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United States v. Lara

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

July 10, 2015



JOHN W. deGRAVELLES, District Judge.

Before the Court is Juan Antonio Rodriguez Lara's ("Defendant") Motion to Suppress Evidence (Doc. 21), seeking to suppress "any and all evidence allegedly obtained from Defendant" during a traffic stop on Interstate 12 ("I-12") in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. ( Id. at p. 1). The United States of America ("Government") filed a memorandum in opposition. (Doc. 25). Defendant filed a reply to the Government's opposition. (Doc. 27). On April 6, 2015, the Court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion, and permitted the filing of post-hearing briefs. ( See Docs. 38, 39). For the reasons explained below, Defendant's Motion will be DENIED.


On October 16, 2014, El Expreso, a commercial transportation carrier was traveling eastbound on I-12 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The driver, Ivan Morales's (hereinafter "the driver") version of the events on the early morning in question differs from that of the officers. Accordingly, the Court will provide each in turn.

Around the vicinity of mile marker 1 or 2, at approximately 2:15 a.m., Corporal Luke Cowart ("Corporal Cowart") and Corporal Cody David ("Corporal David"), members of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force, allegedly observed the El Expreso passenger bus swerve and drift in and out of its lane of travel, in violation of state and city law.[1] Specifically, Corporal Cowart testified that he "observed the bus cross over the left then the right white-dashed line, basically swerving, drifting." (Tr. 10:8-9). Corporal David stated that the bus drove "basically, right on top of the line." (Tr. 78:1-3). He then clarified that the bus "crossed within a few inches." (Tr. 78:13-20).[2] Nevertheless, pursuant to the emergency lights and sirens, the bus pulled over to the shoulder of the interstate.

Corporal Cowart testified that he exited his unit and approached the front of the bus to speak with the driver. Upon making contact, he said, "Look, man, you were drifting out your lane. Everything okay tonight?" (Tr. 13:2-3). To which the driver responded, "yes, sir, " before confirming that he was not "too sleepy." (Tr. 13:4-6). Corporal Cowart then immediately told the driver "Look, man, I'm just going to give you a warning. I'm not writing you a ticket for that, " before inquiring about the driver's itinerary and the number of passengers on board. (Tr. 13:7-10). The driver then allegedly answered that he had come from Houston, Texas, and was traveling to Atlanta, Georgia. (Tr. 13:12-13). Corporal Cowart could not recall how many passengers the driver said were on the bus, but stated that asking that information is one of the routine questions he proposes in these types of encounters. (Tr. 13:15-21). Corporal Cowart then testified that "at that point, [he] asked [the driver] for consent to use [his] narcotics-detecting, K9 to search the bags underneath the bus - or sniff the bags underneath the bus." (Tr. 15:12-14). Rukus, Corporal Cowart's narcotics-detecting canine, was riding along with him and Corporal David on the night in question. Corporal Cowart states that the driver granted consent, stating, "Yes, sure. Go ahead."

In contrast, the driver maintains that he did not fail to maintain his lane of travel, and thus, did not commit a traffic violation. (Tr. 104:3-5; 105:1-2). He further states that the officers never informed him of an alleged traffic violation, and instead approached and immediately stated something to the effect of: "We stopped you to check the bus" or "We're going to check the bus." (Tr. 113:3-8; 118:3-6). He further testified that he knew to drive particularly carefully in the area in question because he was aware of the police presence, and their tendency to stop commercial buses. (Tr. 104:12-22). Indeed, the driver himself had just been stopped two days prior, while driving a commercial bus for El Expreso in the same area on I-12 in Baton Rouge. (Tr. 104:23-25; 123:2-12). That stop did not result in any arrests. Nevertheless, the driver cooperated with the police in effectuating the dog sniff search of the luggage compartment because he believed he could not refuse the police's request, and because he believed that the officers were just "doing their job." (Tr. 105:12-22; 117:17-21). He also conveyed his belief that any refusal of consent would be interpreted by the officers as he must be hiding something. (Tr. 117:22-24).

Corporal Cowart estimated that time elapsed between the initial stop until the driver's consent was approximately three to four minutes. (Tr. 16:18-25). At some point while Corporal Cowart was speaking with the driver, two additional officers, Brad Bickham and Rusky Jenkins, arrived on scene. (Tr. 17:12-15). They also approached the driver. Corporal Cowart stated that it was common practice to assist other officers in effectuating these types of stops for "officer safety, " given the large number of passengers on the bus. (Tr. 17:16-21).

The driver's version of the events and the officer's version of the events are for the most part consistent for the remainder of the stop. At some point after speaking with the driver, Corporal Cowart returned to his vehicle to retrieve Rukus. Officer Cowart then walked back to the bus and ordered Rukus to conduct a sniff search of the luggage compartment. (Tr. 18:5-8). Moments into the search, Rukus alerted on a cardboard box by scratching, which is indicative of her smelling something she was trained to detect. (Tr. 19:10-18). The officers removed the box and Rukus continued her sniff search. (Tr. 19:19-20:2). She then alerted to a second bag. (Tr. 21:4-21). Neither the box nor the bag had any information identifying the owner of the item on their exteriors.

The officers then boarded the bus with the driver to attempt to ascertain the owner. The driver translated the officer's questions, as he walked up and down the aisle to ensure that all occupants had an opportunity to view the box. Some passengers remained asleep during the announcement. When no one on the bus claimed the bags, the officers searched the cardboard box and the bag pursuant to the alert. The search revealed a photograph, which they matched to Defendant, as well as a large number of candles. Specifically, officers retrieved forty-eight candles encased in glass weighing approximately seventy-two pounds, and four larger candles weighing approximately forty-one pounds. A random sampling of the wax from the candles tested positive for the presence of methamphetamine. Defendant was escorted off of the bus, read his Miranda rights, and subsequently arrested.

The question raised by Defendant's motion is whether the traffic stop and subsequent warrantless canine sniff search of the luggage compartment and the officer search of Defendant's own luggage conducted on October 16, 2014, violated Defendant's Fourth Amendment rights.


The principle that "searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment - subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions" is among those most firmly ingrained in our constitutional criminal procedure jurisprudence. Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 338 (2009) (quoting Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967)). Generally, "[t]he proponent of a motion to suppress has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of evidence, that the evidence in question was obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights." United States v. Kelley, 981 F.2d 1464, 1467 (5th Cir. 1993) (quoting United States v. Smith, 978 F.2d 171, 176 (5th Cir. 1992)). However, in cases where a search is not conducted pursuant to a ...

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