July 15, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Innocent Explanations Need Not Dissipate Officer’s Reasonable Suspicion

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Padilla-Esparza on Friday, August 14, 2015.

Daniel Enrique Padilla-Esparza is a citizen of Mexico and a lawful permanent resident of the United States. On February 25, 2013, he was entering the United States from Mexico when a drug-sniffing dog alerted to his truck. Officers searched his truck and found an empty non-factory compartment above the gas tank. The officers released Padilla-Esparza but entered an alert on their communications system regarding Padilla-Esparza and his truck. On September 7, 2013, agents stopped Padilla-Esparza as he was traveling through a border checkpoint on his way to Mexico. CBP Officer Aguilera and his partner interviewed Padilla-Esparza. Their suspicions were raised because Padilla-Esparza had money hidden in a camera case that he had not originally declared, he could not name the last three clients of his landscaping business, he had been through border checkpoints every month for the past six months, and he had receipts for $1,300 in recent clothing purchases. Because of these inconsistencies, Officer Aguilera created a second alert for Padilla-Esparza and updated his license plate information. Officer Aguilera also set up an alert to be sent to his cell phone when Padilla-Esparza returned to the United States.

On September 10, 2013, Officer Aguilera received an alert that Padilla-Esparza had re-entered the United States. He issued a “be on the lookout” alert (BOLO) for Padilla-Esparza and his truck. Three days later, Padilla-Esparza entered the Las Cruces Border Patrol checkpoint, but an officer waved him through the checkpoint due to heavy rain. Another officer monitoring license plates recognized Padilla-Esparza’s and stopped traffic, but soon realized that Padilla-Esparza had already been waved through. Border Patrol agents with a drug-sniffing dog pursued Padilla-Esparza and pulled him over about 15 miles from the border. However, one of the agents mistakenly believed they had the wrong truck and let Padilla-Esparza go. When the agents realized their error, they again pursued Padilla-Esparza and pulled him over again. A drug-sniffing dog alerted to Padilla-Esparza’s truck. Due to the heavy rain, the agents asked him to return to the border patrol checkpoint, and he agreed. At the checkpoint, the agents found 16 kilograms of cocaine in the hidden non-factory compartment.

Padilla-Esparza was indicted on one count of possession with intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine. He moved to suppress the evidence seized from his truck. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied his motion. He eventually pleaded guilty but reserved the right to appeal the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress. He was sentenced to 78 months in prison followed by two years of supervised release. He appealed.

On appeal, Padilla-Esparza argued the evidence seized from his vehicle should be suppressed because (1) the first stop was unlawful because Officer Aguilera lacked reasonable suspicion to issue the BOLO alert, and (2) the second stop was unlawful because any reasonable suspicion was dissipated after he was released from the first stop. The Tenth Circuit rejected both arguments. Although Padilla-Esparza argued there were innocent reasons for all the reasons Officer Aguilera found suspicious, the Tenth Circuit found that the mere possibility of innocence does not negate reasonable suspicion. As to Padilla-Esparza’s argument that the second stop was unlawful, the Tenth Circuit again disagreed, noting that the officers’ suspicions were not dissipated after the first stop. Rather, they erroneously released the vehicle based on a mistaken belief that it was not the correct vehicle. They did not investigate Padilla-Esparza at all at the first stop, so there was no basis on which their suspicions could have dissipated.

The district court’s order allowing introduction of the evidence from Padilla-Esparza’s vehicle was affirmed.

Tenth Circuit: Acquittal on Drug Trafficking Charges Does Not Preclude Immigration Removal

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Mena-Flores v. Holder on Friday, January 23, 2015.

Gustavo Mena-Flores entered the United States illegally in 1990. In 2006, the Department of Homeland Security initiated removal proceedings. Mr. Mena-Flores admitted he was “undocumented,” but sought permanent residency based on his marriage to a U.S. citizen. The Department contended Mr. Mena-Flores was not eligible for residency due to criminal activity, stemming from an arrest of Mr. Mena-Flores on charges of drug trafficking.

Mr. Mena-Flores’ brother, Santiago, ran a drug trafficking organization. During his arrest and indictment, four witnesses identified Mr. Mena-Flores as involved in Santiago’s organization. Although Mr. Mena-Flores was eventually acquitted of all charges, the Department argued he should be denied residency due to “reason to believe” he could have been involved in the drug trade. The immigration judge granted Mr. Mena-Flores’ request for adjustment in status, but the Department appealed, and the BIA remanded to the immigration judge to consider all evidence of drug trafficking activity. On remand, the immigration judge denied Mr. Mena-Flores’ petition, finding there was reasonable, substantial, and probative evidence creating a reason to believe he had been involved in drug trafficking.

Mr. Mena-Flores appealed to the BIA, which upheld the immigration judge’s decision. He appealed the BIA’s decision to the Tenth Circuit. He then hired new counsel, who urged the BIA to reopen the case to consider new evidence. Mr. Mena-Flores argued his trial counsel was ineffective by failing to present the evidence earlier. The BIA denied the motions and Mr. Mena-Flores appealed.

Before addressing the merits of Mr. Mena-Flores’ appeals, the Tenth Circuit addressed the Department’s arguments that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the appeal. The Department argued 8 U.S.C. § 1252 barred review of (1) orders against aliens who are removable because of participation in drug trafficking, (2) orders involving discretionary relief, and (3) unexhausted arguments.

The Tenth Circuit extensively evaluated the term “removable” and determined that, although there was an inference Mr. Mena-Flores was involved in drug trafficking, he was not “removable” based on the drug trafficking because he was being removed for lack of documentation. The Department next argued that since adjustment in status involves a form of discretionary relief, the Tenth Circuit lacked jurisdiction. The jurisdictional bar in 8 U.S.C. § 1252(a)(2)(B)(i) does not apply to the nondiscretionary aspects of relief. Finally, the Department argued Mr. Mena-Flores had not exhausted his administrative remedies, but the Tenth Circuit disagreed.

