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United States v. Padilla

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

June 23, 2016



          Kristine G. Baker United States District Judge

         Before the Court is defendant Rafael Padilla's motion to suppress evidence (Dkt. No. 13) to which the government has responded in opposition (Dkt. No. 14). Mr. Padilla seeks to suppress any physical evidence seized from the car Mr. Padilla was driving; any evidence or statements obtained, directly or indirectly, as a result of any unlawfully seized evidence; and any statements that were made while in custody and without the benefit of Miranda warnings. See Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1996).

         Mr. Padilla argues that he committed no traffic violation; thus, he contends that there was no probable cause to stop the vehicle and that all evidence seized as a result of the traffic stop should be suppressed (Dkt. No. 14, at 3). The government asserts that there was a traffic violation providing probable cause to stop the vehicle and that the search was lawful. The government also contends that, even if the traffic stop was unlawful, Mr. Padilla consented to a search of his car, which neutralized any taint allegedly stemming from the stop (Dkt. No. 14, at 1). The government also maintains that there was probable cause to search for a compartment in the car.

         The Court conducted a hearing on Mr. Padilla's motion to suppress on June 7, 2016. At the hearing, the Court heard oral argument from both parties. Mr. Padilla and the government presented witnesses who testified in open court. Mr. Padilla testified on behalf of himself. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Court took the motion under advisement. For the reasons that follow, the Court denies Mr. Padilla's motion to suppress (Dkt. No. 13).

         I. Factual Background

         At the hearing on Mr. Padilla's motion to suppress, the government introduced several exhibits, including a video recording of the traffic stop. The government previously filed this video as an exhibit to its response in opposition to Mr. Padilla's motion to suppress (Dkt. No. 14, Ex. A). The government also presented testimony at the hearing from Arkansas State Police Trooper Brandon Bennett and Arkansas State Police Corporal Rocky Rapert. In support of his motion, Mr. Padilla testified on his own behalf.

         Trooper Bennett has 10 years of law enforcement experience. He has attended training sessions sponsored by the Arkansas State Police, as well as training regarding drug courier profiles and border locations, one of which is McAllen, Texas. The government also presented testimony from Corporal Rapert. He has 12 and a half years of law enforcement experience.

         Trooper Bennett testified that, on February 24, 2015, he was on duty and parked on Interstate 55 in Mississippi County, Arkansas, near the 60-61 mile marker. He saw a Kia sport utility vehicle driven by Mr. Padilla pass his position and immediately apply the brakes. Trooper Bennett estimates that Mr. Padilla abruptly slowed from about 70 miles per hour to about 60 miles per hour. Trooper Bennett then left his parked position and began to follow Mr. Padilla in his vehicle. Trooper Bennett asserts that, as he was following Mr. Padilla, Mr. Padilla's vehicle was "at most, one car length behind a tractor-trailer in the right lane." (Dkt. No. 14, at 1). Trooper Bennett then observed Mr. Padilla pass the tractor-trailer in the left lane and testified that Mr. Padilla appeared nervous, was sitting perfectly straight, and was holding the steering wheel in a two-handed "white knuckle" grip (Id. at 2). During his testimony, Mr. Padilla denied being nervous.

         Trooper Bennett testified that, through his training and experience, he has learned that these signs indicate potential unlawful action. Trooper Bennett also testified that, when he initially observed Mr. Padilla, he decided to conduct a traffic stop because Mr. Padilla was following the tractor-trailer too closely. He stated that he has received training by attending classes in traffic law and accident investigation. In his classes, he was taught that you should have a car length between vehicles for every ten-mile-per-hour increment the vehicles are traveling, so in this case that would be six to seven car lengths between vehicles. On cross examination by Mr. Padilla's counsel, Trooper Bennett testified that he is also aware from his training that it is permissible to follow a tractor-trailer closely while a person is attempting to pass the tractor-trailer. Trooper Bennett explained that he has responded to traffic accidents where people were following tractor-trailers too closely and that these accidents have ranged from fender-benders to fatalities. He has pulled people over many times for following tractor trailers too closely.

         At the 63-mile marker, Trooper Bennett radioed in Mr. Padilla's vehicle tags. Trooper Bennett testified that this information is useful because finding out about a driver's past criminal history, about any outstanding warrants, and information of that nature has the potential to save his life. Corporal Rapert answered Trooper Bennett's radio call, ran Mr. Padilla's vehicle tags, and informed Trooper Bennett that the License Plate Reader indicated that the vehicle in which Mr. Padilla was traveling had crossed the border from Mexico into the United States at approximately 12:30 p.m. on February 23, 2015, the day before. Corporal Rapert testified that he relayed this information because the majority of the narcotics in this country come from Mexico.

         Trooper Bennett followed Mr. Padilla for what he estimates was three to four miles while he received Mr. Padilla's vehicle tag information. After that, at the 67-mile marker, Trooper Bennett activated his blue lights and siren. He pulled Mr. Padilla over. In its response in opposition, the government contends that Trooper Bennett conducted the traffic stop of Mr. Padilla's car because Mr. Padilla violated Ark. Code Ann. § 27-51-305, which prohibits "follow[ing] another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of vehicles and the traffic upon and the condition of the highway." (Dkt. No. 14, at 6).

         The Court understands that, when the blue lights on a police vehicle are activated, the center-mounted dashboard camera in the patrol car activates, begins to film, and, in fact, captures approximately one minute of activity prior to the blue lights being activated. In the government's response it represents that:

Bennett's car was equipped with a dashcam and a lapel microphone. The camera saves video from 60 seconds before the trooper engages [his] police lights. The camera begins saving audio when the police lights are activated. When Bennett observed Padilla drive too closely to the tractor-trailer, he did not immediately activate his police lights and stop Padilla, waiting instead until he had gotten information from dispatch about Padilla's license plate number. Thus, although Bennett's traffic stop was captured on the dashcam, the traffic violation that led Bennett to stop Padilla is not captured on the video because Bennett did not turn on his blue lights until 3-4 miles (i.e., more than one minute of driving time) after he saw Padilla commit the traffic violation.

(Dkt. No. 14, at n.1).

         Trooper Bennett also testified that the traffic violation he witnessed and that prompted him to stop Mr. Padilla was not captured on the video. Based upon this representation, the Court understands the government to be contending that the alleged traffic violation does not appear on the video that is attached as Exhibit A to its response in opposition.

         Trooper Bennett then approached Mr. Padilla's car and informed him that he had been pulled over because he was following a tractor-trailer too closely (Dkt. No. 14, Ex. 1). Trooper Bennett then asked Mr. Padilla a series of questions, including where he was going, where he had come from, whether he had recently crossed the border, and if he had ever been arrested. Mr. Padilla told Trooper Bennett that he was traveling to visit his children in Chicago, Illinois, and had left his home in McAllen, Texas, at 6:00 a.m. on February ...

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