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United States v. Flores

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

April 25, 2018

CHARLES FLORES, Defendant, Appellant.


          Gail S. Strassfeld for appellant.

          Benjamin M. Block, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Halsey B. Frank, United States Attorney, was on brief, for appellee.

          Before Howard, Chief Judge, Selya and Barron, Circuit Judges.

          SELYA, Circuit Judge.

         This appeal implicates two issues rooted in the Fourth Amendment. See U.S. Const. amend. IV. The first involves the district court's determination that probable cause existed for the arrest of defendant-appellant Charles Flores; the second involves the district court's invocation of the independent source doctrine and its concomitant refusal to suppress evidence seized during a warrant-backed search of the appellant's hotel room, notwithstanding the officers' earlier unlawful entry into that room. Discerning no error, we 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, adding uncontradicted facts where appropriate." United States v. Almonte-Báez, 857 F.3d 27, 29 (1st Cir. 2017)(internal citation omitted).

         This case has its genesis in a tip received by Thomas Pappas, a Maine state trooper with thirteen years of law-enforcement experience, who was seconded to a federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) task force at the times relevant hereto. Specifically, Paul Buchanan, a fellow DEA task force member, told Pappas that he had heard from a reliable informant that a "group of New Yorkers" was peddling cocaine out of the Fairfield Inn (a hotel located in Brunswick, Maine). Buchanan explained that, though the informant did not have first-hand knowledge of the drug-trafficking enterprise, he had a history of providing dependable information and had "participated in a number of cases."

         His interest piqued, Pappas drove to the Fairfield Inn and was joined there by another officer. He obtained a guest registry from the hotel staff and inquired whether any rooms had been paid for in cash (a practice which, Pappas testified, was commonly associated with criminal activity because it allowed perpetrators to avoid a paper trail). He learned that, of the 38 occupied rooms in the hotel, only one - room 131 - had been rented for cash. Next, Pappas explored the hotel grounds, noting that room 131 was one of the most easterly rooms; its windows faced the parking lot at the rear of the hotel; and it was near a relatively private exit.

         The two officers returned to the front of the hotel, and Pappas spoke with the front-desk manager. Unprompted, she told the officers that she suspected they were there to investigate room 131. That room, she stated, had been rented by a person who listed a New York address. The room itself was occupied by a group of men and women, and one of the guests was an obese black male. Upon registration, the group had initially been assigned to a second-floor room, asked to be moved, and was transferred to room 131 (a first-floor room). According to the manager, there had been an unusual number of visitors "coming and going on a frequent basis" to and from room 131.

         With the manager's permission, the officers set up shop in a neighboring room: room 132. Around 5 p.m., Pappas observed a vehicle pull into the parking space directly adjacent to room 132. A man was driving and a second man was in the front passenger seat. An obese black male roughly matching the description previously provided by the front-desk manager[1] approached the car and got into the back seat. Pappas saw this man (later identified as the appellant) shift his weight as if reaching for something. Pappas then saw the man make an exchange with the front-seat passenger (though he could not identify what was exchanged). After the exchange, Pappas saw the appellant counting money in the back seat and then exit the car. As Pappas recalled it, the entire interaction took no more than 20 to 30 seconds. Pappas believed that he had witnessed a hand-to-hand drug transaction and that the appellant had the proceeds (and possibly additional drugs) on his person.[2]

         Shortly after witnessing what he believed to be a drug buy, Pappas walked outside and saw the appellant near the exit at the eastern end of the hotel. He noticed that the appellant was smoking marijuana. After taking a lap around the hotel, Pappas inquired whether the appellant wanted the outside door held open. The appellant indicated that he had his own keycard.

         Pappas went inside, asked his fellow officer to accompany him, and returned to where the appellant was loitering. After identifying themselves as law-enforcement officers, they detained the appellant and handcuffed him. Pappas testified that handcuffs were necessary to ensure officer safety, to safeguard any evidence that the appellant might have on his person, and to incapacitate the appellant should any of his confederates be nearby.

         The officers proceeded to question the appellant without first giving him Miranda warnings. See Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 444 (1966). They learned that he was from New York and was staying in room 131. A search of the appellant's person disclosed that he was carrying two cellphones, a keycard, an identification card, and cash.

         The officers then brought the appellant into the hotel. As they neared room 131, they thought that they heard voices. Using the appellant's keycard, the two officers entered the room. Once inside, they were able to determine that the room was unoccupied and that the voices they had heard were emanating from a television set. They performed a security sweep during which they observed, among other things, some cash and a mason jar containing marijuana. Pappas testified that, during this entry, the officers simply glanced around and did not search the room for, say, drugs, weapons, or the like.

         At this juncture, the officers started to read the appellant his Miranda rights. While those rights were being recited, a woman knocked on the door of room 131 and explained that she "was sent there by some people from New York" to check on the appellant. Pappas escorted her to room 132 and interviewed her there. He asked for her cellphone, which she surrendered. Checking it, Pappas saw drug-related messages and confronted the woman about them. After she tried unsuccessfully to retrieve her cellphone, Pappas handcuffed her.

         Pappas called for additional support and proceeded to complete the administration of the appellant's Miranda rights. He then asked the appellant for permission to search room 131. Failing to receive consent, Pappas waited for reinforcements to arrive so that he could then devote his ...

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