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United States v. Montelongo-Guzman

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Newnan Division

July 31, 2019




         Defendant Carlos Montelongo-Guzman (“defendant”) is charged in a one-count indictment with intent to distribute a Schedule II controlled substance, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A) and 18 U.S.C. § 2. [Doc. 1].[1]Defendant has moved to suppress statements and evidence obtained following a traffic stop that occurred on August 15, 2018. [Docs. 18 & 19]. After an evidentiary hearing held on March 22, 2019, [2] the parties filed post-hearing briefs on the motions to suppress. See [Docs. 25, 28, & 29]. For the reasons that follow, it is RECOMMENDED that defendant's motions to suppress, [Docs. 18 & 19], be DENIED.


         On August 15, 2018, at approximately 1:35 p.m., Georgia State Patrol (“GSP”) Trooper T.J. Hamilton (“Trooper Hamilton”) was watching northbound traffic on Interstate 85 “around mile marker 38” as part of the criminal interdiction unit responsible for that segment of the highway. (Tr. at 8-9). An Infiniti QX 80 SUV traveling in the far-right lane-later determined to be driven by defendant-caught Trooper Hamilton's attention when the driver “suddenly hit the brakes” after coming within view of Trooper Hamilton's patrol car. (Tr. at 9-11, 31). As the SUV drove by, Trooper Hamilton observed that both individuals inside “appeared to be nervous” and “were sitting upright in the seat.” (Tr. at 10, 33-34). After passing him, the SUV began to “weave in [its] lane” and approached the rear of a tractor-trailer. (Tr. at 10-11, 35). Trooper Hamilton testified that this behavior suggested the driver was engaged in “mirror driving, ” which he explained refers to the driver focusing on his rear-view mirror to see whether the patrol car was about to pursue him, rather than focusing on the road ahead. (Tr. at 10). In Trooper Hamilton's opinion, the SUV closed to within “a few vehicle” lengths behind the tractor-trailer and continued to “clos[e the] distance” before eventually changing lanes and passing the tractor-tailor. (Tr. at 11-12, 35). The SUV was “definitely within” the standard three-second rule, which Trooper Hamilton testified was the rule “used as an evaluation of whether someone is following a vehicle too closely” and described it as the time it takes from when the “rear bumper of the vehicle in front” passes “a fixed object on the side of the road” until “the front bumper of [the] vehicle [behind] passes that same fixed object.” (Tr. at 11, 35-36).

         Trooper Hamilton pulled onto the interstate and began following the SUV to verify the license plate and vehicle information. (Tr. at 12). After failing to receive any information from dispatch because the “in-car [Georgia Crime Information Center (‘GCIC')] system was down, ” Trooper Hamilton continued to follow and kept pace with the SUV for about a mile. (Tr. at 12-13, 39). During that time, the SUV traveled at approximately 65 miles per hour through a construction zone, a stretch of the interstate where the posted speed limit was 60 miles per hour. (Tr. at 12-13, 55-56). Trooper Hamilton verified the speed of the SUV using the “Stalker Radar” affixed to his patrol car. (Tr. at 13, 39). He then initiated a traffic stop by activating his blue lights. (Tr. at 13-15); see also (Gov. Ex. 1).

         After the SUV came to a stop, Trooper Hamilton approached it on the passenger side and introduced himself, while standing at the front passenger window. (Tr. at 14, 44; Gov. 1 at 1:11-1:22). Defendant was in the driver's seat and a female was in the front passenger seat. See (Gov. Ex. 1). Trooper Hamilton asked if defendant had his license and whether the vehicle belonged to him. (Tr. at 14; Gov. Ex. 1 at 1:22-1:25). Defendant replied the vehicle was a rental, so Trooper Hamilton asked if defendant had any rental papers and added that he could not get any information on defendant's tag. (Tr. at 14; Gov. Ex. 1 at 1:25-1:39). Defendant handed Trooper Hamilton the rental agreement. (Tr. at 19-20; Gov. Ex. 1 at 1:55). Responding to a remark made by defendant, Trooper Hamilton explained that he pulled defendant over for speeding and for following “that 18-wheeler pretty close.” (Gov. Ex. 1 at 2:22-2:45). Defendant advised that he was headed to Atlanta, and Trooper Hamilton asked defendant about the purpose of his trip. (Tr. at 20-21; Gov. Ex. 1 at 2:48-3:03). Trooper Hamilton noticed that the rental agreement showed a one-way rental from Texas to Rhode Island, so Trooper Hamilton inquired further about that apparent discrepancy. (Tr. at 20-21; Gov. Ex. 1 at 3:03-3:23). Trooper Hamilton attempted to determine whether defendant and the female passenger resided in either California or Houston, (Gov. Ex. 1 at 3:34), and defendant indicated that he lived in California, (Gov. Ex. 1 at 3:36); [Doc. 25 at 4]. Continuing the background check, Trooper Hamilton told defendant to “hang on one second” while he returned to his patrol car. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 3:51). For the next several minutes, Trooper Hamilton can be heard on the dash-camera recording reentering his patrol car and relaying information to the El Paso Intelligence Center (“EPIC”) concerning defendant and his vehicle.[3] (Gov Ex. 1 at 4:08-19:26). Trooper Hamilton then received notice of a possible criminal arrest warrant for defendant. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 14:32-15:19; Tr. at 20, 22). He attempted to gain identification information by requesting either a photograph or detailed description. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 16:40-16:50).

