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United States v. Garcia

United States District Court, D. Montana, Butte Division

December 2, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
LUIS ALBERTO GARCIA and ERIC JASPER LEBEAU, Defendants.

          ORDER

          Dana L. Christensen, Chief Judge

         Before the Court are the Motions to Suppress filed by Defendants Luis Alberto Garcia (Doc. 32) and Eric Jasper LeBeau (Doc. 29). The Court held an evidentiary hearing on the issues presented in the motions on November 20, 2019. Having considered the parties' arguments and the evidence offered in support of their briefs and at the hearing, including a dashboard camera videorecording of the traffic stop, the Court grants the motions.

         Background

         I. The Traffic Stop

         On the morning of May 31, 2019, Garcia and LeBeau caught a ride from a gas station attendant who had just finished a night shift at the Town Pump in Four Corners, Montana. The men rode in the open bed of the attendant's pickup as she drove into Belgrade, where Garcia and LeBeau anticipated finding a room at a local hotel.

         Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Tyler Brant was traveling in the same direction as the pickup, heading north on Jackrabbit Lane, a four-lane highway, when he saw Garcia and Lebeau in the back of the truck. He flipped on his lights and siren to pull the driver over. It is unclear why he initiated the stop. At the time he told Garcia, LeBeau, and the driver that he pulled them over because no one was sitting in the passenger seat and all seatbelts must be in use before a passenger can ride in the bed of a pickup.[1] In his police report, he wrote that the driver's choice "put her passengers at substantial risk of serious bodily injury or death," and that she therefore committed the crime of negligent endangerment in violation of Montana Code Annotated § 45-2-208. (Doc. 30-5 at 4.) In his police report, he added that the rate of speed of the truck-55 m.p.h.-was dangerously fast for the men in the bed of the truck (Doc. 30-5 at 4), but he also wrote in a search warrant application prepared the day of the traffic stop that the vehicle "pose[d] a safety hazard" because it was "traveling slower than the average flow of traffic [at 70 m.p.h.]"[2] (Doc. 30-6 at 3.) At the hearing, Brant admitted that he was not thinking of negligent endangerment at the time of the traffic stop and stated an additional possibility, that he was motivated by his concern that the two men posed a threat to the driver.

         LeBeau smiled and waved at Trooper Brant (or perhaps the dashboard camera) as the officer exited his patrol car. Garcia, whose facial features are obscured by elaborate black tattoos, pulled his hood up over his hat and appeared rather less interested in having a conversation with the officer. Both men, though, appeared calm and polite. Brant spoke with the driver briefly and took her driver's license.

         Trooper Brant then asked Garcia and Lebeau for their licenses, and Garcia said that they didn't have them. Lebeau added, "We don't have our IDs. Stolen." Trooper Brant asked, "Stolen? Both of them?" and Lebeau responded, "No, just my wallet."[3] Trooper Brant asked the men for their full names and dates of birth, and they gave complete and honest responses.

         Trooper Brant told the men that he stopped them because "[j]ust one of you guys needs to be sitting in the passenger seat with her. Cause all the seatbelts need to be taken up. That's all it is, so we'll be out of here real quick though." This exchange occurred less than three minutes into the stop, but the men were not, in fact, free to leave for over an hour and a half.

         Trooper Brant returned to his patrol car to contact dispatch and request backup. He did not ask for any information regarding the driver of the vehicle but focused immediately on the men in the back, asking for information about Garcia first and then LeBeau. Garcia and LeBeau were within view of the dashboard camera, and they look relaxed as they chat with each other in the bed of the truck. LeBeau lit his first cigarette about seven minutes into the stop.

         Approximately eight minutes in, the dispatch officer informed Trooper Brant that Garcia is listed as a "known criminal gang member" and is currently under supervision. Because the dispatch officer could not immediately locate LeBeau in the system, Brant asked LeBeau for follow-up information, which LeBeau gave honestly. Trooper Brant then began questioning the men about why they were in Montana and how they got there. They agreed that they were both from North Dakota (which appears to be accurate) and that they were "just visiting." When Brant returned to the patrol car to attempt to find more information, LeBeau lit a second cigarette.

