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United States v. Sanchez

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

May 15, 2019

MANUEL PAZ SANCHEZ, JR. aka Manuel Sanchez Paz, Jr., Defendant.



         Before the Court is Defendant Manuel Paz Sanchez, Jr.'s motion to suppress evidence seized from his rental vehicle. (Doc. 58). For the following reasons, Sanchez's motion is denied.

         I. Facts

         On the morning of December 12, 2017, Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Barry Kilpela was heading eastbound on Interstate 90 when he came upon a car following about two car lengths behind a semi-truck trailer. Kilpela testified that he estimated the semi was traveling somewhere between 65 and 70 miles per hour. The posted speed limit in the area was 65 miles per hour for trucks and 80 miles per hour for cars. As Kilpela passed the car and the semi-trailer, he noticed that the car was still traveling very closely behind the semi. For approximately two miles, Kilpela watched in his rearview mirror to see if the car would pass the trailer as he had. When it did not, Kilpela pulled into a median and picked a stationary spot from which he could determine if the car was still traveling too closely behind the semi. As the semi passed the stationary spot he had picked, Kilpela counted one second before the car passed the same spot. Based on his training, Kilpela testified that he believed a three-second delay between the semi and the car would have been a reasonable distance.

         Kilpela pulled Sanchez over for following the semi too closely. (Doc. 62-1 at 1). When Kilpela approached the car and explained why he had stopped Sanchez, Sanchez agreed that he was following the semi too closely but did not pass or exit the interstate because he did not want Kilpela to think he was avoiding him. When Kilpela asked for the car registration, Sanchez provided him with the rental contract for the car. Kilpela noticed that the car had been rented out of Sacramento, California, and was already due back. He also noticed a blanket and a pillow in the back seat of the car. (Id. at 2). Kilpela testified that these facts raised his suspicion because he knew that a lot of drug trafficking originated from Sacramento and he knew that rental cars were often used for drug trafficking because of their reliability and because the trafficker does not risk his own car being seized in the event of an arrest.

         Kilpela asked Sanchez to accompany him to the patrol car while Kilpela filled out a traffic warning. While Kilpela looked over Sanchez's rental contract, Sanchez told Kilpela that he had been visiting family in Idaho for three days but was on his way to Bismarck, North Dakota, to catch a flight back to Sacramento. (Id. at 2). He told Kilpela that his wife wanted him home right away and had found a cheap flight out of North Dakota to Sacramento. Task Force Officer Sonny Smith and Sergeant Troy Muri arrived on the scene. Smith approached Sanchez's window and asked Sanchez where he had stayed the night prior. Sanchez replied that he had visited "Yogi Bear" in Yellowstone National Park. (Id.)

         Kilpela testified that he found it implausible that Sanchez had rented the car in Sacramento, traveled to Idaho to visit family for three days, overnighted in his car in Yellowstone National Park and stayed in a motel all since the car had been rented, just 72 hours prior. Kilpela also thought it was odd that Sanchez would drive from Idaho to Bismarck to save money and catch a flight home, considering it likely would have been cheaper and faster to fly or drive from Idaho to Sacramento. (Doc. 62-1 at 2). When Sanchez was asked if he had any criminal history, Sanchez responded that he had been arrested for "accessory to 187." 187 is law enforcement code for murder. Considering this information all together, Kilpela began to suspect Sanchez was involved in major criminal activity. (Id.).

         Kilpela returned the rental papers to Sanchez and issued him a warning for Following Too Closely. (Id-) Kilpela asked Sanchez if he was carrying any drugs or illegal items in the car. Sanchez said no. Kilpela asked Sanchez if he would consent to a vehicle search. Sanchez agreed verbally and in writing.

         Kilpela stayed in the patrol car with Sanchez as Smith and Muri began the search. Muri began searching the trunk and Smith began searching the front seat and console. Smith found a tire repair kit in the front seat. Kilpela testified that this was unusual for someone with a rental car because renters typically do not repair rental car tires. Muri removed the spare tire from the trunk. Kilpela, Smith and Muri each picked up the spare tire and all agreed that it was heavier than most spare tires. Kilpela testified that he also noticed that the tire exhibited irregularities when he bounced it on the ground. (Doc. 62-1 at 2).

         Kilpela deployed his drug dog, Mika, around the car. Mika showed alert behavior on the trunk area. When presented with the spare tire, she showed distinct alert behavior by scratching and biting at the tire and then she sat down, indicating the odor of narcotics was coming from the spare tire. (Id; Doc. 63 at 8:29:30-33).

         Next, Kilpela performed an "echo test" of the spare tire using a stethoscope and a mallet. His test results indicated that some object was inside the tire. Based on the outcome of this test, Kilpela believed that there was obstruction of the airspace within the tire and that narcotics were likely inside. (Doc. 62-1 at 2).

         Smith explained law enforcement's suspicions to Sanchez that narcotics were contained in the tire. Smith asked for Sanchez's consent to drive the car to a tire shop and have the tire shop take the tire off its rim, so they could look inside. Sanchez consented to these actions. (Doc. 63 at 8:33:54-8:34:09). Smith drove the rental car to a nearby tire shop. When the tire was removed from the rim, Smith and Kilpela discovered just over eight pounds of methamphetamine inside. (Doc. 62-1 at 3).

         II. Discussion

         Sanchez makes three arguments in support of suppression: (1) the stop was without reasonable suspicion; (2) the stop was unconstitutionally prolonged beyond the scope of issuing a traffic citation; and (3) the scope of Sanchez's consent ...

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