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United States v. Brenes

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fort Smith Division

July 1, 2019




         Defendant Rebecca Irene Brenes filed a motion to suppress and brief in support (Doc. 34). The Government filed a response (Doc. 38). Defendant Jose Sabino Jimenez-Cruz also filed a motion to suppress (Doc. 37) which adopts Brenes's motion in its entirety.[1] Jimenz-Cruz's attorney makes no separate arguments on his client's behalf, and the motion depends entirely on Brenes's motion, so the Government has not filed a separate response. Counsel for Brenes requested a hearing on the motion, while counsel for the Government believes the briefs sufficiently communicate the necessary facts and law. No. hearing will be held, but neither Brenes nor Jimenez-Cruz will be prejudiced because the Court will grant the motions to suppress.

         I. Background

         On January 30, 2019, Brenes was driving a rented Jeep Compass in which Jimenez-Cruz was riding. Brenes failed to yield at an intersection in the City of Van Buren in Crawford County, Arkansas, and struck another vehicle. No. one was injured. Corporal Erik Jensen, a field training officer with the Van Buren Police Department, and Officer Micheel Stephenson, his trainee, arrived at the scene. Brenes was asked to fill out an accident report. At the scene, Brenes told Corporal Jensen she and Jimenez-Cruz were traveling from California to Georgia to attend a wedding. Corporal Jensen took note of their luggage, which he described as “very little luggage for a cross-country trip.” (Doc. 38, p. 2). Corporal Jensen also noticed “several side conversations between Brenes and Jimenez-Cruz fully in Spanish.” Id. Corporal Jensen conducted a records check on Brenes and dispatch reported that her California drivers license had been suspended. Officer Stephenson arrested Brenes for driving on a suspended license, and she was handcuffed and placed in the back of the patrol car.[2] Brenes asked to speak to Jimenez-Cruz, then yelled something to him in Spanish. Brenes was not given Miranda warnings.

         By this time, Sergeant Donald Eversole (another Van Buren police officer) had arrived at the scene. After Brenes was restrained and put into the back of the patrol car, Corporal Jensen told Sergeant Eversole “something wasn't right with the story he got” and he was going to ask whether anything illegal was in the vehicle. (Docs. 34, pp. 2 -3). Corporal Jensen returned to the patrol car and began to question Brenes. He directly asked her whether there was anything illegal in the vehicle and told her the vehicle would be searched before it was towed. Brenes did not respond. Not accepting her silence, Corporal Jensen again asked if anything illegal was in the vehicle, and asked Brenes to be honest. Brenes stated that Jimenz-Cruz was carrying a small amount of marijuana on him. Corporal Jensen did not believe Brenes so he questioned her again, asking whether there was anything else in the vehicle. Brenes's eyes teared up, and Corporal Jensen asked if there were any weapons in the vehicle. Brenes indicated with a head-shake that the answer was “no.” Corporal Jensen then asked if there were any drugs in the vehicle, and Brenes nodded her head “yes” and said “a lot.”

         At some point (whether because the officers determined the Jeep was inoperable after arriving at the scene of the collision or because the driver, Brenes, was placed under arrest), the officers determined that the Jeep would be towed from the scene. The incomplete portions of the Van Buren Police Department policy provided by the Government require that an inoperable vehicle be towed either by a wrecker identified by the vehicle owner or by the next available wrecker on a list apparently maintained by the Van Buren Police Department. “The Van Buren Police Department Towing Policy also states that an Auto Storage Report is to be completed and on that report, there is an inventory section to be filled out.” (Doc. 38, p. 10). The excerpts and description of the policy provided by the Government do not detail the extent of any inventory search required, whether officers are permitted or required to inventory the contents of containers within the vehicle, or the extent to which a vehicle's occupants may recover property from the vehicle before it is towed.

         While Brenes was being questioned, because the Jeep was to be towed, and because Jimenz-Cruz was not under arrest for driving on a suspended license, he was offered a ride to a hotel. He asked to remove belongings from the Jeep, and was allowed to. After removing items from the cabin of the vehicle, Jimenez-Cruz opened the rear hatch and began to remove a suitcase. By this time, Brenes had informed Corporal Jensen that there were drugs in the Jeep. Corporal Jensen exited the patrol car, he or another officer said “drugs, ” and Corporal Jensen approached Jimenez-Cruz and asked him whether there were drugs in the car. Jimenez-Cruz responded “no, ” but Jensen moved him away from the luggage and arrested him. Sergeant Eversole then removed the suitcase from the vehicle, took it to the sidewalk, opened it, and discovered 45 bags of methamphetamine weighing 71 pounds and three bags of oxycodone pills weighing 205 grams. Brenes, Jimenez-Cruz, and the Jeep were taken to the Van Buren Police Department. The record does not show whether any inventory of the vehicle's contents was actually conducted.

         Defendants now move to suppress Brenes's statements to Corporal Jensen and physical evidence seized from the vehicle as a result of these statements.

         II. Law

         For over fifty years it has been settled law that statements intentionally elicited during custodial interrogation of a defendant may not be used in the case-in-chief against the defendant unless the prosecution demonstrates that effective procedural safeguards were used to protect the defendant's Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444 (1966). It has also been the case “that an out-of-court declaration made after arrest may not be used at trial against one of the declarant's partners in crime.” Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 490 (1963). For even longer, albeit with regularly growing exceptions to excuse police misconduct and limit suppression of evidence to those instances where it will deter that misconduct, it has been the law that:

The Government cannot violate the Fourth Amendment-in the only way in which the Government can do anything, namely through its agents-and use the fruits of such unlawful conduct to secure a conviction. Nor can the Government make indirect use of such evidence for its case, or support a conviction on evidence obtained through leads from the unlawfully obtained evidence. All these methods are outlawed, and convictions obtained by means of them are invalidated, because they encourage the kind of society that is obnoxious to free men.

Walder v. United States, 347 U.S. 62, 64-65 (1954) (citations omitted).

         The Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures demands that an arrest or a search be supported by probable cause and, with few exceptions, conducted pursuant to a warrant. One long-recognized exception to the requirement that an arrest warrant issue prior to seizure exists where “facts and circumstances within the law enforcement officer's knowledge are sufficient to warrant a prudent person, or one of reasonable caution, in believing, in the circumstances shown, that the suspect has committed, is committing, or is about to commit an offense.” United States v. Morales, 923 F.2d 621, 623 (8th Cir. 1991) (quoting United States v. Caves, 890 F.2d 87, 93 (8th Cir. 1989)). Where facts and circumstances include information the officer receives from another person, rather than from what the officer has directly observed, the information must be reliable to support probable cause. An officer “may rely upon information received through an informant, rather than upon his direct observations, so long as the informant's statement is reasonably corroborated by other matters within the officer's knowledge.” Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 242 (1983) (quoting Jones v. United States, 362 U.S. 257, 269 (1960)).

         With respect to searches, “[i]n the absence of a warrant, a search is reasonable only if it falls within a specific exception to the warrant requirement.” Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373, 382 (2014) (emphasis added). Among those instances where a warrant might not be required are a search incident to lawful arrest, id., search of an automobile and containers therein pursuant to probable cause, Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. ...

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