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United States v. Cortez; United States v. Reyes-Moreno

Nos. 19-2058 & 19-2059. D.N.M. Judge Tymkovich. Motion to Suppress—Search and Seizure—Reasonable Suspicion—Length of Traffic Stop—Fifth Amendment—Custodial Interrogation—Conspiracy to Transport Undocumented Persons.

July 13, 2020

Defendants Cortez and Reyes-Moreno were traveling in a pickup truck and were pulled over by Sergeant Alvarez for going 66 mph in a 55 mph zone. The traffic stop occurred 50 miles from the Mexico border on a road that does not have a border patrol checkpoint. Defendants were traveling north. During the stop, among other things, Sergeant Alvarez asked the driver (Cortez) who was traveling with her. Cortez replied that she was traveling with Reyes-Moreno and her niece and nephew. When talking with Reyes-Moreno, who was in the passenger seat, Sergeant Alvarez noticed two adult men in the back seat. He asked Reyes-Moreno about the men, and she said she did not know them—she and Cortez had picked them up at a gas station. Sergeant Alvarez asked the men for identification. Initially, neither responded, but then they simply replied “no.” At this point, approximately seven minutes into the stop, Sergeant Alvarez contacted Border Patrol. Sergeant Alvarez continued to question defendants for about another 13 minutes until Border Patrol arrived. Sergeant Alvarez concluded the traffic stop shortly thereafter.

In the Border Patrol’s subsequent immigration investigation, the two men admitted they were undocumented and present in the United States unlawfully. Defendants were charged with conspiring to transport undocumented persons. They jointly moved to suppress evidence and statements obtained from the traffic stop based on the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. The district court denied the motion. Defendants subsequently pleaded guilty, reserving the right to appeal the motion denial.

On appeal, defendants argued that Sergeant Alvarez unreasonably extended the scope of the stop by asking questions unrelated to the mission of writing a traffic citation and he did so without independent reasonable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. Defendants acknowledged that the initial traffic stop was justified, so the inquiry turned on whether the officers’ actions were reasonably related to the scope of the stop. Here, the geography of the stop, defendants’ evasiveness with respect to their traveling companions, and the men’s reactions gave rise to reasonable suspicion that the men could be undocumented aliens. This supported the suspicion that defendants were in the process of transporting them illegally and justified a further detention until Border Patrol arrived. Further, Sergeant Alvarez did not unreasonably prolong the stop through unrelated questioning before that point because the mission of the stop included addressing the traffic violation and attending to related safety concerns. Accordingly, no Fourth Amendment violation occurred.

Defendants also argued that the motion denial was improper because Sergeant Alvarez questioned them without providing Miranda warnings, in violation of the Fifth Amendment. However, investigatory detentions such as ordinary traffic stops generally fall short of this standard. Here, Sergeant Alvarez asked polite questions in the context of an ordinary traffic stop, and neither defendant faced custodial interrogation during the stop, rendering the absence of Miranda warnings harmless. Accordingly, no Fifth Amendment violation occurred.

The denial of the suppression motion was affirmed.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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