Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In a "close call," the Third Circuit finds reasonable suspicion to justify stop. Denial of Motion to Suppress affirmed.

In United States v. Mathurin, No. 07-4576 (D.VI 03/27/09), the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s denial of the Mathurin’s motion to suppress evidence.

ICE Agents received information from Border Agents that a "suspicious vessel" had departed Puerto Rico and was heading their way to St. Thomas. The boat was "suspicious" because it was described as a "yolla-type vessel, low to the water line" with a single occupant. The agent’s went to a marina and located the suspected boat. They learned from the marina workers that the boat arrived that day, that a man named Perez-Polanco piloted the boat, he rented the slip for the day, and left in a taxi to the nearest hotel with no luggage. Agent’s found the hotel where Perez-Polanco was staying and learned that he planned to leave the next day. They then ran a criminal background check and learned among other things that he had a prior conviction for possession of 6 kilograms of cocaine and a detention in the seizure of $260,000.

The agents conducted surveillance of his hotel room on the belief that a "drug transaction was imminent." Hours later they observed two individuals, one of whom was Mathurin, enter Perez-Polanco’s room with a light-colored plastic bag. A few minutes later they left the room without the plastic bag. Two hours later, Mathurin returned and entered Perez-Polanco’s room with another dark-colored plastic bag. And, a few minutes later, he left the room without the bag. Shortley thereafter, Perez-Polanco himself exited the room and got in the same vehicle as Mathurin. The agents then stopped the vehicle and ordered the three occupants, Mathurin, Perez-Polanco, and the driver, to exit. The agents arrested Mathurin and the driver (Perez-Polanco who initially fled on foot) and then found a backpack in the back seat with 2.2. kilograms of cocaine inside.

Once charged, Mathurin filed a motion to suppress. The district court ruled that the initial arrest of Mathurin was illegal but denied the motion concluding the agent’s had reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle to "confirm or dispel" their suspicion of criminal activity and that the arrest of Perez-Polanco outside of the vehicle justified the search of its interior incident to his arrest.
On appeal, Mathurin argued only that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion as needed for a valid investigatory stop. In doing so he first argued the tip regarding the vessel was "unreliable" because it was unclear which federal agency provided the information. The Court disagreed and said regardless of what federal agency the tip derived from is inapposite to the weight the local authorities should have afforded it. Second, Mathurin argued the tip should be deemed anonymous. Again the Court disagreed holding that a tip from one federal agency to another "implies a degree of expertise and shared purpose in stopping illegal activity." Further that the tip itself was not the sole basis for reasonable suspicion, but rather the information the agents used to launch an investigation.

The Court then found reasonable suspicion. Specifically that, under the totality of the circumstances, the fact that the slip was rented for one day, the hotel room was reserved for one night, and that Perez-Palanco had a criminal history for drug distribution, coupled with the multiple visits to his hotel room by Mathurin who was carrying different plastic bags and leaving without. And the fact that Mathurin left the hotel room without Perez-Polanco justified a finding of reasonable suspicion. That each factor alone was insufficient to support reasonable suspicion but combined, reasonable suspicion existed. Of note, the Court on several occasions deferred to the "training and expertise" of the agents regarding their knowledge of local drug activity and looked at the situation from the agent's viewpoint as a means to tip the scales in favor of the Government in what was labeled a "close call."

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