267 F.3d 395 (5th Cir. 2001), 00-50751, United States v Valadez

Docket Nº:00-50751
Citation:267 F.3d 395
Party Name:UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. JESUS VALADEZ, Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:September 21, 2001
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Page 395

267 F.3d 395 (5th Cir. 2001)

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

JESUS VALADEZ, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 00-50751

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

September 21, 2001

Page 396

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas

Before GARWOOD, JOLLY, and DeMOSS, Circuit Judges.

DeMOSS, Circuit Judge:

Defendant-Appellant, Jesus Valadez, appeals the denial of his motion to suppress firearms seized during a traffic stop. Valadez claims his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when he was detained pending the completion of a computer check after the stopping officer became aware that Valadez had not committed a traffic violation. We reverse the district court's ruling denying the motion to suppress.

I. BACKGROUND

On March 6, 1999, at approximately 6:50 p.m., Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Richard Slubar observed a 1984 Oldsmobile traveling east on Highway 90 near Brackettville, Texas, that appeared to have an expired vehicle registration sticker on the front windshield and illegal window tinting on other windows. Slubar, who was driving in the opposite direction, decided to stop the Oldsmobile for these two suspected traffic violations.

After making contact with Valadez, Slubar explained why he had made the stop. Slubar acknowledged that the registration sticker was valid, but told Valadez that the window tinting on other windows appeared to be illegal. Before retrieving a window-tint meter from his patrol car, Slubar asked Valadez for his driver's license and insurance card, both of which appeared to be valid. He returned the insurance card but retained the driver's license.

When Slubar returned to his patrol car to get the window-tint meter, he requested a check on Valadez's driver's license to determine if Valadez had any outstanding warrants. Slubar also requested a criminal history check on Valadez. While the computer checks were in progress, Slubar returned to Valadez's vehicle and inspected the window tint and determined that it was legal. Slubar then asked Valadez if he had any weapons or drugs in the vehicle. Valadez responded that he had a loaded pistol on the front seat of the car and a rifle in the trunk. Slubar removed the weapons from the car to run a check on them to determine if they were stolen. Shortly thereafter, Slubar returned to his patrol car to retrieve the results of the computer checks, which revealed that Valadez had a criminal history.

The results of the computer checks apparently did not indicate whether Valadez's prior convictions were for misdemeanors or felonies because Slubar then asked Valadez if he had ever been convicted of a felony. Valadez responded that he believed he had been convicted for a felony, but that he was not certain. Slubar advised Valadez that it was illegal for a

Page 397

felon to possess a weapon. Valadez was asked to follow Slubar to the Kinney County jail in Brackettville, which he did without incident. At the jail, the conviction was confirmed to be a felony and Valadez was arrested for the possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Valadez, represented by a federal public defender, moved to suppress the firearms and his statements arguing that they were fruit of an unlawful detention. The district court found that the computer check was likely run solely to detain Valadez for unrelated questioning. In support of its conclusion, the court noted that Slubar testified that he does not routinely perform criminal history checks except when there is a need to determine the type of suspect with which he is dealing. However, the court noted that Slubar testified that Valadez was fully compliant, he did not fear for his own personal safety, and that he trusted Valadez to follow him to the jail unsupervised prior to an arrest being made. The court also noted that Slubar, alternatively, testified that he ran the check to determine that Valadez was being truthful. In response, the court opined "that the 'truth' regarding defendant's registration and tint were apparent from the color of the registration sticker and the reading of the tint meter."

The district court concluded that Slubar's questioning of Valadez on matters unrelated to the stop pending the results of the computer check, took "the treatment of [the] defendant out of the realm of permissible detention under Terry." The court, nevertheless, denied the motion to suppress. The court reasoned that United States v. Shabazz, 993 F.2d 431 (5th Cir. 1993), "guaranteed" officers a five to 15 minute window during which they may detain defendants during routine traffic stops and subject them to "wholly unrelated, and potentially quite invasive, questioning."

As a result, Valadez entered a conditional guilty plea and reserved his right to contest the suppression ruling. Valadez was adjudged guilty in accordance with 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2). Although the sentencing guideline range was 10 to 16 months of imprisonment, the district court departed from the guidelines under U.S.S.G. § 5K2.16, and sentenced Valadez to three years of probation based on his voluntary disclosure of the weapons and...

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