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United States v. Alicea

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

July 21, 2017




         Defendant Roberto Alicea moves to suppress evidence of his involvement in drug trafficking, specifically a locked suitcase containing 22 kilograms of cocaine seized from the hatchback area of his motor vehicle after it was stopped by a Massachusetts State Trooper in East Boston. Alicea asserts an ownership interest and expectation of privacy in the vehicle and its contents and has submitted an affidavit in support of his claims. Defendant Harold Estela-Vazquez also asserts a possessory interest in the suitcase, but has not filed a sworn affidavit. Neither defendant has indicated a willingness to testify at a suppression hearing. A non-evidentiary hearing on the consolidated motion was held on July 11, 2017.


         Because the search of Alicea's vehicle was conducted without a warrant, the burden falls to the government to prove that the search was lawful; proof is by a preponderance of the evidence. United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 177-178 n.14 (1974). Based on the verified facts and exhibits offered by way of the affidavits of Homeland Security Special Agent Philip Lavoie and Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Mark Marron, I find as follows.[1]

         In July of 2016, a consensual search of an apartment on Hancock Street in Quincy, Massachusetts, conducted by Agent Lavoie, State Police Sgt. Dan LeVangie, and other officers, recovered 37.5 kilograms of cocaine and $57, 395 in U.S. currency. The seizures led to the arrest of Raymond Sanchez, the occupant of the apartment. Following the subsequent arrest by State Police of the confidential informant (CI) in nearby Milton, Massachusetts, on unrelated cocaine charges, the CI asked to speak with investigators in the Sanchez case. In an ensuing face-to-face interview, the CI told Lavoie and LeVangie that Sanchez had no involvement with the drugs and currency and that he (the CI) took full responsibility for their presence in the apartment.

         The CI then stated that he had come to Boston six weeks earlier at the direction of the head of a major drug trafficking organization in the Dominican Republic for whom on seven prior occasions he had swallowed and smuggled pellets of narcotics into the United States. According to the CI, his communications with the boss of the organization were conducted exclusively by way of the boss's Blackberry Messenger (BBM) account, the pin number of which the CI provided to Lavoie and LeVangie. The CI explained that each Monday since he had arrived in Boston, he would receive a “burner” phone or BBM text message directing him to proceed to a hotel in the Boston area and take possession of a suitcase or duffel bag typically containing 10 to 20 kilograms of cocaine. The suitcase would be delivered to the hotel by a courier who would travel to Logan Airport on a Monday flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico, usually arriving between noon and 2:00 p.m. The CI stated that he had picked up a total of 90 kilograms of cocaine from different couriers following this modus operandi since the time he arrived in Boston six weeks earlier.

         On or about Monday August 1, 2016, the CI showed officers a text message he had just received on his personal cell phone. It read: “The inn at cristal [sic] cove on boston harbor 600 shirley st winthrop ma.” Dkt #70-1 at 9. Officers immediately began surveillance of the Inn at Crystal Cove (Inn). The officers learned from the staff at the Inn that Estela-Vazquez and a third defendant, Carlos Torres (who is not party to the instant motion), had checked in to room 218 for a two-day stay. Estela-Vazquez had registered at the Inn giving a home address in Puerto Rico. He also sold the Inn staff that he was expecting a friend later that day who was coming to retrieve a package.

         At 6:04 p.m., Estela-Vazquez and Torres were observed leaving the Inn and strolling up Shirley Street appearing to watch the oncoming traffic. At 6:12 p.m., a 2004 Honda Pilot driven by Alicea pulled into the Inn's parking lot. Estela-Vazquez walked briskly back to the parking lot and nodded to Alicea who was sitting in the open hatchback area of the Honda Pilot. While Torres kept an eye on street traffic, Estela-Vazquez entered the Inn and returned wheeling a large roller suitcase, which he and Alicea loaded into the rear of the Honda Pilot. As Alicea drove away from the Inn, surveillance officers followed him through East Boston onto Route 145. At the direction of Sgt. Marron, a uniformed State P0lice officer, Trooper James Farrell, ordered Alicea to pull over. The roller suitcase was eventually removed from the Honda Pilot and found to contain 20 white bricks (later determined to weigh 21.55 kilograms) of a substance that field tested positive for cocaine. Alicea was then placed under arrest.[2]


         Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 158-159 (1925), carved an “automobile exception” out of the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. Carroll recognized the exigency inherent in vehicular mobility as well as the impracticalities involved in obtaining a warrant after a vehicle is stopped.[3]

[T]he guaranty of freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures by the Fourth Amendment has been construed, practically since the beginning of the government, as recognizing a necessary difference between a search of a store, dwelling house, or other structure in respect of which a proper official warrant readily may be obtained and a search of a ship, motor boat, wagon, or automobile for contraband goods, where it is not practicable to secure a warrant, because the vehicle can be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the warrant must be sought.

Id. at 153.

         An important extension of the automobile exception occurred in Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42 (1970), which held that the existence of exigent circumstances is to be determined at the time the vehicle is seized rather than at the time it is searched. So understood, the Court found “no difference between on the one hand seizing and holding a car before presenting the probable cause issue to a magistrate and on the other hand carrying out an immediate search without a warrant. Given probable cause to search, either course is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” Id. at 52.[4]

         The necessary predicate to a lawful warrantless search of a vehicle is, of course, probable cause. This is not an overly rigid or overly strict requirement. Probable cause means “reasonable cause, ” something significantly less exacting than “more likely than not” or “by a preponderance of the evidence.” United States v. Melvin, 596 F.2d 492, 495 (1st Cir. 1979). Probable cause “merely requires that the facts available to the officer would ‘warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief' that certain items may be contraband or stolen property or useful as evidence of a crime; it does not demand any showing that such a belief be correct or more likely true than false.” Texas v. Brown, 460 U.S. 730, 742 (1983) (plurality opinion) (internal citation omitted). See Safford Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364, 371 (2009) (probable cause is a fluid concept taking its substantive content from the particular circumstances - ...

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