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United States v. Almonte-Baez

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

May 12, 2017

YGOA ALMONTE-BAEZ, Defendant, Appellee.


          J. Thomas Kerner for appellant.

          David J. D'Addio, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom William D. Weinreb, Acting United States Attorney, was on brief, for appellee.

          Before Torruella, Selya and Lynch, Circuit Judges.

          SELYA, Circuit Judge.

         Success sometimes depends on taking full advantage of fortuitous occurrences. In this case, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), while engaged in an investigation of a suspected drug-trafficking operation, stumbled across a second (more substantial) drug-trafficking operation. Much of the evidence concerning this second operation was unearthed following a warrantless entry by DEA agents into an apartment that, as matters turned out, served as a stash house for the second drug-trafficking operation. In the ensuing prosecution of a participant in the second drug-trafficking operation, the district court found that probable cause, combined with exigent circumstances, justified the warrantless entry. At trial, the jury convicted.

         Focusing with laser-like intensity on the warrantless entry and its aftermath, the appellant now presses this single-issue appeal. He argues that the district court erred in its determination that the warrantless entry was lawful and, therefore, in denying his motion to suppress a trove of incriminating evidence. After careful consideration, we uphold the denial of the appellant's motion to suppress and affirm the judgment below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         When reviewing the denial of a motion to suppress, we take the facts as the trial court found them, consistent with record support, see United States v. Romain, 393 F.3d 63, 66 (1st Cir. 2004), adding uncontradicted facts where appropriate. In the summer of 2013, DEA agents, working with state and local police officers, were investigating a drug-trafficking ring based in Lawrence, Massachusetts. During the course of this investigation, the agents intercepted telephone calls between two persons (the targets) thought to be part of the ring. Through these intercepted calls, the agents learned that the targets were planning to rob a quondam associate, one José Medina-López (Medina), whom the targets had reason to believe was receiving bulk drug shipments on a weekly basis.[1]

         The targets hatched a plot that contemplated attaching a GPS unit to Medina's car in the hope that it would lead them to his cache of drugs and cash. The agents decided that it was time for them to act. They began by canvassing the streets in search of Medina's car. On the morning of July 26, 2013, they hit the jackpot: they observed Medina leaving a multi-family residential building on Cedar Street, carrying a large trash bag that was so heavy that he needed both hands to lift it. He hoisted the trash bag into his car and drove away.

         The agents followed Medina and - with the aid of state and local police - pulled him over after they had observed him committing traffic infractions. When the agents reached his car window, Medina was trembling and appeared to be very nervous. The agents questioned him about where he had come from and where he was heading, and Medina provided answers the agents knew to be false.

         At that point, the agents asked Medina for permission to search his car. Medina acquiesced. Preliminary to the search, Medina got out of the car and, as he disembarked, the agents spotted a large wad of cash sticking out of his pants pocket. They seized the cash and arrested Medina for his participation in the March heroin transaction.

         The agents then proceeded to search the car. In the trash bag that Medina had lugged from the building on Cedar Street, they found more than $370, 000 in cash. They discovered more cash within the car, stashed in a box and various bags. When questioned, Medina offered no credible explanation for the oceans of cash (all of which the agents seized).

         Spurred on by what they had discovered, the agents returned to the building on Cedar Street. Once there, they encountered the landlord, who confirmed that Medina rented the second-floor apartment. At that juncture, the agents could have stopped their ongoing investigation and sought a search warrant for the apartment. Instead, they went to that apartment and knocked on the front door. A voice from within the apartment responded, "Hello, who is it?" The agents announced their presence and immediately heard the sound of someone inside running away, that is, toward the back of the apartment. The front door was sealed over, so the agents moved to a side door. Concerned that the occupant was either trying to escape or destroy evidence, the agents broke down the side door and forcibly entered the premises. Once ...

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