Judge: Police Lacked Probable Cause in Immigrant Smuggling Case

LAREDO, Texas (CN) – A 911 call reporting four men in a car near the U.S.-Mexico border had littered did not give police grounds to arrest the driver on suspicion of smuggling undocumented immigrants, a federal judge ruled, granting the driver’s motion to suppress.

The Zapata County Sheriff’s Office received an anonymous 911 call on Aug. 2 in which the caller said he saw a white Lincoln parked on the side of U.S. Highway 83 and a pile of trash outside the car, according to the case record recounted by U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo in a Dec. 24 ruling.

Garcia granted Edward Lee Puga’s motion to suppress evidence that a grand jury used to indict him on Aug. 27 for conspiracy to transport undocumented aliens and two counts of transporting undocumented aliens, charges that carry a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.

Highway 83 runs parallel to and just north of the Rio Grande, which in Texas marks the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

The caller said there were four “very suspicious guys” in the car, Garcia wrote, citing a transcript of the call which prosecutors played in court.

“I pulled up and asked them about the trash that they threw out of their car, and one of them had a knife on him and he starts getting out and he starts picking up the trash and starts saying, ‘I’m sorry I’m sorry I didn’t mean it I didn’t mean it’ and just acting very suspicious, but they drove off,” the caller said.

Within minutes of the call, Zapata County Sheriff’s Lt. Fernando Hernandez found the Lincoln parked at a Dollar General store on Highway 83.

Hernandez testified that he saw “nothing unusual” about the car as he approached and saw three men sitting in the backseat and the front seats empty.

The officer said he knocked on the car’s rear driver-side window, but the men ignored him and kept ignoring him as he knocked louder, until he loudly told them to open the door.

“On direct examination, Hernandez 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, Hernandez concluded that the passengers were undocumented aliens,” Judge Garcia wrote in a 14-page order.

But Garcia said footage from another officer’s body camera, introduced by Puga’s defense, showed the backseat driver-side passenger dressed neatly in jeans, a T-shirt, a baseball cap and clean white sneakers.

Though Hernandez testified that the middle passenger was “pretty unsanitary I think,” Garcia states in her ruling that the footage did not clearly show the middle passenger or the other one on the far side of the car.

The men told Hernandez the driver and front-seat passenger were in the store. Two other sheriff’s officers pulled up and parked their squad cars behind the Lincoln, blocking it in.

The officers entered the store and saw Puga and Juan Manuel Martinez standing in line at the cash register. One officer stood at the door to prevent anyone from leaving, while the others escorted Puga and Martinez outside.

“As the suspects were being removed from the store, the officers asked which of them the driver of the Lincoln was. Defendant and Martinez began to accuse each other of being the driver,” the ruling states.

Police learned that Puga was driving the car and it was registered to his relative.

They found a homemade crack pipe on Martinez, but they didn’t find any contraband on Puga.

Martinez and Puga were arrested and indicted. Martinez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to transport undocumented aliens on November 4. His sentencing is set for March 23, 2020.

But in granting Puga’s motion to suppress, Garcia found the officers had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by detaining him without specific and reasonable suspicion.

Garcia, a Barack Obama appointee, found the police detained Puga based on an “unreliable” 911 call. And assuming the passengers in Puga’s car were undocumented, they led Puga out of the store rather than asking him if he was willing to answer some questions and telling him he had a right not to cooperate.

Federal prosecutors argued the officers had not seized Puga’s car when they questioned the backseat passengers, nor Puga, when they entered the store, but their interactions were merely “consensual encounters,” in which people voluntarily talk to police.

“Whether an interaction is a seizure or a consensual encounter depends on whether, ‘in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave,’” Garcia wrote, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling in Brendlin v. California.

Garcia wrote that when Hernandez ordered the passengers to open the car door, he made it clear they were expected to obey. And when they opened the door, the police had seized the car.

She also rejected prosecutors’ claims that the sheriff’s officers had not seized Puga when they entered the store.

“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,” Garcia concluded.

A Department of Justice spokeswoman declined to comment on the order.

Garcia gave the government a Dec. 30 deadline to decide whether to appeal, as two of the men who were in Puga’s car are being detained as witnesses.

Puga’s attorney Juan Flores of Laredo said he hopes South Texas law enforcement will take the order as instructive of their constitutional limitations.

“The court’s decision was a through and well-reasoned memorandum. Unfortunately, the type of police conduct that the judge found to be unconstitutional is not uncommon here, along the border,” Flores said in an email. “I don’t know that any law enforcement agency, federal or local, is keeping statistics on the number and type of stops and detentions made by Border Patrol and other local and state law enforcement agencies that do not result in arrests. Sadly, I suspect that the numbers are high.”

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