United States v. Correa

Decision Date05 November 2018
Docket NumberNos. 16-2316 & 16-2467,s. 16-2316 & 16-2467
Citation908 F.3d 208
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Jason CORREA and Saul Melero, Defendants-Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Abigail L. Peluso, Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney, Chicago, IL, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Beau B. Brindley, Attorney, Law Offices of Beau B. Brindley, Timothy R. Roellig, Attorney, Novelle & Roellig, Chicago, IL, for Defendant-Appellant Jason Correa.

Beau B. Brindley, Attorney, Law Offices of Beau B. Brindley, Chicago, IL, for Defendant-Appellant Saul Melero.

Before Easterbrook, Ripple, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

Hamilton, Circuit Judge.

Members of a Drug Enforcement Agency task force lawfully found drugs in a traffic stop and seized several garage openers and keys they also found in the car. An agent took the garage openers and drove around downtown Chicago pushing their buttons to look for a suspected stash house. He found the right building when the door of a shared garage opened. The agent then used a seized key fob and mailbox key to enter the building’s locked lobby and pinpoint the target condominium. At the agent’s request, another agent sought and obtained the arrestee’s consent to search the target condo. The search turned up extensive evidence of drug trafficking. As we explain below, the use of the garage door opener was close to the edge but did not violate the Fourth Amendment, at least where it opened a garage shared by many residents of the building. At all other stages of the investigation, the agents also complied with the Fourth Amendment. We affirm the district court’s denial of the defendantsmotion to suppress the evidence of drug trafficking found inside the condominium.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Unless indicated otherwise, we adopt the district court’s version of the facts from its initial order denying the motion to suppress. United States v. Correa ("Correa I "), No. 11 CR 0750, 2013 WL 5663804 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 17, 2013).

The investigation that led the DEA to defendants Jason Correa and Saul Melero began when a DEA confidential source obtained $500,000 in cash from two unidentified men. DEA agents tailed the men to a house a few miles away and put the house under surveillance. Eight days later, on October 27, 2011, agents followed one of the men (who drove the same car he had driven to meet the confidential source eight days earlier) to a grocery store in Chicago. With DEA task force members watching the parking lot and the grocery, the man parked his car next to a silver Jeep and then went into the grocery. The man met in a coffee shop inside the grocery with a man later identified as Correa. Six minutes later, the two men walked to the unidentified man’s car. He retrieved a multicolored bag and gave it to Correa, who put it in the silver Jeep. Correa then drove away in the Jeep, tailed by task force officers in two unmarked cars. DEA Special Agent Thomas Asselborn radioed the officers and instructed them to stop Correa’s car if they saw a traffic violation.

It did not take long.1 The officer in the lead car, Mike Giorgetti, saw Correa turn left without signaling at 18th Street and Canal. After following Correa east across the Chicago River, Officer Giorgetti activated his lights and siren and pulled Correa over near the intersection of 18th Street and Wabash. Wearing a bulletproof vest marked "Police" on both sides, Officer Giorgetti approached the driver’s side of Correa’s car. The other task force officer, Steve Hollister, approached the passenger side. Officer Giorgetti asked Correa for his license and registration and asked Correa if he had anything illegal in the car. After Correa said no, Officer Giorgetti asked if he could search the car. Correa said "go ahead." Officer Hollister witnessed the exchange.

Officer Giorgetti found the multi-colored bag that the unidentified man had given to Correa moments earlier. In a bag inside that bag, Giorgetti found what he thought was cocaine. After finding the cocaine, the officers also found a bag on the front passenger seat containing four garage door openers, three sets of keys, and four cell phones. The officers then arrested Correa. After the officers arrested Correa, but before they took him to the DEA office and gave him Miranda warnings, Agent Asselborn arrived on the scene and took the garage door openers and keys.

