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United States v. Valdes

United States District Court, D. Maine

January 3, 2019

JOHN VALDES, Defendant.


          George Z. Singal United States District Judge

         Before the Court is Defendant John Valdes’ Motion to Suppress (ECF No. 59). The Court held an evidentiary hearing on this Motion on December 4, 2018, and, thereafter, received supplemental briefing from the parties (ECF Nos. 288 & 291). Having considered the evidence presented at the hearing, as well as the arguments submitted by counsel, the Court DENIES the Motion for the reasons outlined below.


         In 2017, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”), along with other law enforcement agencies, began investigating a suspected marijuana trafficking operation in Androscoggin County, Maine. As part of this investigation, officers conducted extensive surveillance on a residence at 1302 Sabattus Street in Lewiston (“the residence”), which was home to Richard Daniels. Based on information gleaned from an informant, they believed the residence was being used to distribute large amounts of marijuana to local and out-of-state buyers.

         While conducting surveillance on August 24, 2017, DEA Taskforce Agent Barry Kelly (“Kelly”) saw a black Chevy Suburban with Massachusetts registration park at the residence. The vehicle remained at the residence for forty minutes and, upon departure, drove straight to I-95 South. Suspicious that the Suburban was trafficking marijuana out of the state, Kelly pursued it from the residence and into New Hampshire. There, Kelly coordinated with the New Hampshire State Police to set up a traffic stop. New Hampshire State Trooper Brian Gacek (“Gacek”) identified the Suburban on I-95 and pulled it over for speeding. He then approached the front of the vehicle, observing a duffel bag in the rear storage area as he went, and spoke to the driver. The driver provided a Massachusetts license identifying him as John Valdes. During the ensuing conversation, Gacek detected the odor of fresh marijuana emanating from the open window.[1]Gacek proceeded to ask Valdes about the odor and Valdes fumbled with his story. Valdes initially responded that he did not smoke marijuana, but then revised that answer twice. He first backtracked by saying that he had smoked marijuana in the vehicle the previous day, and then amended that account by saying that he had actually done so on the morning of the 24th. When Gacek indicated that he smelled fresh not burnt marijuana, Valdes suggested that the odor was coming from his skin.

         Trooper Gacek then asked Valdes to step out of the vehicle and conducted a pat down revealing a large bundle of cash in one of his pockets. Next, Gacek asked Valdes if there was any marijuana in the Suburban. Valdes initially said no. Gacek then requested permission to search the vehicle, which Valdes refused. In response, Gacek informed Valdes that if he did not provide consent, Gacek had the authority to seize the Suburban while he applied to a judge for a search warrant. After hearing this, Valdes informed Gacek that there was marijuana in the vehicle. Gacek queried how much and Valdes disclosed that it was four or five pounds. Gacek then asked Valdes if he wanted to consent to a search or go through the search warrant application process. Valdes responded by granting his consent. After that, Gacek read a consent form to Valdes and, roughly twenty-nine minutes after the initial stop, Valdes signed it. At no time during or prior to this exchange did Gacek raise his voice, unholster his weapon, threaten Valdes, or restrain him. The subsequent search revealed a duffel bag containing marijuana in the passenger compartment’s rear storage area.[2] The marijuana was mostly vacuum sealed, but Gacek found some in “one or two” Ziploc bags. (12/04/18 Tr. (ECF No. 280), PageID # 611.) Gacek then placed Defendant in handcuffs and transported him to the Greenland Police Department for an interview.[3]

         Approximately one month later, on September 29, 2017, Agent Kelly observed Richard Daniels placing a black bag in the trunk of a white Dodge Charger parked at the residence. The car had Texas registration and was later discovered to be a rental vehicle. After the Charger departed, Kelly followed as it drove directly onto I-95 South. Once the car crossed into New Hampshire, Kelly again coordinated a traffic stop, this time with Sergeant Mark Hall (“Hall”) of the New Hampshire State Police. Hall located the Charger on I-95, pursued it, and eventually pulled it over for multiple traffic violations.[4] Hall approached the driver’s side door and noted that there were two men inside. He asked the driver for his license and registration, identified the driver as Valdes, and identified the passenger as Michael Miller. During this interaction, Hall noticed that Valdes was abnormally nervous for a traffic stop, and that Miller would not meet his gaze. Hall then smelled the odor of fresh marijuana coming through the window.[5] Upon detecting this odor, Hall requested that Valdes step out of the car. Valdes did as he was asked, and Miller stayed in the Charger.

         Once Valdes was outside, Hall asked him several questions. First, Hall asked Valdes where they were coming from. Valdes said that they were coming from Belgrade-a statement that Miller contradicted shortly after when he said they were coming from “Sabattus.” (12/04/18 Tr., PageID # 629.) Hall also asked Valdes if there was any marijuana in the car. Valdes initially said no but stated that he had smoked some in the car earlier that day. Hall then asked if there was even a small amount of marijuana inside, and Valdes admitted that there was. On being asked to quantify the amount, Valdes said it was about a pound. At that point, Hall requested permission to search the vehicle. Valdes hesitated, asked if he was going to be arrested, and Hall replied that he could not make any promises. Hall then allowed Valdes to consider his request briefly before repeating it. This time, Valdes granted consent verbally. Soon afterward, Trooper Gacek arrived on the scene and Hall retrieved a consent form, which he read to Valdes and allowed Valdes to read. Twenty-six minutes from the initial stop, Valdes signed the form. The officers then searched the car. In the trunk, they found a pizza box full of honey butane oil, which is a form of marijuana concentrate, and a duffel bag containing twelve gallon-sized Ziploc bags of marijuana.


         Defendant argues that the Court should suppress all evidence derived from the August 24th and September 29th roadside interactions and searches.[6] He contends that: (1) the searches violated his rights because neither fell within a recognized exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement; and (2) the officers illegally obtained his statements on both occasions through un-Mirandized custodial interrogation. However, the Court disagrees on both fronts.

         A. The Warrant Requirement

         The Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures generally forbids the government from conducting warrantless searches unless one of “a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions” applies. Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 338 (2009) (quoting Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Any evidence obtained from a warrantless search that does not fall into such an exception is subject to exclusion. See United States v. Tiru-Plaza, 766 F.3d 111, 115 (1st Cir. 2014). Relevant to this case are the automobile exception and the consent exception. See United States v. Franklin, 630 F.3d 53, 59-61 (1st Cir. 2011) (discussing both). The former allows the police to “seize and search an automobile prior to obtaining a warrant where they have probable cause to believe that the automobile contains contraband.” United States v. Silva, 742 F.3d 1, 7 (1st Cir. 2014). The latter allows the police to conduct a warrantless search based on consent that is given “freely and voluntarily.” United States v. Jones, 523 F.3d 31, 37 (1st Cir. 2008). Where, as here, a defendant moves to suppress evidence seized without a warrant, the government bears the burden of proving that an exception applies. United States v. Ramos-Morales, 981 F.2d 625, 628 (1st Cir. 1992).

         i. Automobile Exception

         The Court first concludes that both searches were valid under the automobile exception. The government has carried its burden to show that probable cause provided prior ...

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