209 F.3d 353 (4th Cir. 2000), 98-4255, United States v. Brugal

Docket Nº:98-4255 (CR-97-1042).
Citation:209 F.3d 353
Party Name:UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. ALEXIS A. BRUGAL; HENRY M. ADAMES, M/O; REYNA M. DEJESUS, F/O, Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:April 04, 2000
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

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209 F.3d 353 (4th Cir. 2000)

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellant,



No. 98-4255 (CR-97-1042).

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

April 4, 2000

Argued: October 25, 1999.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Charleston.

David C. Norton, District Judge.

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COUNSEL ARGUED: Miller Williams Shealy, Jr., Assistant United States Attorney, Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellant. Ann Briks Walsh, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Charleston, South Carolina; Barry Francis Kenyon, New York, New York; Jared Sullivan Newman, DAUGS, TEDDER & NEWMAN, Port Royal, South Carolina, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: J. Rene Josey, United States Attorney, Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellant.


Vacated and remanded by published opinion. Senior Judge Hamilton wrote an opinion, in which Chief Judge Wilkinson and Judges Wilkins, Niemeyer, Traxler, and King joined. Judge Luttig wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Judge Williams joined. Judge Murnaghan wrote a dissenting opinion, in which Judges Widener, Michael, and Motz joined.


HAMILTON, Senior Circuit Judge:

On October 31, 1997, Trooper Jackie Lynn Lawson (Trooper Lawson) of the South Carolina Highway Patrol discovered approximately eight kilograms of cocaine and one kilogram of heroin in a vehicle driven by Alexis Brugal (Brugal) and occupied by Henry Adames (Adames) and Reyna DeJesus (DeJesus). Trooper Lawson discovered the drugs during events immediately following a stop at a checkpoint on an exit ramp off Interstate 95 in South Carolina.

On November 20, 1997, a federal grand jury sitting in the District of South Carolina returned a two-count indictment charging Brugal, Adames, and DeJesus with conspiracy to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute, see 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 846, and possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute, see id. § 841(a)(1). In January 1998, Brugal, Adames, and DeJesus each moved to suppress the drugs seized by Trooper Lawson. On February 26, 1998, the district court granted the motions, and the government appealed.

On July 19, 1999, a panel of this court affirmed. See United States v. Brugal, 185 F.3d 205 (4th Cir. 1999). On September 20, 1999, a majority of the active circuit judges voted to rehear this case en banc. For the reasons stated below, we vacate the district court's order granting the defendants' motions to suppress and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


On October 31, 1997, at approximately 3:30 a.m., Brugal, Adames, and DeJesus were traveling northbound on Interstate

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95 near Ridgeland, South Carolina. Brugal was driving, and Adames and DeJesus were passengers. As they approached Exit 22, they passed two signs, illuminated by safety flares and reflective lettering, reading "DRUG CHECKPOINT AHEAD." The first sign was placed 1000 feet before Exit 22, and the second sign was placed 500 feet before the exit.

There was no drug checkpoint on Interstate 95. Instead, at the direction of Sergeant John Hunnicut of the South Carolina Highway Patrol, Trooper Lawson and Officer Larry Shoemaker of the Ridgeland Police Department, established a checkpoint on Exit 22's exit ramp. The checkpoint was located at the end of the exit ramp just before the road forks. The checkpoint was established to verify the driver's license and vehicle registration of every motorist that got off at Exit 22. According to Trooper Lawson, the decoy drug checkpoint signs were placed on the interstate in hopes "that people carrying narcotics will become erratic, exit off the interstate, throw the narcotics out[, or . . .] cross the median and go back in the opposite direction."

Exit 22 was selected by the officers because they considered it a "dead exit." Unlike the exit preceding it, Exit 21, which has three well-lit twenty-four hour gas stations, the area around Exit 22 shows no signs of activity at 3:30 a.m. A traveler's advisory sign for Exit 22 on Interstate 95 indicates that a gas station is located at that exit, but it is closed at night and cannot be seen from the interstate at night.

