United States v. Garcia-Sanjurjo, CRIMINAL 19-542 (GAG/BJM)

CourtUnited States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Puerto Rico
Writing for the CourtBRUCE J. McGIVERIN United States Magistrate Judge
Docket NumberCRIMINAL 19-542 (GAG/BJM)
Decision Date15 October 2021




United States District Court, D. Puerto Rico

October 15, 2021


BRUCE J. McGIVERIN United States Magistrate Judge

On August 24, 2019, law enforcement agents stopped all passengers traveling by ferry from Culebra to Ceiba, Puerto Rico to allow a trained, drug-sniffing dog to inspect their luggage. Officers were looking for Aleisha Marie García-Sanjurjo (“García”) and Lyneishka Ramos-Velazquez (“Ramos”) (collectively “codefendants”), who were suspected of transporting drugs on the ferry. The dog alerted to codefendants' bag, and officers found a substance alleged to be cocaine inside. Codefendants were indicted by grand jury and charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and possession with intent to distribute cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B)(ii), and 846. Docket No. (“Dkt.”) 17. García moved to suppress all evidence based on unlawful search and seizure. Dkt. 23. The government opposed, Dkt. 33, and García replied, Dkt. 40. The matter was referred to me for a report and recommendation. Dkt. 41. I held a suppression hearing on April 22, 2021, and a transcript was produced. Dkts. 69, 70. Parties submitted post-hearing briefs. Dkts. 77, 79. For the reasons that follow, the motion to suppress should be DENIED.


The following account of the facts is drawn from the testimonial and documentary evidence received at the hearing. The government presented the following witnesses: FBI Task Force Officer Sgt. Anthony Ayala (“Ayala”), FBI Task Force Officer Eduardo Ruisanchez (“Ruisanchez”), FBI Special Agent Robert Maj (“Maj”), and FBI Task Force Officer Christopher Esteves (“Esteves”).

Culebra, Puerto Rico is a municipal island off the coast of the main island of Puerto Rico. To travel from Culebra to the main island, one can take a public ferry or an airplane. Dkt. 70 at 58-


60. Culebra also has some number of private docks, which fisherman or others might use for private transport. Id. Those traveling by ferry from Culebra to Ceiba, which is located on the main island, pass through an outdoor dock area in Culebra before boarding the ferry. See Ex. 4. Posted at that dock is the following sign, translated both into Spanish and English:

Effective July 1, 2004, new federal regulations came into effect for maritime security. For this reason, users should know the following
Boarding any vessel of the system implies a consent for search and inspection. Boarding will not be permitted to passengers who do not consent to search and inspection
Every person, equipment, personal effect or vehicle is subject to random security inspections. The weight and amount of equipment may be limited
Identification or other documents may be requested to any passenger, crew member, employee from the Authority or any other governmental entity or visitor interested in boarding a vessel
The United States Coast Guard is authorized to perform inspections without prior notification, which could result in delays.

Id. Another sign provides as follows:

All persons and vehicle [sic] beyond this point are subject to search by security personnel. Search is a requirement for boarding according to the USCG MARSEC Level in effect.


On August 24, 2019, both these signs were posted somewhere at the Culebra dock, though the dock was also undergoing construction at that time. Dkt. 70 at 117.

On that date, García and her codefendant traveled on an afternoon ferry from Culebra to Ceiba. Sometime before they landed in Ceiba, a confidential informant called Ay a l a to share information about potential criminal activity. Id. at 10. According to the informant, two women would be traveling on the 1:00 p.m. ferry from Culebra to Ceiba, and they would be transporting drugs. Id. at 13-14. One of the women, named Aleisha, would be wearing a purple shirt and would have her hair tied in a bun. Id. at 14. The second woman, called “La Flaca, ” would have her hair loose. Id. at 14. The informant also sent Ayala two pictures of the women by text message. Id. at 14, 27; see Ex. 1, Ex. 2.


The informant had worked with Ayala on a few other cases, three of which made it to court, including the instant suit. Dkt. 70 at 21. Of those three cases, Ayala had been able to corroborate the information the informant provided, and all had resulted in the seizure of drugs, money, or fugitives. Id. at 23, 44.