Addressing the merits of the appeal, the Tenth Circuit evaluated whether the BIA’s conclusion that Mr. Mena-Flores’ participation in drug trafficking precluded permanent residency was supported by substantial evidence. The Tenth Circuit looked at the inferences that Mr. Mena-Flores participated in drug trafficking and noted that he bore the burden of proof to show he was not involved in the drug trade. The Tenth Circuit would uphold the BIA’s determination if the evidence was “reasonable, substantial and probative.”

The Tenth Circuit found no error in the BIA’s determination. Witness statements, a special agent’s affidavit, and Mr. Mena-Flores’ testimony all influenced the immigration judge’s decision that Mr. Mena-Flores was not eligible for an adjustment in status due to his participation in drug trafficking activity. Because Mr. Mena-Flores bore the burden of proof, the Tenth Circuit found no error in the BIA’s decision. The evidence presented by Mr. Mena-Flores that tended to show non-involvement did not outweigh the inference created by the government’s evidence.

Mr. Mena-Flores also appealed the BIA’s denial of his motion to reopen. Although he argued that he had presented new evidence to the BIA, the Tenth Circuit disagreed. Mr. Mena-Flores’ counsel’s discretionary and tactical decisions to include or exclude evidence did not constitute ineffective assistance.

The Tenth Circuit found that Mr. Mena-Flores failed to meet his burden of proof, and affirmed the BIA’s decisions.

Tenth Circuit: Religious Iconography Testimony Irrelevant and Not Harmless to Defendants

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Medina-Copete on Wednesday, June 3, 2014.

Maria Vianey Medina-Copete (Medina) and Rafael Goxcon-Chagal (Goxcon) were traveling in a borrowed truck through New Mexico when they were pulled over for following another vehicle too closely. Officer Chavez, who stopped the vehicle, became suspicious that Medina and Goxcon were engaged in drug activity because of the overwhelming odor of air freshener coming from the vehicle, Medina’s nervousness and chanting of a prayer to Santa Muerte, and the changes in Medina’s and Goxcon’s behavior when questioned about the presence of methamphetamine in the vehicle. Chavez, who is not fluent in Spanish, had difficulty communicating with Medina and Goxcon, who are not fluent in English. Eventually, Chavez obtained consent to search the vehicle with a form written in Spanish, and a drug sniffing dog alerted to the glove box on the passenger side of the truck. After a thorough search, a secret compartment was found on the vehicle containing nearly two pounds of 90% pure methamphetamine.

Medina and Goxcon were placed under arrest, and subsequent to their arrests were interviewed by Spanish-speaking DEA officials. They gave conflicting stories to the DEA officials. At the end of her interview, Medina asked to retrieve her personal belongings from the vehicle, a black duffel bag. The officer who retrieved the bag found a handgun under a piece of clothing. In an indictment, Goxcon and Medina were jointly charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, possessing with intent to distribute methamphetamine, and using or carrying a firearm in connection with a drug trafficking crime. Medina was also charged with being an illegally present alien in possession of a firearm and with illegal reentry.

In their joint trial, Medina and Goxcon asserted that they had no knowledge of the drugs in their borrowed vehicle. Two experts testified against them, United States Marshal Robert Almonte of the Western District of Texas and DEA Agent Ivar Hella. Almonte testified about his research into religious iconography and its significance in the drug world, specifically Santa Muerte to whom Medina was furiously praying during the traffic stop. Hella testified about drug trafficking between this country and Mexico, and that blind mules are rarely used as drug couriers because of the risks of accidental discovery of the drugs. Medina and Goxcon challenged both experts’ testimony. The jury returned guilty verdicts against both defendants on all counts, and defendants timely appealed.

Defendants asserted that the trial court erred by allowing Almonte to testify, and that his testimony violated FRE 403, 702, and 704(b), as well as their First Amendment rights. The Tenth Circuit evaluated Almonte’s testimony in light of the factors set forth in Daubert and Kumho Tires, and found that his testimony regarding Santa Muerte did not qualify as explicative of a “tool of the trade,” because it was unclear how praying to a religious figure could be a tool in the drug trade. The Tenth Circuit analogized the religious iconography to finding baggies or a razor blade, which can easily be understood to be tools of a drug trade despite their common household use, and found that there was no similar utility to the religious symbols. The Tenth Circuit noted that the district court’s failure to examine how Almonte’s testimony could assist the jury also affected its reliability. Citing a concurrence from the Eighth Circuit analyzing Almonte’s testimony in a different case, the Tenth Circuit found that there was no causal connection between religious iconography and the drug trade, so his testimony was not sufficiently reliable. Because the Tenth Circuit found error in admitting Almonte’s testimony, it evaluated whether the error was harmless, and determined that it was not. The government did not have a strong case against Goxcon and Medina, so the chance that the religious iconography testimony prejudiced the jury was great.

As to Hella’s testimony, the Tenth Circuit found no error. His testimony was relevant to show that it was less likely that Goxcon and Medina were unaware of the presence of methamphetamine in the truck due to various factors, including the unlikelihood of using blind mules and the strong smell of pure methamphetamine.

The Tenth Circuit also reviewed Medina’s assertion that the government had insufficient evidence to convict her, and disagreed. The case was remanded to the district court to vacate the convictions based on drug trafficking and for further proceedings consistent with the opinion. Because Medina did not challenge her illegal reentry or possession of firearm by an illegal alien convictions, the Tenth Circuit did not vacate them.