United States v. Salas, 072120 FED6, 18-5548

Docket Nº:18-5548
Opinion Judge:HELENE N. WHITE, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. HECTOR SALAS, JR., aka Hector Salas-Pina, Defendant-Appellant.
Judge Panel:BEFORE: GUY, BOGGS, and WHITE, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:July 21, 2020
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit



HECTOR SALAS, JR., aka Hector Salas-Pina, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 18-5548

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

July 21, 2020



BEFORE: GUY, BOGGS, and WHITE, Circuit Judges.

HELENE N. WHITE, Circuit Judge.

Defendant-Appellant Hector Salas, Jr., appeals the district court's denial of his motion to suppress, arguing that a dog sniff that led to the discovery of cocaine was unconstitutional. He also appeals his convictions of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances and possession with intent to distribute controlled substances, arguing that the government presented insufficient evidence of his guilt. Thirdly, Salas appeals his above-Guidelines sentence as substantively unreasonable. We AFFIRM.



The investigation that led to Salas's arrest began in January 2017, when FBI Special Agent Michael Van Aelstyn learned that a money courier would be meeting with an undercover agent in Lexington, Kentucky for a large-scale cash delivery. Agents identified the money courier as Talia Ramos. They surveilled her during the next pickup on April 14, 2017, and observed her drive to a house on Sequoia Drive (the Sequoia House) and receive a large plastic bag from Eric James. They then conducted a traffic stop of Ramos and discovered a bag with approximately $300, 000 cash in her vehicle. From this point forward, Ramos cooperated with officers by acting as a confidential informant (CI) for the ongoing investigation.

Ramos told Van Aelstyn that the Sequoia House was owned and occupied by Ansar McIver and alerted Van Aelstyn of an expected drug delivery to take place on April 26 at James's mother's house (the Shropshire House).1 On that date, video and audio surveillance revealed that Ramos met the load drivers at Aguascalientes, a local grocery store, where one of the drivers asked her if she "had a place where they could work because he said the drugs were in the trailer, and they needed a covered place to take it out." R. 212, PID 1446. The drivers operated a truck with an attached trailer. Ramos led the drivers to the Shropshire House, where Ramos observed numerous individuals working to remove drug packages that were concealed in the axle of the attached trailer.

Ramos later alerted Van Aelstyn to another drug delivery expected on May 9. This time, Ramos met the load driver at a Motel 6 before leading him back to the Shropshire House. Once at the house, Ramos observed the driver remove concealed drugs from hidden compartments in the vehicle's wheel wells.

On May 18, Van Aelstyn received a call from Ramos about yet another load of narcotics being delivered. This third tip is what eventually led to Salas's arrest. According to Ramos, a load driver, whom she did not know at the time, contacted her to disclose that he would soon arrive in Lexington for a delivery. Ramos testified that she and the unknown caller agreed to meet at Aguascalientes. Upon arriving at the store, Ramos discovered the individual she had been coordinating with over the phone was Salas, who waved at her from the passenger seat of a gold Jeep. The Jeep had an attached trailer, similar to the one used in the first drug delivery, with a large air compressor on the back of the trailer. Ramos then instructed Salas to follow her back to the Shropshire house. Ramos did not have any contact with the Jeep's driver, Gerardo Mejia-Palacio.

After receiving the initial tip from Ramos, Van Aelstyn had assembled members of the Lexington Safe Streets Task Force, an FBI-led joint operation between federal, state, and local law enforcement, to try to prevent the narcotics from reaching their final destination. Ramos now informed Van Aelstyn of the Jeep's description. Once Ramos left the Aguascalientes with Salas and Mejia in tow, multiple officers followed behind the Jeep to conduct further surveillance. Van Aelstyn stated that "we followed along until we noticed some traffic violations occurring." R. 211, PID 1296.

The traffic stop that led to Salas's arrest was carried out by Officer Kevin Duane of the Lexington Police Department. Duane initiated the stop shortly after observing that the Jeep's trailer lacked functioning brake lights and that Mejia had changed lanes without signaling. Once Mejia pulled over, Duane observed that the Jeep and trailer both had Tennessee license plates. As with any traffic stop, Duane first approached the driver-Mejia in this case-to obtain identification, registration, and proof of insurance. Duane also requested identification from Salas, who was still seated in the passenger seat. Mejia presented an Arizona driver's license, and Salas presented a California identification card. According to Duane, the three different locations on the plates and identifications aroused suspicion because "[Salas and Mejia] both were coming from states that [are] know[n] to be source states for illegal narcotics." R. 206, PID 1053.

