U.S. v. Rodriguez-Morales

Decision Date04 February 1991
Docket NumberRODRIGUEZ-MORALE,No. 90-1955,D,90-1955
Citation929 F.2d 780
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Appellant, v. Osvaldoefendant, Appellee. . Heard
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

Sean Connelly, Atty., U.S. Dept. of Justice, with whom Lincoln C. Almond, U.S. Atty., Margaret E. Curran and Lawrence D. Gaynor, Providence, R.I., Asst. U.S. Attys., were on brief, for U.S.

Russell M. Sollitto, North Kingstown, R.I., with whom Joseph A. Bevilacqua, Jr., Providence, R.I., was on brief, for defendant, appellee.

Before BREYER, Chief Judge, BOWNES, Senior Circuit Judge, and SELYA, Circuit Judge.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

This appeal arises out of a pretrial order of the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island suppressing certain evidence. We have jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. Sec. 3731. The appeal highlights important aspects of the interface between the fourth amendment and the constabulary's community caretaking function. It also presents us with an opportunity to clarify the law in this circuit concerning canine sniff tests. Believing, as we do, that the district court erred in its formulation of the applicable legal principles, we reverse and remand with directions to vacate the suppression order.


On April 20, 1990, two Rhode Island State Police detectives, Thomas Denniston and Thomas O'Hearn, were assigned to drug interdiction duty on Route I-95 in the area of the Rhode Island/Connecticut state line. Their unmarked car was parked on a grassy median strip when, at approximately 10:30 a.m., they observed a Toyota with New York license plates driving northbound in the high speed lane. A passenger was leaning out of the window with his head, arms, and shoulders outside the car. He appeared to be screaming at another northbound vehicle (a Chevrolet). Thinking that an altercation between two moving cars was brewing, the troopers took up dogged pursuit. They radioed for back-up and, in due course, Lieutenant James Dougherty responded.

At a point eight to ten miles from the locus of the initial sighting, the police forced the two civilian vehicles to the roadside. While Lieutenant Dougherty concentrated on the Toyota, the detectives approached the Chevrolet. The driver produced a valid license and registration. He explained that the passenger in the Toyota was merely asking for directions to Boston. In time, the Chevrolet was allowed to depart.

Meanwhile, the driver of the Toyota, defendant-appellee Osvaldo Rodriguez-Morales (Rodriguez), at first produced no driver's license. He identified himself to Dougherty and stated that his date of birth was March 3, 1969. Eventually, Rodriguez produced an expired Puerto Rican license that gave his birth date as March 2, 1969. When Denniston joined Dougherty, he inspected the license closely and found it to be suspect. A second piece of identification tendered by Rodriguez contained yet another date of birth (March 3, 1967). In answer to Denniston's query, Rodriguez told the officers that he was going to Boston to visit his aunt, but he could not provide either her address or telephone number. For that matter, he could not identify his passenger other than by the sobriquet "Sammy." These anomalies prompted Denniston to question the passenger out of Rodriguez's earshot. Identifying himself as Pedro Martinez, the passenger told Denniston that he and the defendant were travelling to Boston to visit Martinez's mother, who was hospitalized.

Computer checks revealed no outstanding warrants for either individual. The computer also confirmed that the Toyota was registered to Rodriguez at an address in the Bronx; that Rodriguez's birth date, as contained in the records of the New York motor vehicle registry, was May 5, 1957; and that Martinez's driver's license was suspended.

To this point, the stop had lasted between fifteen and thirty minutes. The troopers decided to take the two men to the state police barracks for further inquiries. Rodriguez drove his own car to the barracks with O'Hearn as a passenger. Martinez rode with Denniston in the police cruiser. Upon arrival, the vehicles were parked behind the barracks. Rodriguez and Martinez were led into the front reception area and left there, unguarded. (The barracks had restricted entrance but free egress.)

In the meantime, Denniston, mindful that both men spoke English with difficulty, sought out a special agent who was fluent in Spanish. The agent spoke with the men over the telephone; their stories were basically unchanged from the roadside version. Rodriguez was asked, in Spanish, to sign a form consenting to a vehicular search. He refused. Denniston then arranged for a trained "drug dog" to perform a canine sniff around the Toyota's perimeter. The dog reacted in a way that strongly indicated the presence of cocaine.