After speaking with the informant, Ayala shared the information he had learned and the pictures he had received with his colleagues. Id. at 19, 45, 72-73, 142-43. Although Ayala was off-duty and could not go to Ceiba, about five officers, including Officers Ruisanchez, Maj, and Esteves, headed to the dock at Ceiba to await the ferry. Id. at 28, 75. They wore civilian clothes and carried firearms, although these remained holstered. Id. at 75.

Once the ferry arrived, officers worked together to inspect every passenger as they disembarked. Id. at 77-78, 120. The inspections proceeded as follows. Officers would remove passengers from the vessel in groups of twenty to twenty-five people. Id. at 77. Private security guards helped unload the ship, some officers were looking at passengers to see if anyone matched the informant's description, some were working the security perimeter, and some were outside providing surveillance. Id. at 76-79. These duties were performed by about five officers. Id. at 79.

Passengers exiting the ferry would walk through a fenced-in area that forms something like a hallway, and they would find that there is only one way to exit. Id. at 119. Ruisanchez would tell passengers to form a line, put their bags in front of them, and step back. Id. at 77. Esteves would then walk down the line with a drug-sniffing dog, who would sniff people's belongings. Id. at 77-78. If the dog had sniffed a passenger's bag and did not alert, an officer would inform the passenger that he or she could leave the dock. Id. at 79. It took about three to five minutes from the first person in the group to the last person in that group to inspect the bags with a dog, and then a few more minutes would pass while the next group was lined up. Id. at 82, 146.

At some point, Maj observed two women disembarking the ferry who, in some regard, fit the description provided by the informant. Id. at 83-84, 133-34. They disembarked with the second, third, or fourth group. Id. at 83, 146. In one of these groups, Esteves was walking down the line of luggage with his drug-sniffing dog, when the dog alerted to a purple bag with gray detailing. Id. at


147-48; see Ex. 6. Esteves informed Ruisanchez that the dog had alerted and continued down the line inspecting luggage.[1] Dkt. 70 at 79, 83-85, 146-47.

Two women, including García, were standing with the bag. Id. at 84-85. Ruisanchez noticed that one of them was wearing a purple shirt and looked like the woman named Aleisha in the picture provided by the informant. Id. at 84-85. He and Maj approached to question the women. Id. at 79, 84-85. Ruisanchez introduced himself to the two women with his credentials and asked for the women's names and for identification because the dog had alerted. Id. at 85-86, 104. He noticed that the two women were looking at each other nervously and shaking. Id. at 86, 88. Neither he nor Maj drew their weapons, and both spoke in a calm and normal tone. Id. at 86, 88. Ruisanchez then asked who the bag belonged to, and they replied that it belonged to both of them. Id. at 87. He asked whether they had any firearms, controlled substances, valuables, or cash inside the bag, and they both said no. Id. Next, he asked if they would give consent for him to go into the bag, and García answered “yes.” Dkt. 70 at 89. Id. García opened the bag, and Ruisanchez saw clothes. Id. at 90. Ruisanchez then asked if García would allow him to do that, and she agreed. Id. at 90, 126.

Ruisanchez reached into the bag and felt a hard mass in the shape of a rectangle. Id. at 90-91. Based on his years of experience as a law enforcement officer, he believed it to be a block of cocaine. Id. at 90. Maj then arrested both García and Ramos, and officers took them to an official government vehicle. Id. at 91, 93. Inside the car, officers read codefendants official FBI consent forms in Spanish. Id. at 92. One form gave officers permission to search the purple bag and another allowed officers to search García's cell phone. Id. at 92-94. García signed the forms. Id. at 96.


The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. I V. “[A] search done without a warrant supported by probable cause is presumptively unreasonable


unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies.” United States v. McGregor, 650 F.3d 813, 820 (1st Cir. 2011). “On a motion to suppress evidence seized on the basis of a warrantless search, the presumption favors the defendant, and it is the government's burden to demonstrate the legitimacy of the search.” United States v. Delgado-Perez, 867 F.3d 244, 250 (1st Cir. 2017) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

Here, García experienced both a warrantless search and seizure. The government invokes several exceptions to the warrant requirement to argue that officers' conduct was reasonable, contending that (1) any search was authorized by federal regulations and reasonable as an administrative or special needs search; (2) García consented to search by boarding the ferry; (3) García's initial seizure was supported by reasonable suspicion in light of the confidential informant's tip; (4) García consented to search of her bag; and (5) probable cause supported García's subsequent...

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