, that the hidden compartment likely had a trap door near the driver's side of the vehicle.

While Astin was attempting to find the trap door by which he could gain entrance into the compartment, he was joined by Arkansas State Trooper Keith Ponder. Eventually, Astin and Ponder decided to take the vehicle to company headquarters where they could remove the left wheel without danger from oncoming traffic. Astin then said to Zamora-Garcia, "What I need you to do is follow me back to headquarters. We need to pull this wheel off and look." Zamora-Garcia responded affirmatively and said, "Okay." Astin said, "It doesn't look right to me, " and Zamora-Garcia responded, "That's fine." Zamora-Garcia asked whom he should follow, and Ponder said that he Zamora-Garcia should follow him. Then they traveled to the company headquarters, which was six or eight miles away. Although the phrasing used by Astin could indicate either an order or a request, his tone of voice was more consistent with a request than a command; and it is apparent from the video-recording that Zamora-Garcia voluntarily drove his vehicle to company headquarters.

At company headquarters, Zamora-Garcia's sister asked for directions to a bathroom for the child, and they were directed to an office building, where they had access to restrooms, vending machines, and the like. Before they went into the office building, Astin patted Zamora-Garcia down - for the first time. Zamora-Garcia and his passengers stayed in the room where drivers' license examinations are conducted while the officers removed the left wheel and ...

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