Duane next questioned Mejia and Salas about their intended destination, with both responding that they were heading to their aunt's house to conduct drywall work. When questioned further, Mejia stated that the aunt lived in downtown Lexington, but that he was unsure of the exact address. Nor could Mejia name any neighborhood or area in which the aunt lived apart from the general description of "downtown." Id. at PID 1052. Duane estimated that this initial conversation with Mejia and Salas lasted two or three minutes.

These interactions heightened Duane's suspicion for several reasons. First, Duane thought that Mejia and Salas's response to his question about their destination sounded rehearsed because they both responded simultaneously and with the exact same wording. Duane also found it strange that neither Mejia nor Salas, despite being pulled over just minutes away from their aunt's downtown home, could provide more specific information about their destination. Finally, Duane, who had personal experience with contracting and drywall work, was suspicious of the lack of any tools or equipment in the vehicle with which to perform such work. Duane testified that, in his experience, most people doing drywall work bring at least some tools with them. Yet Duane also acknowledged that the tools could have been waiting at the job site and that air compressors can be used for certain types of drywall and construction work.

After the initial questioning, Duane returned to his vehicle and spoke with Kenneth Leavell, a K-9 handler with the Kentucky State Police. Leavell was on site with the dog to provide support for the investigation; he was initially parked beside Duane before they started following the Jeep. After speaking to Leavell, Duane returned to the Jeep and asked Salas and Mejia to step out of the vehicle for additional questioning, and Leavell explained to Salas and Mejia that he would conduct a dog sniff.

As Leavell presented the dog to the vehicle, Mejia admitted to having some "personal use" narcotics in the vehicle's sunglass compartment. Id. at PID 1059. Duane then began searching the vehicle's interior and found three bags of suspected cocaine: one postage-stamp-sized bag in the sunglass compartment, a similarly sized bag in the center console, and another, larger bag in the center console that Duane estimated at roughly one-half ounce. Once this suspected contraband was recovered, Duane placed both Salas and Mejia under arrest, and they were transported away from the scene shortly thereafter.

Because the dog signaled the possible presence of narcotics at the driver-side door and underneath the trailer, officers continued searching both the vehicle and trailer. After Duane and other officers secured a search warrant, they moved the vehicle to a more secure location to complete the search. Officers then discovered roughly 6.5 kilograms of cocaine hidden in the trailer's axle. Duane estimated that the entire stop, up to the completion of the dog sniff, lasted roughly twenty minutes. In comparison, Duane testified that his normal traffic stops usually take between fifteen and twenty minutes.

At trial, Mejia testified that his involvement in these events began several months before his arrest, when Salas inquired whether he wanted to make money on an out-of-town construction job. (They were in Arizona at the time.) Mejia then purchased a trailer-the same one in which drugs would later be discovered-using money from Salas. The two subsequently traveled together to a home in Memphis, Tennessee, where they stayed for about a week doing non-specialized drywall and framing work. The Jeep was sitting in the driveway when Salas and Mejia arrived at this Memphis home. Mejia registered the Jeep and trailer under his name using the Memphis home's address. Salas paid for both registrations. Salas also provided Mejia with money to open a bank account in Tennessee, which he needed to register the Jeep. Mejia drove the Jeep back to Arizona, but Mejia and Salas left the trailer in the Memphis home's garage.

Salas contacted Mejia again in May about another unidentified "job" in Memphis. R. 213, PID 1649-50. According to Mejia, he and Salas traveled together to Memphis the second time to "set up to go to Kentucky," though Mejia stated he was unaware of any details other than "to go to Kentucky and show up." Id. at PID 1650-51. During the trip to Lexington, Salas paid for all gas and hotel expenses, and he purchased the air compressor. Salas also told Mejia where to drive. Concerning the traffic stop, Mejia testified that Salas was the one who came up with the story about helping an aunt with drywall. Mejia further asserted he had no...

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