Agent Asselborn drove straight to 1717 South Prairie—the address where the unidentified men had taken the confidential source’s car and left with $500,000 in cash eight days earlier. That was a dead end: none of the garage door openers worked at that address. Agent Asselborn spent the next ten to fifteen minutes testing the openers on various nearby buildings. He tested them on "a bunch of townhouses with garages attached to them right in that area." When that did not work, he "kind of did a grid system," testing the openers on multiple buildings starting west of South Michigan Avenue and working his way east to an alley just east of Michigan Avenue. Eventually, the garage door opened for a multi-story condominium building at 1819 South Michigan Avenue. Thinking that someone else might have opened the door, Asselborn backed up down the alley, waited for the door to go down automatically, and then activated the opener again. The door opened. Asselborn used the opener "a third time just to be sure," but he did not enter the garage.

The agents went to 1819 South Michigan Avenue. (They never did figure out what the other garage door openers opened.) Using a key fob from the same bag that had contained the garage door openers, agents entered the locked lobby of the building. They then tested mailbox keys from the same key ring on various mailboxes and found a match: Unit 702. Agent Asselborn contacted a supervisor who was back at the DEA office with Correa, to obtain Correa’s consent for a search of Unit 702. The supervisor told Correa that the keys from the car matched Unit 702, asked if there was "anything illegal" in the condominium, and then asked if Correa "minded if we check 1819 S. Michigan, Unit 702." Correa said "go ahead and search it," but he refused to sign a consent form.

Inside the condominium, the agents found a handgun and more than a kilogram each of cocaine and heroin, as well as quantities of marijuana, Ecstasy, and methamphetamine. They also found equipment for weighing and packaging drugs, and personal documents of Saul Melero’s. Correa I , at *2. After a neighbor told agents that Saul Melero was one of the condominium’s residents and was standing outside on Michigan Avenue, agents arrested him on the spot.

Correa and Melero were both charged with drug and firearm offenses. They moved to suppress all of the evidence, asserting numerous violations of their Fourth Amendment rights. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied the motion. Correa I , 2013 WL 5663804. The court also denied their motion to reconsider, United States v. Correa ("Correa II "), No. 11 CR 0750, 2014 WL 1018236 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 14, 2014), and their renewed motion to reconsider, United States v. Correa ("Correa III "), No. 11 CR 0750, 2015 WL 300463 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 21, 2015).

Correa pleaded guilty to charges of possession with intent to distribute various drugs, but he preserved his right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress. The district court sentenced him to the mandatory minimum of ten years in prison. Melero went to trial, and a jury convicted him of possessing the drugs found in the condominium and for maintaining the condominium as a stash house. The district court sentenced Melero to eleven years in prison. Correa and Melero both appeal. The central issue is the denial of their motion to suppress, though it raises many subsidiary issues.

II. Analysis

On appeal from a district court’s ruling on a motion to suppress, we review legal conclusions de novo and factual findings for clear error. See United States v. Contreras , 820 F.3d 255, 261 (7th Cir. 2016). We accept the district court’s credibility determinations "unless the facts, as testified to by the police officers, were so unbelievable that no reasonable fact-finder could credit them." Id. at 263, citing United States v. Pineda-Buenaventura , 622 F.3d 761, 774 (7th Cir. 2010) ; see also United States v. Rodriguez-Escalera , 884 F.3d 661, 666–67 (7th Cir. 2018) (affirming grant of motion to suppress where district court declined to credit officer’s explanation for extended traffic stop). "A credibility determination will be overturned only if credited testimony is internally inconsistent, implausible, or contradicted by extrinsic evidence." Id. , citing Blake v. United States , 814 F.3d 851, 854–55 (7th Cir. 2016).

Our Fourth Amendment analysis follows the chronology of the investigative chain. We begin with the traffic stop and go on to the search of the car, the seizure of the garage door openers and keys, and the agent’s use of those openers and keys to identify the right condominium, and we end with the search of the condominium and Melero’s arrest. We find that the officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment at any step along the way.

A. Traffic Stop

The officers lawfully stopped Correa for a traffic violation, but our path to that conclusion is different from the district court’s. Rather than decide whether the officers had sufficient grounds to stop Correa based on suspected drug activity, we find that Correa’s traffic violation (turning without signaling) gave the officers probable cause for the traffic stop. That probable cause satisfies the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness requirement even if the officers were more interested in suspected drug trafficking than in dangerous driving on the streets of Chicago. See United States v. Taylor , 596 F.3d 373, 376 (7th Cir. 2010) (stop proper because driver’s failure to wear seatbelt gave...

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