         Additional officers, Trooper Taylor Gagnon and Deputy Collin Kiewatt, arrived on the scene shortly thereafter. Trooper Brant told them that he intended to separate the men so that they could be questioned individually. Garcia, who was talking on his cell phone at this point, lit a cigarette, his first. The officers agreed that they "[would] bring them both out, search for weapons," leaving two backpacks in the back of the pickup.

         Trooper Brant and Deputy Kiewatt walked back to the bed of the pickup. Lebeau asked, "We good now?" to which Brant replied, "No, yeah, we're good. All I wanna do-do you guys have any weapons on you or anything like that?" They said no, and Trooper Brant said, "Sounds good. You guys mind just hopping out just so I can check and verify that." When Lebeau asked, "Are we being detained or something, or . ..," Brant responded, "We just want to do our checks. That's all." The men exited the pickup, LeBeau holding a large fountain soda and Garcia with a cigarette and cell phone in hand.

         Trooper Brant and Deputy Kiewatt patted the men down. Brant located a bag in the pocket of Garcia's hoodie, which Garcia identified as his diabetic kit, and Brant placed it on the hood of his patrol car. The officers did not find weapons or evidence of crime during the pat-down searches.

         About fifteen minutes into the stop, the driver got out of her vehicle, presumably to see if she could leave. Trooper Brant asked her to return to the pickup, and he walked back to the driver-side window to speak to her for the first time since initiating the traffic stop. The driver's voice cannot be heard clearly in the recording, except to say that the men seemed "really polite." At the evidentiary hearing, Brant testified that the driver told him that the men had been at the Town Pump all night. He also stated that she volunteered to have one of them ride with her in the cab of the truck to come into compliance with Brant's construction of the seatbelt law.

         Trooper Brant told the driver that he would be applying for a search warrant to search the backpacks in the back of the truck. He reassured that he would "do [his] very best to try and get [her] out of there." He then returned to his patrol car to call in a canine unit. He asked Garcia more questions about why he and LeBeau were in Montana and how they got there. Garcia said they came to the Bozeman area to visit a friend and that both he and LeBeau are from North Dakota. Brant went on to ask Garcia extensive, detailed questions about their travel history and intentions in Montana. He immediately moved to LeBeau, who could not hear the exchange between Brant and Garcia, to ask the same questions. LeBeau asked if Brant had a warrant, and Brant said no. Trooper Brant questioned LeBeau at length about how he and Garcia got to Bozeman. LeBeau asked, "Are we being detained?" to which Brant responded, "Yes. Yeah."

         LeBeau wondered why they were being detained, and Trooper Brant answered, "I'm suspecting you guys of possibly drug trafficking." LeBeau asked what kind of drugs Brant suspected of them of trafficking and Brant said that he was unsure. Brant then returned to the line of questions regarding the pair's recent travel history and future plans. LeBeau gave answers that presented some inconsistencies with Garcia's account; while Garcia said that the men came from North Dakota, LeBeau informed Brant that they were from North Dakota but were coming to Montana from a job in Utah. LeBeau then told Brant that he meant "no disrespect" but did not believe he wanted to answer any more questions.

         Around this time, although he remained fairly calm and polite, LeBeau started to signal distrust toward Trooper Brant. He asked, "Do you do this to everybody?" Brant answered, "No, I don't do this to everybody. So here's the deal, all I stopped you for is you guys were sitting in the back of the truck." LeBeau apparently disagreed, suggesting that Brant's true motivation was "Because he's got a bunch of tattoos on his face." Brant objected, saying, "No, not because he's got a bunch of tattoos on his face. Because we need to have all the seatbelts occupied." LeBeau didn't buy it. He asked, "Well then how you're going to come to drug trafficking?" Brant said that it was because of inconsistencies in the travel histories given by each of the men.

         Trooper Brant immediately turned his attention to the bags in the back of the truck: "Anything in those bags I should be concerned about?" LeBeau said no, and the exchange continued:

Brant: "Drug paraphernalia?"
LeBeau: "No."
Brant: "Any marijuana?"
LeBeau: "I don't smoke marijuana" ...

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