U.S. v. Acosta-Colon, ACOSTA-COLO

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
Citation157 F.3d 9
Docket NumberD,No. 97-1170,ACOSTA-COLO,97-1170
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. Carlos Rubenefendant, Appellant. . Heard
Decision Date06 May 1998

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157 F.3d 9
UNITED STATES of America, Appellee,
Carlos Ruben ACOSTA-COLON, Defendant, Appellant.
No. 97-1170.
United States Court of Appeals,
First Circuit.
Heard May 6, 1998.
Decided Oct. 5, 1998.

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Rachel Brill for appellant.

Jose A. Quiles-Espinosa, Senior Litigation Counsel, with whom Guillermo Gil, United States Attorney, Nelson Perez-Sosa, Assistant U.S. Attorney, Warren Vazquez, Assistant U.S. Attorney, and Camille Velez-Rive, Assistant U.S. Attorney, were on brief, for appellee.

Before STAHL, Circuit Judge, CYR, Senior Circuit Judge, LYNCH, Circuit Judge.

STAHL, Circuit Judge.

A dog-sniff at the San Juan international airport alerted authorities to the possible presence of narcotics in four suitcases checked on a domestic flight to New York City. Based on information that indirectly linked defendant Carlos Ruben Acosta-Colon ("Acosta") to these bags, three law enforcement officials stopped Acosta and two persons traveling with him as they attempted to board the flight. At issue in this appeal is the constitutionality of the ensuing thirty-minute detention that led to Acosta's formal arrest. Conceding that Acosta was stopped on the basis of suspicion short of probable cause, the government contends that the detention was nevertheless reasonable under the circumstances and fell within the parameters of Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). The district

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court agreed and denied the defendant's motion to suppress. We now reverse.


The following facts are not materially disputed. At about 11 a.m. on November 3, 1995, a canine narcotics unit working at the Luis Munoz Marin Airport in Puerto Rico alerted an agent of the United States Customs Department to the odor of drugs in four American Tourister suitcases that had been checked on an American Airlines flight scheduled to depart for New York City at 1 p.m. Two of the four bags had identification tags bearing the name of Miguel Morales; the other two had tags showing the name Jess Lebrn. Customs officers immediately seized all four pieces of luggage and transported them to what the government describes as the airport's "customs enclosure area."

A supervisor in the customs office then requested from American Airlines its computer record of any reservations on the New York City flight in the name of, or connected with, Morales or Lebrn. The airline provided a single computer printout reflecting that Morales and Lebrn both had reserved seats on the flight and had checked two bags each. The printout also showed two other persons--Carlos Acosta and Noel Travieso--as being connected with the Morales/Lebrn reservation, which suggested that all four individuals might be traveling together. The computer record did not indicate that Acosta himself had checked any bags.

At about 12:30 p.m., three customs inspectors dressed in plain clothes were dispatched to the gate from which the New York City flight was to depart. The inspectors stationed themselves in the jetway leading from the gate to the airplane and checked the name on each passenger's ticket as he or she attempted to board. 1 When Acosta, Noel Travieso, and a third suspect unnamed in the record (but evidently known to local authorities) were identified by this method, the inspectors took their boarding passes and instructed them to step to one side of the jetway and wait there until the boarding process was concluded. Acosta complied and was thus detained on the jetway for approximately five minutes. He was not asked any questions during this time.

After all passengers had boarded the plane (neither Morales nor Lebrn having appeared at the gate), the customs inspectors informed Acosta, Travieso, and the third suspect that they were to be taken to a "customs enclosure area" pending investigation of some suspicious baggage. They were not asked to give their consent, and they said nothing in response. Then, without conducting a pat-down or asking any questions, and while they were still on the jetway, the inspectors handcuffed the three suspects to each other, side-by-side, using two sets of restraints. Although the inspectors were armed, they did not display their weapons. The suspects did not resist. The customs inspectors led the three handcuffed suspects, on foot, to the customs enclosure area. The trip, which the government concedes was not voluntary, took approximately six to eight minutes. Acosta and the others missed their flight.

