U.S. v. Mesa

Decision Date10 August 1995
Docket NumberNo. 94-6367,94-6367
Citation62 F.3d 159
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Gina MESA, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

Robert Anderson, Asst. U.S. Atty. (briefed), Lawrence W. Moon, Jr., Asst. U.S. Atty. (argued), Office of U.S. Atty., Nashville, TN, for U.S.

Henry A. Martin, Fed. Public Defender (briefed), Sumter L. Camp, Asst. Fed. Public Defender (argued), Federal Public Defender's Office, Nashville, TN, for Gina Mesa.

Before: MARTIN, GUY, and DAUGHTREY, Circuit Judges.

RALPH B. GUY, Jr., Circuit Judge.

After her motion to suppress was denied, the defendant entered a conditional plea of guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Having reserved the right to appeal, defendant now argues that it was error to deny her motion to suppress. Mesa further contends that a sentencing enhancement imposed for possession of a firearm was improper.

Our review of the record convinces us that defendant's motion to suppress should have been granted. This decision makes it unnecessary to consider the sentencing issue and other sub-issues raised in connection with the motion to suppress.

I.

On April 19, 1994, the defendant, Gina Mesa, was stopped for speeding by Selby County, Tennessee, Sheriff's Officer, Jeffrey Segerson. Mesa was driving a 1986 Cadillac eastbound on Interstate 40 at the time she was stopped. In the car with her were her sister, Estella, and Estella's two children. Officer Segerson's police car was equipped with a video camera, which recorded the stop and the subsequent conversations between Segerson and the Mesas.

After Mesa pulled over to the side of the road, Segerson approached her car and asked for her driver's license. Since her driver's license was in the trunk of the car, she had to get out of the car to retrieve it. At this point in time, rather than allowing her to return to her vehicle, Officer Segerson directed the defendant to sit in the back seat of the police vehicle.

Once in the car, defendant was informed by Officer Segerson that she had been speeding and that he was going to issue a traffic warning citation rather than a violation notice. Segerson then proceeded to ask Mesa a number of questions regarding her age, license, and destination. Mesa told Segerson that they were going to Nashville, off Harding Place, to visit her grandfather, who was not feeling well and had had a stroke. Although Mesa's driver's license had been in the trunk of the Cadillac, Segerson learned from defendant that the car belonged to her sister and the registration was still in the car. Segerson exited his police vehicle and approached Estella Mesa in the Cadillac and asked her to produce the car registration, which she did. Segerson then asked her about their destination, and she told him they were visiting their grandfather in Nashville. When Segerson asked if anything was wrong with him, Estella replied, "He's just old." Segerson then asked: "He didn't have a heart attack or anything, did he?" Estella said that he did not. At this point in time the officer returned to the police vehicle, and again asked the defendant what was wrong with her grandfather. Gina Mesa replied, "He's not feeling good."

Segerson then proceeded to finish writing the warning citation and asked the defendant to sign it, which was standard procedure. When the signed citation was returned to the officer, however, he did not allow the defendant to leave the police vehicle. Since the door to the back seat of the police vehicle could not be opened from the inside, she could not voluntarily leave without assistance from the officer.

Segerson then proceeded to ask Mesa additional questions, totally unrelated to the initial traffic stop. For example, he asked Mesa whether she had any pistols or drugs in the car. Mesa replied in the negative. The officer then asked "you care if I go over and take a quick look around?" The defendant consented. The officer, however, did not start his "look around" at that time but, rather, filled out a written consent to search form, which he handed to the defendant, saying, "It basically says that you're saying it's okay if we go take a look." The officer also indicated "it's gonna take me just a minute," and that the search would be "a quick little look-see and then let y'all go." Segerson further added, "I don't want to have to get the little kids out." The officer did not in any way explain the form to the defendant prior to her returning the signed form to him. It is clear that defendant never read the form.

Segerson had a trained narcotics detecting dog with him. He approached the Cadillac with the dog and walked the dog around the car. The dog did not alert. By this point in time, there were two other officers on the scene in addition to Segerson, although the record does not reflect whether Segerson called for back up or whether the officers stopped on their own accord.

The three officers began a search of the interior of the car, the underbody of the car, and the trunk. No contraband was found. At this point, Segerson ordered Estella Mesa and her children to join the defendant in the back seat of the police car. The officers then proceeded to remove all of the luggage from the trunk of the car, and Segerson noticed what appeared to be a "partition" in the trunk of the car. Segerson looked behind the partition with a flashlight and saw nothing. Approximately at this point in time, the Mesas indicated that they wished to leave, but they were not allowed to do so.

The three officers eventually pried open the partition. A package wrapped in duct tape became visible. The package contained five kilograms of cocaine, and along with the package were two loaded firearms. Both women were arrested, and Gina Mesa ultimately confessed and agreed to cooperate with the police. As part of this cooperation, she made a telephone call to Daniel Estrella, which conversation was recorded, and during which conversation arrangements were made for the delivery of the cocaine. Estrella subsequently was arrested and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine. After indictment, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence that was seized from the trunk of the car, essentially claiming that the officers did not have reasonable suspicion sufficient to detain her in the manner in which they did, and, further, that they did not have probable cause for the search of the vehicle. As part of her motion to suppress, defendant further contended that the consent to search was involuntary or, even if voluntary, that it was tainted by the preceding illegal detention. Defendant also argued in her motion to suppress that the scope of the search exceeded the permission granted. The court, after hearing testimony and viewing the videotape, denied the motion.

II.

Although there is no claim in this case that the initial stop by the officer was pretextual, nonetheless, our analysis begins with the law in this circuit as it relates to highway traffic stops. In United States v. Ferguson, 8 F.3d 385 (6th Cir.1993), (en banc ), cert. denied Y--- U.S. ----, 115 S.Ct. 97, 130 L.Ed.2d 47 (1994), we gave the green light to police officers to stop vehicles for any infraction, no matter how slight, even if the officer's real purpose was a hope that narcotics or other contraband would be found as a result of the stop. This circuit's law in this area gives police agencies as much or arguably more authority than that of any other circuit. In its practical context, at any time of the day or night on any interstate highway within the Sixth Circuit, police officers probably could stop 50...

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