248 F.3d 1240 (10th Cir. 2001), 99-4229, US v. Caro

Docket Nº:99-4229
Citation:248 F.3d 1240
Party Name:UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee, v. EFRAIN CARO, Defendant - Appellant.
Case Date:May 08, 2001
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

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248 F.3d 1240 (10th Cir. 2001)

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee,


EFRAIN CARO, Defendant - Appellant.

No. 99-4229

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

May 8, 2001

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Utah

(D.C. No. 99-CR-0086-G)

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Richard A. Hostetler, Law Office of Marks and Hostetler, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellant.

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Paul M. Warner, United States Attorney, Barbara Bearnson, Assistant United States Attorney, Salt Lake City, Utah, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Before SEYMOUR, HENRY, and LUCERO, Circuit Judges.

HENRY, Circuit Judge.

Appellant Efrain Caro was indicted on one count of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a). After an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied Mr. Caro's motion to suppress evidence obtained following the stop of his vehicle. Mr. Caro subsequently entered a conditional plea of guilty, reserving his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. We exercise jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, vacate the denial of Mr. Caro's motion to suppress, and remand for further proceedings.1


Trooper Denis Avery of the Utah Highway Patrol was patrolling Interstate 70 in Sevier County, Utah, on the afternoon of March 2, 1999. At about 1:40 PM, Trooper Avery observed a gray Honda Accord, with dark tinted windows, traveling eastbound. He noticed that the windows appeared to be more darkly tinted than Utah law permits. Trooper Avery activated the overhead lights on his patrol car and followed the Honda, which pulled over onto the shoulder of the road.2

Trooper Avery approached the car and observed a male driver (Mr. Caro) and a female passenger. Trooper Avery asked for Mr. Caro's license and registration. The driver's license was from Iowa and was in Mr. Caro's name, while the registration was from Nebraska, in the name of Roberto Jimenez. Trooper Avery asked Mr. Caro about the owner of the Honda, and Mr. Caro responded that it belonged to a "friend" whose name was Roberto. However, Mr. Caro was evidently unable to recall Mr. Jimenez's last name. According to Trooper Avery, Mr. Caro appeared "a little nervous," avoided eye contact, and was "shaking a little bit when he handed me his paperwork." Aplt's App. at 88-89.

Trooper Avery returned to his patrol car to write a warning citation for the window tint violation and to run a check on the license and registration. The check revealed that Mr. Caro's license was valid, that he did not have any outstanding warrants, and that the car had not been reported stolen. However, even though the car was gray in color, it had been registered as maroon. Trooper Avery testified that the color discrepancy, in concert with Mr. Caro's nervousness and inability to recall the last name of the registered owner, made him suspect the Honda might have been stolen. Id. at 89.

Trooper Avery then walked back to Mr. Caro's window. On direct examination, Trooper Avery testified that he briefly engaged Mr. Caro in "small talk about who actually owned the car," and then asked Mr. Caro if he would get out of the car while Trooper Avery compared the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on the door of the Honda to the VIN listed on the registration. Id. at 90. However, on cross examination, Trooper Avery agreed that the videotape of the traffic stop shows an additional event, which he failed to

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acknowledge in his earlier testimony. Just before he asked Mr. Caro for permission to check the VIN on the door, Trooper Avery compared the VIN on the vehicle registration to the VIN plate which was visible through the car's windshield, and determined that they matched. Id. at 112-13.

Mr. Caro exited the vehicle at the trooper's request. Trooper Avery looked for a VIN on the driver's door and did not find one, but he did notice several air fresheners hanging from the dashboard and a bottle of air freshener in the console. He testified that the air fresheners made him suspicious the car was transporting controlled substances. He asked Mr. Caro whether there were any drugs in the car, and Mr. Caro said there were none. Trooper Avery then requested permission to search the car, which Mr. Caro granted. Id. at 90-91.

Trooper Avery asked Mr. Caro to open the trunk of the car. Mr. Caro opened the hood of the car, and then the trunk. When Mr. Caro asked if he should shut the hood, Trooper Avery stated that he should not, as the trooper wanted to look for a VIN plate under the hood as well. Mr. Caro and Trooper Avery then walked to the trunk of the car. Trooper Avery testified that it was at this point that he returned Mr. Caro's license and registration. After looking in the trunk, Trooper Avery walked around to look under the hood. He noticed that the battery looked inappropriately large for that model Honda, and that the brackets holding it in place were brand new. He removed the battery and inspected it. Noticing that the battery's casing appeared to have been cut apart and then glued back together, Trooper Avery cut it open. Inside, he discovered a smaller battery and two packages wrapped in duct tape. The packages field tested positive for methamphetamine. Id. at 91-96.

