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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Cocaine Suppressed for Language Glitch

CORPUS CHRISTI (CN) - Eight kilos of cocaine the Border Patrol found in a car can't be used as evidence because the driver didn't know he could object to the search, a federal judge ruled.

The Border Patrol suspected the driver was smuggling human organs, according to the arrest report . Key to the judge's granting suppression of evidence was the use of a Spanish phrase by a Border Patrol agent who is not fluent in the language.

Joaquin Vasquez-Gutierrez, of Mexico, pulled his 2014 Nissan Sentra into a Border Patrol checkpoint in Sarita, Texas on Oct. 12, 2014, and agent Lisa Taranto ran the car's license plate, court records show.

Sarita, pop. 238, the seat of Kenedy County, is about 90 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

"Taranto observed on her computer screen that the vehicle's license plate had been flagged and was alerting her of possible human organ smuggling in an aftermarket compartment in the vehicle's driver's floor boards," according to the arrest report filed by Homeland Security investigator Roberto Hein.

Hein wrote in the report that he learned from Customs and Border Protection agent Luis Cantu that Cantu had flagged the vehicle after a "Source of Information" told him that "Vasquez-Gutierrez was in the business of smuggling human organs from Mexico to Houston, Texas and was possibly obtaining the human organs from Gulf Cartel elements operating in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico."

The case history is recounted in the arrest report and a 12-page order from U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos.

Taranto notified her fellow agent Arturo Valdez about the alert and Valdez let his dog, Tino, sniff around the back of the car as Taranto questioned Vasquez-Gutierrez about his legal status.

Tino did not find anything, so Valdez asked Vasquez-Gutierrez in Spanish if he could search the trunk and the driver popped the latch.

Tino sniffed the trunk and detected nothing.

What happened next is what Vasquez-Gutierrez seized on in his motion to suppress.

Taranto, who is not fluent in Spanish, called up a phrase she learned in her Border Patrol training and told Vasquez-Gutierrez: "Permítame revisar su carro en secondario."

Taranto testified that she understood the phrase to mean, "Please allow me to search your vehicle in secondary."

Thinking he had to consent, Vasquez-Gutierrez pulled his Nissan into the secondary inspection area and this time Tino "alerted to the trunk of the vehicle," the arrest report states.

Valdez pulled up the car's floorboard and found two metal, lead-lined compartments stuffed with baggies of cocaine.

Vasquez-Gutierrez argued in his motion that the search was illegal because he did not voluntarily consent to it.

In her Feb. 2 ruling, Judge Gonzales cited an interpreter who testified that "the Spanish phrase 'permítame revisar' does not include the English equivalent of 'please.'"

The judge settled on this translation of Taranto's phrase for the court record: "Allow me to search your car in secondary."

For Gonzales, the case turned on that phrase.

"The question, then, is whether 'allow me' is equivalent to such language as 'may I,' 'can I,' 'would you permit me,' or 'do you mind if I,' which are all parts of expressions that have been approved as appropriate questions from law enforcement that support a finding of voluntary consent, even without the word, 'please,'" Gonzales wrote in her order granting suppression of evidence.

She concluded: "The Court finds that the 'permit me' language used by Agent Taranto was not a request for permission."

Vasquez-Gutierrez is in custody after his request for bail was denied. His jury trial is set for Feb. 9.

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