464 F.3d 392 (3rd Cir. 2006), 05-2127, United States v. Delfin-Colina

Docket Nº:05-2127.
Citation:464 F.3d 392
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America v. Salvador DELFIN-COLINA, a/k/a Salvador Delfin-Colinas, Salvador Delfin-Colina, Appellant.
Case Date:September 22, 2006
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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464 F.3d 392 (3rd Cir. 2006)



Salvador DELFIN-COLINA, a/k/a Salvador Delfin-Colinas, Salvador Delfin-Colina, Appellant.

No. 05-2127.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit.

September 22, 2006

Argued March 28, 2006.

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On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, D.C. Criminal No. 04-cr-00149, District Judge: The Honorable Terrence F. McVerry

Stanley W. Greenfield, [Argued], Greenfield & Kraut, Pittsburgh, PA, for Appellant.

Mary Beth Buchanan, Robert L. Eberhardt, [Argued], Office of United States Attorney, Pittsburgh, PA, for Appellee.

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Before: MCKEE and VAN ANTWERPEN, Circuit Judges. and POLLAK, [*] District Judge.


POLLAK, District Judge.

This matter comes before us on Salvador Delfin-Colina's appeal from a judgment of conviction for transportation of an illegal alien, 8 U.S.C. §§ 1324(a)(1)(A)(ii) and (A)(1)(B)(ii), which was entered in the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania on December 23, 2004, at the conclusion of a bench trial.1 Delfin-Colina challenges the District Court's pre-trial order, entered November 10, 2004, denying his motion to suppress evidence obtained from a traffic stop conducted by Pennsylvania State Trooper Bradley Wagner. The District Court had jurisdiction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3231, and we have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the District Court did not err in denying Delfin-Colina's motion to suppress, and hence we will affirm the judgment of conviction.

I. Background

The following narrative relies on the District Court's findings of fact, which are largely based on undisputed testimony given by Pennsylvania State Trooper Bradley Wagner. At the time of the events at issue, Trooper Wagner was an eight-year veteran of the Pennsylvania State Police. During this period of service, Trooper Wagner wrote hundreds of traffic citations and warnings. Appendix ("App.") at 17. Also, as part of his patrol duties, Trooper Wagner participated in a Department of Homeland Security overtime program named "STOP," which requires officers zealously to enforce traffic laws. App. at 14.

On May 27, 2004, Trooper Wagner was working a "STOP" overtime shift. At 8:00 A.M., he was tasked to perform traffic control at a traffic incident that occurred on Interstate 80 near Mercer, Pennsylvania. While performing these duties, Trooper Wagner observed Delfin-Colina driving a red pickup truck. App. at 14. During the approach of the truck, Trooper Wagner "noticed what appeared to be a 'necklace' or 'pendant' hanging from the rear view mirror." App. at 14. He perceived this item to be low hanging, but "not quite touching the dashboard." App. at 15. Finally, Trooper Wagner believed that the item had the potential to obscure the driver's vision because the item was not stationary. App. at 15.2

Trooper Wagner testified that he believed the object hanging from the rearview mirror to be a violation of 75 Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes § 4524(c). He further testified that it was his understanding that "anything" hanging from a rearview mirror is a violation of § 4524(c).3 App. at 15. Section 4524(c) provides:

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Other obstruction. – No person shall drive any motor vehicle with any object or material hung from the inside rearview mirror or otherwise hung, placed or attached in such a position as to materially obstruct, obscure or impair the driver's vision through the front windshield or any manner as to constitute a safety hazard.

Trooper Wagner's understanding of this Pennsylvania Statute was flawed. An object hanging from the inside rearview mirror does not contravene § 4524(c) unless it is positioned in such a way as to "materially obstruct, obscure or impair the driver's vision through the front windshield." Id.; see also Com. v. Felty, 443 Pa.Super. 559, 662 A.2d 1102, 1105 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1995).

Based on his flawed understanding of § 4524(c), Trooper Wagner conducted a traffic stop of the pickup truck. Once Salvador Delfin-Colina's truck was stopped, Trooper Wagner obtained Delfin-Colina's identification document (a Mexican driver's license) as well as identification documents (Mexican election cards) from other occupants of the truck. Trooper Wagner then advised Delfin-Colina that he had been stopped because of the object – then discovered to be a crucifix – dangling from the rearview mirror. At this point, the front-seat passenger volunteered that he was a Puerto Rican native, but that the rest of the truck's occupants were illegal aliens. Trooper Wagner had the truck wait for approximately ninety minutes so that he could finish his traffic control duties. He then had the truck follow him to the Mercer State Police barracks – but stopping en route at McDonald's so that the occupants of the truck could get something to eat. Once the group arrived at the police barracks, all of the illegal aliens were taken into custody and transferred to the Pittsburgh office of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division. App. at 17. Though a "Notice of Warning" for the rearview mirror obstruction vehicle code violation was issued by Trooper Wagner approximately two hours after the initial traffic stop, Trooper Wagner testified that once he discovered that the occupants of the truck were illegal aliens, that discovery "trumped" everything else. App. at 17.

The District Court found Delfin-Colina guilty of knowingly transporting an illegal alien pursuant to 8 U.S.C. §§ 1324(a)(1)(A)(ii) and (A)(1)(B)(ii). Delfin-Colina now argues for reversal of the District Court's denial of his motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of Trooper Wagner's traffic stop. Delfin-Colina argued before the District Court that the traffic stop was (1) pretextual4 and (2) was without probable cause "since the religious pendant which hung from the Defendant's rearview mirror was, in fact, no obstruction to the Defendant's visibility and safe driving." Though finding that "Trooper Wagner is mistaken in his belief that anything hanging from a rearview mirror is a violation of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code," the District Court reasoned that "the Defendant is charged in the instant indictment with the crime of transportation of an illegal alien in violation of [8 U.S.C. §1324(a)(1)(A)(ii) and (A)(1)(B)(ii)] [so] when Trooper Wagner saw the 'necklace' or 'pendant' hanging from the rearview mirror, he had a reasonable and articulable suspicion that a violation of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code had occurred." App. at 21.

II. Analysis

We review for clear error a district court's factual findings in a suppression hearing. United States v. Kiam, 432 F.3d 524, 527 (3d Cir. 2006)

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(citation omitted). We conduct a plenary review of legal rulings and mixed questions of law and fact. Id.


At the outset, we must address the question whether reasonable suspicion or the higher standard of probable cause is required to support an investigatory traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects individuals "against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. A traffic stop is a "seizure" within the...

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