United States v. Rodriguez-Escalera, 17-2334

Decision Date07 March 2018
Docket NumberNo. 17-2334,17-2334
Citation884 F.3d 661
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Mario A. RODRIGUEZ-ESCALERA, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Daniel Kapsak, Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney, Civil Division, Fairview Heights, IL, for PlaintiffAppellant.

Stephen Robert Welby, Thomas C. Gabel, Attorney, Office of the Federal Public Defender, East St. Louis, IL, for DefendantAppellee.

Before Wood, Chief Judge, Hamilton, Circuit Judge, and Bucklo, District Judge* .

Bucklo, District Judge.

Defendant-appellee Mario Rodriguez-Escalera ("Rodriguez") and his fiancée Blanca Moran were arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841, after police discovered a large amount of methamphetamine and cash in Moran’s vehicle during a traffic stop. Before the district court, Rodriguez and Moran each moved on Fourth Amendment grounds to suppress the evidence obtained in the vehicle search. Concluding that the evidence was derived from an unlawfully extended traffic stop, the court granted both motions. On appeal, the government challenges the grant of Rodriguez’s motion to suppress. We affirm.

I.

On October 4, 2016, Illinois State Trooper Kenneth Patterson observed a car abruptly switch lanes in front of a truck without using a turn signal on Interstate 70 in southern Illinois. Patterson decided to pull the car over for the traffic infraction. See 625 ILCS §§ 5/11-703(a), 5/11-804. Equipped with a dashboard video camera, Patterson’s vehicle recorded the ensuing traffic stop.

Once the car stopped, Patterson approached the passenger side of the vehicle to find Rodriguez in the front passenger seat and Moran in the driver’s seat. Patterson greeted them and asked Moran to provide her license, registration, and proof of insurance. Moran promptly complied. Her license indicated that she was from Paramount, California, a city in Los Angeles County. After gathering Moran’s documentation, Patterson told Moran why he stopped her and explained that he intended to issue her a written warning for her traffic violation. He asked her to accompany him in his squad car while he ran her information and issued the warning. Moran agreed.

Patterson led Moran to the front passenger seat of his squad car then returned to Moran’s vehicle to ask Rodriguez for his identification. As Rodriguez retrieved his documentation, Patterson inquired where he and Moran were headed. Rodriguez answered Pennsylvania. Then he handed Patterson his Mexican identification card and his Mexican driver’s license. Patterson kept the identification card and handed back the driver’s license before returning to his squad car.

Back in his vehicle, Patterson reviewed Moran’s and Rodriguez’s documents and began to question Moran about her travel plans. Moran told Patterson that she and Rodriguez, her fiancé, had come from Los Angeles and were heading to New York City to visit the city for the first time while she was on vacation from her job as a tax preparer and insurance broker. Patterson asked where she and Rodriguez were planning to go in New York. Moran replied that she wanted to see Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Statue of Liberty. When Patterson asked how long the trip would last, Moran told him that she had two weeks off from work. She and Rodriguez did not have lodging booked in New York yet, she told Patterson, but they would look for a hotel when they arrived in the city.

About eight minutes into the traffic stop, Patterson discovered that Moran’s California driver’s license was suspended. He informed Moran, who was apparently surprised by the news, and asked whether Rodriguez had a license so that he could drive instead. Moran said that he had a Mexican license, so Patterson returned to Moran’s vehicle to collect it from him. Moran remained in the squad car. While Rodriguez retrieved his license, Patterson probed for more information about the couple’s apparently conflicting travel plans. He asked Rodriguez what city in Pennsylvania he and Moran were going to visit. Rodriguez, who evidently had limited English skills, indicated that he did not know. Patterson then asked how long they were going to be gone; Rodriguez said one or two days. Finally, Patterson asked if they were visiting friends or family there. Rodriguez said no.

After this brief exchange with Rodriguez, Patterson returned to his squad car. About eleven minutes had passed since he initiated the traffic stop, and Patterson now had all of the information he needed from Moran and Rodriguez to issue the traffic citations and send them on their way. But Patterson had grown suspicious of the couple’s travel plans and decided to have a narcotics-detection dog sniff Moran’s vehicle. Patterson could see from his in-vehicle computer, however, that his department’s K-9 unit was occupied with another traffic stop.