This development initiated a chain reaction: the defendant and his passenger were placed in a restricted-egress conference room; the Toyota was moved into a garage on the premises; and the troopers obtained a judicial warrant enabling them to search the car. When given access to the passenger side of the car's interior, the dog was excited by the door jamb. The police pried it open, uncovering several bundles of cocaine. Cocaine was also found inside the driver's door. All in all, approximately two kilograms were recovered. Rodriguez was arrested. 1 Traffic citations were issued to him for (1) driving with tinted windows, and (2) driving on an expired license. The record is tenebrous as to whether the citations were issued before or after the arrest took place.

In due season, Rodriguez was indicted by a federal grand jury for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. See 21 U.S.C. Sec. 841(a)(1) & (b)(1)(B). He moved to suppress the contraband on fourth amendment grounds. After conducting an evidentiary hearing, the district court found that the initial stop of the defendant's car was valid, but that the troopers' subsequent actions during the roadside interlude constituted an arrest (of defendant) and seizure (of the Toyota) without probable cause. On that basis, the court ruled that the fruits of the ensuing vehicle search could not be used against the defendant.


On appeal, the government contends that, apart from cases where the fourth amendment's warrant requirement is directly implicated, the Constitution only requires that the police act reasonably in matters of search and seizure. See, e.g., Illinois v. Rodriguez, --- U.S. ----, 110 S.Ct. 2793, 2799-2800, 111 L.Ed.2d 148 (1990). That standard, the prosecutor tells us, was satisfied here. We agree.

Whether police activity is reasonable in any particular set of circumstances is almost invariably a factbound inquiry. The nisi prius court sees and hears the witnesses and will ordinarily develop a superior "feel" for what transpired. Hence, appellate oversight is correspondingly deferential; the court of appeals reviews the district court's findings of fact following a suppression hearing, including mixed fact/law findings, under the clearly erroneous test. See, e.g., United States v. Stanley, 915 F.2d 54, 57 (1st Cir.1990); United States v. Figueroa, 818 F.2d 1020, 1024 (1st Cir.1987). Of course, if the lower court applies the wrong legal standard, no deference attaches, and we must proceed to correct the error. See United States v. LaFrance, 879 F.2d 1, 4 (1st Cir.1989).

Both standards of review come into play in this appeal. The trial judge's determination that the troopers had reasonable grounds to stop the Toyota in the first place was fact-dominated and, to some extent, a credibility call. As such, it is subject to classic clear-error scrutiny and easily passes muster. The judge's next determination, however, rested on the fallacious premise that, after effectuating the stop, the troopers needed probable cause in order to impound the defendant's car and move it to the barracks. This was error of a "legal" kind, subject to de novo review in the exercise of our appellate jurisdiction. As we shall explain infra, the law provides that, so long as the police act reasonably in carrying out their community caretaking function, they can impound a vehicle even though probable cause to search it, or to arrest the driver, may be lacking. And in this case, having lawfully impounded the Toyota, the remaining steps which led to discovery of the cocaine cache did not infract the Constitution.

We proceed step by step through the record to flesh out our conclusion that there was no basis for suppression of the evidence.

A. On the Hound.

The first step taken by the police consisted of dogging the defendant's car, flagging it down, and bringing it to a halt on the edge of the highway. A traffic stop can be executed as long as the officers have reasonable grounds to suspect that the person detained was, is, or will be engaged in criminal activity. See Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 439, 104 S.Ct. 3138, 3149, 82 L.Ed.2d 317 (1984) (analogizing routine traffic stops to pedestrian stop-and-frisk activity pursuant to Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968)). The district court applied this rule forthrightly in upholding the initial stop. The court credited "testimony ... that the officers believe[d] that an altercation was taking place" and found that the defendant's arguably reckless driving conferred a right, indeed a duty, on the officers to intercept the defendant's vehicle. Since this finding derives abundant support from the record, it cannot be set aside on clear-error review. See, e.g., Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573-74, 105 S.Ct. 1504, 1511, 84 L.Ed.2d 518 (1985) ("Where there are two permissible views of the evidence, the factfinder's choice between them cannot be clearly erroneous."); United States v. Aymelek, 926 F.2d 64, 68 (1st Cir.1991) (no clear error so long as the record contains "sufficient evidence ... to...

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