         After learning about the arrest warrant, Trooper Hamilton returned to defendant's vehicle to continue their conversation. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 19:33). Defendant stepped out of the SUV and first showed Trooper Hamilton a copy of the rental registration on defendant's cell phone. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 19:45-20:04). Trooper Hamilton apologized for the delay, informed defendant that their system for running people was down, and asked if defendant had a pending arrest warrant out of California for a narcotics-related offense. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 20:05-20:30). Trooper Hamilton further explained that there appeared to be an active arrest warrant for someone with the same last name as defendant, his driver's license number, and his date of birth, but the name “Montelongo”appeared as a given name on the warrant instead of as part of a hyphenated last name. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 20:30-21:30). Trooper Hamilton also explained that he was waiting for a photograph from the warrant. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 21:40). Trooper Hamilton then asked defendant to run his fingerprints through a handheld scanner so that he could confirm whether the warrant was for defendant and proceeded to scan defendant's fingerprints. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 21:55-23:33; Tr. at 25, 48). Defendant denied any knowledge of a 2013 arrest warrant. (Gov Ex. 1 at 23:15-23:28).

         Trooper Hamilton returned to his patrol car with the scanner while defendant stood and waited on the side of the interstate. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 23:33-28:00). Trooper Hamilton later rejoined defendant and asked to try the fingerprint device a second time. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 28:08-28:54; Tr. at 48-49). While scanning defendant's prints, Trooper Hamilton asked defendant if there was anything illegal in the vehicle and received a negative response. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 28:39-28:43). After another brief trip to his patrol car, Trooper Hamilton returned and explained it could take a while to come back and that “the files [were] down for some reason.” (Gov. Ex. 1 at 29:01-30:00). Trooper Hamilton stated that the warrant was for possession of dangerous drugs and that is why he had asked if there was anything illegal in the vehicle, and he then asked if defendant had a problem with him searching the SUV. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 30:05-30:20). Defendant responded that he just wanted to get on the road and that he had not done anything illegal. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 30:20-30:35). Trooper Hamilton pointed out the traffic violations, which they further discussed, (Gov. Ex.1 at 30:35-31:18), and the reasons why defendant's license appeared to be associated with an arrest warrant, (Gov. Ex. 1 at 31:18-33:08). After defendant asked how long this usually takes, Trooper Hamilton stated he would go back to his patrol car and check. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 33:12-33:26). But, before Trooper Hamilton got back in his patrol car, defendant asked him to inform the female passenger what was going on. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 33:26-33:38). Trooper Hamilton told the passenger the reason for the delay and then returned to his patrol car. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 33:38-34:04).

         Shortly thereafter, Trooper Munoz arrived on the scene and Trooper Hamilton summarized the situation to him, including that the “system [was] down” and he “was advised that there [was] a warrant associated to [defendant's] driver's license and his birth date, ” but the name was “showing Carlos Guzman” and “Montelongo, his second last name, [was] showing as a middle.” (Gov. Ex. 1 at 34:55-35:38; Tr. at 28). While Trooper Hamilton remained inside his patrol car for another minute, Trooper Munoz spoke with defendant. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 35:39-37:00). Trooper Hamilton then exited his patrol car and placed defendant in handcuffs, explaining that the warrant had been confirmed, and that they would “now [] just wait to see if they want to come pick you up.” (Gov. Ex. 1 at 37:00-38:54, 40:56-41:05; Tr. at 26).

         While waiting to receive information on whether the California warrant required extradition, Trooper Munoz explained to defendant that until extradition was confirmed, “You are not technically under arrest.” (Gov. Ex. 1 at 41:30-42:30). He reiterated that, “You're detained, ” and that defendant was only wearing handcuffs for officer safety. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 42:30-42:42). Defendant replied, “I understand that.” (Gov. Ex. 1 at 42:34). Trooper Munoz continued by explaining, “Right now, we're assuming that . . . you're gonna drive away from here until they [California] say you can't . . . I've seen them not extradite people.” (Gov. Ex. 1 at 43:43-44:02). During this exchange, defendant admitted driving above the 60 miles per hour speed limit. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 44:35; Tr. at 55).

         Approximately 46 minutes into the traffic stop, Trooper Johnathan Nelms (“Trooper Nelms”) arrived on the scene with his K-9 named Jack.[4] (Gov. Ex. 1 at 46:47; Tr. at 57, 60). At that point, Trooper Hamilton was still waiting to hear about extradition. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 47:10; Tr. at 27). Trooper Nelms and Jack conducted a free air K-9 sniff of the SUV by making two counterclockwise passes around the vehicle. (Tr. at 60-61, 68; Gov. Ex. 1 at 48:18-50:10). During the second pass, Jack gave a positive alert by sitting down near the “bottom right of the driver door.” (Tr. at 69; Gov. Ex. 1 at 49:58). Trooper Nelm's handling of Jack that day complied with GSP policies and procedures. (Tr. at 61, 71).