Patterson took nearly twenty-two minutes to issue Moran three routine traffic citations—one ticket for driving with a suspended license, one written warning for failing to signal when changing lanes, and one written warning for improper overtaking. Before he started writing the citations, Patterson asked Moran for more details about the couple’s travel itinerary. He inquired whether she and Rodriguez planned to stop anywhere else on their way to New York. Moran said that they did not. Troubled by the apparent conflict, Patterson then asked if Rodriguez knew that they were going to New York. Moran smiled and explained that she told Rodriguez that they were going to Pennsylvania. When Patterson asked why, Moran said she wanted the visit to New York City to be a surprise. Upon further questioning, she explained that Rodriguez knew that they would be gone for two weeks. She also told Patterson that Rodriguez was not currently employed but that he would be looking for work in construction once they returned to Los Angeles.

Over the next several minutes, Patterson worked at his in-vehicle computer, occasionally chatting more with Moran, as he listened to his police radio waiting for the K-9 unit to become available. Patterson eventually heard on the radio that the traffic stop holding up the K-9 unit had ended in an arrest. Patterson messaged State Trooper John Baudino, the K-9 unit officer, to see if he was available. Not until Baudino confirmed that he was available and on his way did Patterson begin writing Moran’s ticket for driving with a suspended license.

Baudino raced to Patterson’s location, arriving about ten or eleven minutes after Patterson’s request and nearly thirty-three minutes into the traffic stop. As soon as he saw that Baudino’s vehicle was behind him, Patterson handed Moran her traffic ticket and written warnings, along with her license, registration, and proof of insurance. He then instructed Moran to stay in the squad car while the K-9 unit sniffed her vehicle. Patterson walked to Moran’s car and told Rodriguez to roll up his window.

Baudino walked his narcotics-detection dog around Moran’s car twice. The dog did not alert him to the presence of any contraband. Despite the negative dog sniff, Patterson remained unconvinced. He returned to his squad car, where Moran was still detained, and resumed questioning her. He asked her whether there was anything illegal in her vehicle. She said there was not. He explained that he just wanted to make sure that she and Rodriguez were actually going to New York. He inquired about Moran’s luggage and whether anyone had given her any luggage to take along to New York. She said she only had her luggage. Patterson’s questioning concluded with the following exchange:

Patterson: Okay. You're free to go and everything but I'm just concerned that there might be something illegal inside the car. Usually, most people don't say, "Hey, let’s go on a trip." And then, they ... it's a surprise, they go to New York. It's kind of out of the ordinary I should say. I know that probably doesn't make any sense to you.
Moran: No.
Patterson: Does that not make any sense to you? A strange trip?
Moran: No. I take my vacations.
Patterson: Yeah, but telling someone you are actually going to Pennsylvania and then actually you are going to New York, that’s kind of out of the ordinary as far as a trip goes, itinerary wise. Can I search that vehicle and its contents ...
Moran: Sure.
Patterson: ... to make sure there is nothing illegal, is that all right?
Moran: (nods yes)
Patterson: I'll just have you stay in the vehicle and I'll have [Rodriguez] step out.

Patterson and Baudino then conducted a search of Moran’s vehicle. In her trunk, they uncovered approximately 7.5 pounds of methamphetamine hidden in two pieces of luggage. In Moran’s purse, they discovered nearly $28,000 in cash. Rodriguez claimed ownership of the drugs, Moran claimed ownership of the money. The officers placed them both under arrest.

Moran and Rodriguez were each charged with one count of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute. See 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). Both filed pretrial motions to suppress the drug evidence seized from Moran’s vehicle, claiming that Patterson unlawfully detained them beyond the time necessary to complete the traffic stop and that Moran had not freely given her consent to the search.

The district court held a two-day evidentiary hearing on Moran’s motion to suppress, and, by agreement of the parties, adopted its evidentiary findings in Rodriguez’s case in lieu of an additional evidentiary hearing. At Moran’s suppression hearing, Patterson testified about several factors that triggered his suspicion during the traffic stop. He told the district court that when he first approached Moran’s front passenger window after making the stop, he smelled a "very pungent" scent of air fresheners and noticed "several" air vent clip-in air fresheners inside Moran’s vehicle, which he had been trained to associate with narcotics traffickers. Patterson told the court that...

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