Once the suspects were brought into the customs enclosure area, they were patted down for weapons and, none being found, their handcuffs were removed. 2 According to the parties' stipulation of facts, the three

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suspects were, at this point, "transferred to the custody of the DEA" and were placed in separate rooms that have been variously described in the briefs and at oral argument as "interview," "interrogation," or "detention" rooms. 3 After Acosta had been left in his interrogation room for approximately 15 minutes--during which time he was never interviewed or questioned--a customs inspector observed him trying to eat two pieces of paper. The inspector entered Acosta's room and extricated the papers from his mouth. They were baggage claim tickets. The numbers on the tickets matched the tags on the two previously-seized suitcases registered to Jesus Lebrn (which, upon later examination, turned out to contain approximately 15 kilograms of cocaine each). Acosta was advised of his Miranda rights and was formally placed under arrest. 4 Waiving his right to remain silent, he made several potentially self-incriminating statements.

Acosta was indicted on one count of possessing cocaine with intent to distribute. Following a plea conference, Acosta filed a motion to suppress, arguing that his airport detention constituted a de facto arrest without probable cause, and that the incriminating baggage claim tickets he had tried to eat and the statements he made to authorities thereafter constituted the fruits of that illegal arrest. After two hearings, and following the parties' submission of their stipulated statement of facts, the district court denied the defendant's motion. Acosta subsequently pled guilty pursuant to the terms of a conditional plea agreement, in which he reserved his right to appeal the district court's ruling on the motion to suppress. The court accepted his plea, and Acosta was accordingly sentenced to 70 months of imprisonment and five years of supervised release.



As a preliminary matter, we think it important to clarify that, despite the involvement of the Customs Department and its agents both in the initial detection of the drug-laden bags and the stop of the defendant, nothing in the record or the briefs indicates that the bags or any of the suspects were required to pass through U.S. Customs, or were involved in any international border-crossing. Thus, the special standards governing the constitutionality of border searches have no application here. See, e.g., United States v. Montoya de Hernandez, 473 U.S. 531, 538, 105 S.Ct. 3304, 87 L.Ed.2d 381 (1985) (explaining that the rules governing the constitutionality of searches and seizures are "qualitatively different at the international border than in the interior").

The question presented in this appeal is narrowly drawn. There is no dispute that the defendant was "seized" for Fourth Amendment purposes when he was prevented from boarding his scheduled flight. See, e.g., United States v. Streifel, 781 F.2d 953, 960 (1st Cir.1986) (explaining that a "seizure" occurs when a reasonable person in the suspect's position would have believed he was not free to leave). Furthermore, the government does not contend that the stop of Acosta on the jetway was supported by probable cause. It seeks, instead, to justify the detention as a reasonable investigatory stop falling within the limits of Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). The defendant, for his part, does not attempt to argue that the government lacked the requisite level of suspicion to warrant a Terry-type stop at the jetway. He asserts, rather, that both the mode and duration of his detention were unreasonable in the circumstances, exceeded the parameters of Terry, and constituted a de facto arrest unsupported by probable cause. The district court sided with the government, ruling that Acosta's detention was a lawful Terry stop.


In assessing the district court's determination, we review its findings of fact for

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clear error, but we review de novo its conclusions of law and its ultimate rulings on the constitutionality of the government's conduct. See United States v. Young, 105 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir.1997). We bear in mind, too, that where a defendant challenges the constitutionality of a warrantless seizure undertaken on the basis of suspicion falling short of probable cause, the government bears the burden of proving that the seizure was sufficiently limited in its nature and duration to satisfy the conditions of a Terry-type investigative stop. See Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 500, 103 S.Ct. 1319, 75 L.Ed.2d 229 (1983) (plurality opinion); United States v. Johnson, 63 F.3d 242, 245 (3d Cir.1995), cert. denied, 518 U.S. 1007, 116 S.Ct. 2528, 135 L.Ed.2d 1052 (1996); United States v. Perdue, 8 F.3d 1455, 1462 (10th Cir.1993).


Before the Supreme Court's decision in Terry, all "seizures" of persons were analyzed as "arrests," which could be constitutionally justified only when the government had probable cause to believe that the seized person had committed or was committing a crime. See Dunaway v. New York, 442 U.S. 200, 208-09, 99 S.Ct. 2248, 60 L.Ed.2d 824 (1979); United States v. Quinn, 815 F.2d 153, 156 (1st Cir.1987); Wayne R. LaFave, Search and Seizure § 5.1(a), at 9 (3d ed.1996). In Terry, the Court gave effect to the notion that some types of encounters between the police and citizens--such as brief detainments in...

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