Judge: Cops Lacked ‘Reasonable Suspicion’ to Search Car in Undocumented Immigrant Smuggling Case

A federal judge in Texas on Tuesday agreed to suppress evidence against a defendant on trial for smuggling undocumented immigrants near the U.S.-Mexico border, finding that police failed to establish a “reasonable suspicion” that the defendant engaged in any criminal conduct.

U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo granted defendant Edward Lee Puga’s motion to suppress the grand jury evidence used to indict him for conspiracy to transport undocumented aliens and two counts of transporting undocumented aliens, reasoning that the officers did not have probable cause to stop and detain Puga or the other passengers in the vehicle.

Puga and three other men were arrested by Zapata County Sheriff’s deputies in August after an anonymous 911 caller reported four “very very suspicious guys” sitting in a white Lincoln on the side of the road. The caller told police the men had thrown a bunch of trash out of the car, but said they apologized and cleaned up the garbage after the caller asked them about it.

Three patrol units were dispatched to the area with only a general description of the car which they were told had been “reported littering.” One of the units spotted the vehicle in a nearby Dollar General store parking lot and reported “nothing unusual” about the car or its passengers, two of whom were in the store.

The officer said he knocked on the window “pretty loud” and grew suspicious when the passengers did not acknowledge him, finally instructing them to open the door.

“On direct examination, [the officer] testified that the passengers were ‘sweating’ and wearing clothes that looked as though they had ‘just crossed [the border].’ Based on his training and experience, [the officer] concluded that the passengers were undocumented aliens,” Marmolejo wrote, adding that the officers then proceeded to question the vehicle’s passengers.

Other officers arrived on the scene and blocked the store exit while they searched for the driver and front seat passenger inside where they found Puga and another man, Juan Manuel Martinez. The two men accused each other of being the car’s driver while they were being escorted outside.

While Martinez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to transport undocumented aliens last month, Puga challenged the arrest as a violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Marmolejo agreed, rejecting the government’s contention that the anonymous 911 call justified the officers seizure of Puga’s vehicle, saying the mere description of the vehicle’s occupants as “very suspicious” was “precisely the type of vague and conclusory allegation” that the Supreme Court ruled unreliable in Navarette v. California.

“Indeed, as Lt. [Fernando] Hernandez acknowledged, that the suspects reportedly picked up their litter meant there was no longer a crime to investigate at all. The caller’s information was reliable, therefore, only in the ‘limited sense’ that it tended to ‘identify a determinate person,’ which by itself does not establish reasonable suspicion,” Marmolejo wrote. “Thus, the anonymous 911 call did not allege the sort of specific, dangerous, and ongoing criminal activity to justify a stop.”

Marmolejo also rejected the notion that the offficers’ interactions with Puga and Martinez were consensual encounters, reasoning that the officers had illegally seized the men when they entered the store under the assumption that his passengers were illegal aliens.

“Before the officers entered the store, Hernandez was already convinced that the backseat passengers were undocumented aliens and the driver was involved in alien smuggling. From the outset, then, the interaction between Defendant and the police was not the type of random or routine questioning that often typifies a consensual encounter,” the ruling said. “In this case, law enforcement used an anonymous 911 call that vaguely reported ‘suspicious’ behavior and possible littering to seize five people without further investigation. Defendant’s motion to suppress is therefore granted. All evidence that resulted from the unconstitutional seizures is hereby suppressed.”

Read the full memorandum and order below.

Order: Motion to Suppress by Law&Crime on Scribd

[image via Mario Tama/Getty Images]

Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.

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