         As a result of the positive K-9 alert, Trooper Hamilton searched the SUV. (Tr. at 28; Gov. Ex. 1 at 52:33). He discovered 67 individually wrapped bundles of cocaine inside three bags that were located in the SUV. (Tr. at 28; Gov. Ex. 1 at 52:56; Gov. Ex. 5). Trooper Hamilton eventually issued two traffic citations to defendant for speeding and following too closely, which he did not complete until after he confirmed defendant had an active warrant and after Jack gave a positive alert. (Tr. 27, 56); see also (Def. Exs. 1A & 1B). Upon discovering the cocaine, Trooper Hamilton placed defendant and the female passenger under arrest and contacted federal authorities. (Tr. at 28-29). Before federal agents arrived on scene, Trooper Hamilton advised the female passenger of her Miranda[5] rights and spoke with her, (Gov. Ex. 1 at 55:29-57:45), and then Trooper Hamilton similarly advised defendant of his Miranda rights, (Gov. Ex. 1 at 1:12:35-1:13:12). In response, defendant stated that he wanted a lawyer present. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 1:13:12). Shortly thereafter, defendant indicated that he wanted to know his options and would speak with federal agents. (Gov. Ex. 1 at 1:14:00-1:16:42). At no point during the traffic stop did any officer un-holster a firearm or point a weapon at defendant, nor did anyone yell, threaten, or speak to defendant in an aggressive manner. See (Gov. Ex. 1).

         Task force officer Jonathan Heeb (“TFO Heeb”) of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Task Force, arrived at the traffic stop sometime between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. (Tr. at 72-73). After speaking to one of the troopers, TFO Heeb met with defendant in the back seat of a patrol car. (Tr. at 73-74). Defendant was “really interested in what his options were, ” so TFO Heeb decided to continue the conversation at a nearby GSP office. (Tr. at 74-76). After arriving there, Trooper Nelms first met with defendant, advised him of his Miranda rights, and asked him if he would be willing to complete a handwritten witness statement. (Tr. at 62; Gov. Exs. 2 & 3). Defendant signed his initials next to each of the rights listed on the Miranda form and signed the waiver at the bottom of the page indicating his desire to “willingly make a statement.” (Gov. Ex. 2 (all caps omitted); Tr. at 63-64). Defendant then wrote and signed a separate witness statement form. (Tr. at 64; Gov. Ex. 3).

         At approximately 4:54 p.m., TFO Heeb began his formal interview of defendant by presenting him with a second Miranda waiver form. (Tr. at 76; Gov. Ex. 6). Defendant signed his initials next to each of the rights listed, wrote “Yes” twice to indicate that he both “understood [his] rights” and was “willing to answer some questions, ” checked a box indicating he had read the form, and signed that he “freely and voluntarily” was willing to answer questions. (Gov. Ex. 6). At one point during the hour-long conversation that followed, defendant gave TFO Heeb consent to search defendant's two cell phones. (Tr. at 79-80). Defendant provided the “passwords for his phones” to TFO Heeb and showed him specific items contained in his cell phones. (Tr. at 80). At no point did defendant withdraw his consent to search his phones, and he remained “very cooperative” throughout the interview. (Id.). On September 4, 2018, TFO Heeb applied for and received a search warrant to extract data from the two cell phones. (Gov. Exs. 7 & 8). The warrant was executed on September 12, 2018. (Gov. Ex. 8 at 2).


         Defendant contends that the “evidence obtained through the warantless search and any pre-search statements are due to be suppressed.” [Doc. 28 at 6]; see also [Docs. 18 & 19]. In particular, defendant argues that “there was not reasonable suspicion to support the traffic stop, ” and that “even if the stop were proper at its initiation, it was impermissibly prolonged.” [Doc. 28 at 6]. The government responds that the “traffic stop was justified by reasonable articulable suspicion that [] [d]efendant had committed two different traffic violations, ” that the “GSP troopers were further authorized to detain [] [d]efendant while they determined whether he was wanted for an outstanding arrest warrant, ” and that a “K-9 alert later provided probable cause to search the vehicle for controlled substances.” [Doc. 25 at 9].[6]

         A. Probable Cause to Initiate the Traffic Stop

         “The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable search and seizure.” United States v. Rowls, 402 Fed.Appx. 467, 468 (11th Cir. 2010) (per curiam) (unpublished) (citation and internal marks omitted). The “[t]emporary detention of individuals during the stop of an automobile by the police, even if only for a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a ‘seizure' of ‘persons' within the meaning of [the Fourth Amendment].” Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10 (1996) (citations omitted); see also United States v. Purcell, 236 F.3d 1274, 1277 (11th Cir. 2001); United States v. ...

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