The district court held that "from the totality of the evidence presented . . . the investigative detention which occurred after the stop was supported by an objectively reasonable suspicion of illegal activity." Id. at 59 (Memorandum Decision and Order, filed July 20, 1999). It found that the combination of Mr. Caro's nervousness, his inability to recall the registrant's last name, and the discrepancy in the car's color provided grounds for reasonable suspicion that the car was stolen. It also stated that the presence of air fresheners in the car "aroused in the officer a reasonable suspicion that the vehicle might be carrying narcotics as well as being stolen." Id. at 60. The district court thus held that Trooper Avery was justified in extending the scope of the vehicle stop beyond the window tint violation. It also found that the government had adequately proven Mr. Caro's voluntary consent to the search. Accordingly, the court denied Mr. Caro's motion to suppress.


A. Lawfulness Of Detention

When reviewing an order granting or denying a motion to suppress, we accept the district court's factual findings unless they are clearly erroneous, and we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the district court's determination. See United States v. Doyle, 129 F.3d 1372, 1375 (10th Cir. 1997). "We are mindful that at a hearing on a motion to suppress, the credibility of the witnesses and the weight given to the evidence, as well as the inferences and conclusions drawn therefrom, are matters for the trial judge." United States v. Fernandez, 18 F.3d 874, 876 (10th Cir. 1994). However, the ultimate determination of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment is a question of law which we review de novo. United

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States v. Hunnicutt, 135 F.3d 1345, 1348 (10th Cir. 1998).

A routine traffic stop is analogous to an investigative detention and is analyzed under the principles stated in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). See United States v. Botero-Ospina, 71 F.3d 783, 786 (10th Cir. 1995) (en banc). To determine the reasonableness of an investigative detention, we make a dual inquiry. First, we ask "'whether the officer's action was justified at its inception,'" and second, "'whether it was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.'" Hunnicutt, 135 F.3d at 1348 (quoting Terry, 392 U.S. at 20). Mr. Caro has not challenged Trooper Avery's initial stop of the Honda for a window tint violation. We therefore proceed to Mr. Caro's contention that Trooper Avery exceeded the lawful scope of the detention.

As this court has often stated, an officer conducting a routine traffic stop may request a driver's license and vehicle registration, run a computer check, and issue a citation. See Hunnicutt, 135 F.3d at 1349. Normally, once the officer has completed these acts, and the driver "has produced a valid license and proof that he is entitled to operate the car, [the driver] must be allowed to proceed on his way, without being subject to further delay by police for additional questioning." United States v. Gonzalez-Lerma, 14 F.3d 1479, 1483 (10th Cir. 1994); see also United States v. Mendez, 118 F.3d 1426, 1429 (10th Cir. 1997); United States v. Elliott, 107 F.3d 810, 813 (10th Cir. 1997). However, further questioning is permissible under two circumstances. First, if the officer has an objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion that illegal activity has occurred or is occurring, the officer may detain the driver for questioning unrelated to the purpose of the initial traffic stop. Second, if the traffic stop has become a consensual encounter, the officer may continue to question the driver. Hunnicutt, 135 F.3d at 1349; United States v. Anderson, 114 F.3d 1059, 1064 (10th Cir. 1997).

Here, Mr. Caro objects to his continued detention following Trooper Avery's admitted inspection of the VIN plate located on the dashboard of the Honda. He contends that once Trooper Avery had compared the dashboard VIN to the VIN on the car's registration, and had determined that they matched, Trooper Avery's suspicions should have been "sufficiently dispelled such that further detention on the basis that the vehicle [might] be stolen was no longer valid." Aplt's Br. at 15. Mr. Caro argues that there was no basis for Trooper Avery to expect that a VIN located inside the car would give him any additional cause to think the car was stolen. He therefore asks us to suppress as unlawful all evidence obtained after Trooper Avery examined the dashboard VIN. In Mr. Caro's view, but for Trooper Avery's attempted inspection of a VIN inside...

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