After passing the decoy drug checkpoint signs, Brugal exited Interstate 95 at Exit 22. On Exit 22's exit ramp, Brugal was stopped at the checkpoint established by Trooper Lawson and Officer Shoemaker.1 Trooper Lawson approached Brugal's vehicle and asked Brugal for his driver's license and vehicle registration. Brugal produced a New York State driver's license. In lieu of a vehicle registration, Brugal produced a rental agreement with Alamo Rent-A-Car indicating that the vehicle was rented by him in Miami, that he had a New York City address, and that the vehicle was to be returned to Miami on November 6, 1997.2 While reviewing Brugal's driver's license and rental agreement, Trooper Lawson asked Brugal why he had left the interstate and where he was headed. Brugal responded that he needed gas and was headed for Virginia Beach. During his questioning of Brugal, Trooper Lawson noticed that the vehicle had a quarter of a tank of gas and three pieces of luggage in the rear cargo area. Trooper Lawson also noticed that Brugal was in full compliance with the terms of the rental agreement. However, believing he had reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot, namely, the transportation of drugs, Trooper Lawson retained Brugal's rental agreement and instructed him to

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pull over to the shoulder of the road.3 Approximately two minutes elapsed from the time Trooper Lawson initially approached Brugal's vehicle and the time Trooper Lawson instructed Brugal to pull his vehicle over to the shoulder of the road.

After Brugal pulled his vehicle over to the shoulder of the road, Trooper Lawson pulled his unmarked police cruiser behind Brugal's vehicle and activated the video camera mounted on the dashboard. Trooper Lawson then approached Brugal's vehicle and asked Brugal to "come out and talk to [him] for a minute." Brugal immediately exited his vehicle and walked with Trooper Lawson to the back of his (Brugal's) vehicle. Trooper Lawson momentarily returned to his cruiser to illuminate the cruiser's headlights. After doing this, Trooper Lawson approached Brugal and, while examining the rental agreement, asked him if he rented the vehicle in Miami, and Brugal responded in the affirmative. Brugal also indicated that he had just moved there from New York City. Trooper Lawson asked Brugal if he had weapons, drugs, or anything illegal in his vehicle, and Brugal responded that he did not. Trooper Lawson then asked Brugal if he could search the vehicle, and Brugal responded "no problem." Trooper Lawson repeated his request to search and, again, Brugal responded "no problem." Approximately two minutes elapsed from the time Trooper Lawson instructed Brugal to pull his vehicle over to the shoulder of the road and the time Brugal gave his consent to search.

Following Brugal's consent to search, Trooper Lawson asked Adames and DeJesus to exit the vehicle, which they immediately did. A protective pat-down was performed on Brugal and Adames, and DeJesus was asked to expose her waistband to allow the officers to see if she had a weapon there. A search of the vehicle was then performed by Trooper Lawson. During the search, Trooper Lawson discovered two pieces of luggage that contained packages slightly larger than bricks. It was later discovered these two pieces of luggage contained approximately eight kilograms of cocaine and one kilogram of heroin.



The Fourth Amendment guarantees "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. Temporary 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 a person within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. See Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653 (1979). Thus, stopping a vehicle at a checkpoint constitutes a seizure of a person within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. See Michigan Dep't of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444, 450 (1990); United States v. MartinezFuerte, 428 U.S. 543, 556 (1976).

Constitutional challenges to checkpoint seizures turn on whether the initial stop at the checkpoint was reasonable. See Sitz, 496 U.S. at 450. Whether particular checkpoint seizures are reasonable is determined by balancing the gravity of the public interest sought to be advanced and the degree to which the seizures do advance that interest against the extent of the resulting intrusion upon the liberty interests of those stopped. See id. at 449-55.

Applying this balancing analysis, the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of government checkpoints set up to

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detect drunken drivers, see id. at 454, and illegal immigrants, see MartinezFuerte, 428 U.S. at 556-67, so long as they involve no more than an "initial stop . . . and the associated preliminary questioning and observation by checkpoint officers." Sitz, 496 U.S. at 450-51. The seizure at the sobriety checkpoint upheld in Sitz lasted approximately twentyfive seconds, see id. at 448, and the seizures at the immigration checkpoint upheld in Martinez-Fuerte lasted three to five minutes, see 428 U.S. at 544-48.

The Supreme Court has also recognized that a state has a substantial interest in enforcing licensing and registration laws, though...

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