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United States v. Perales

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

March 30, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee
JUAN PERALES, Defendant-Appellant

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before STEWART, Chief Judge, and CLEMENT and SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judges.


         Defendant-Appellant Juan Perales appeals the district court's denial of his motion to suppress several bundles of cocaine discovered and seized after he consented to the search of his vehicle. Because we conclude the district court did not clearly err in finding that Perales's consent to the search was voluntary, we AFFIRM.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 13, 2016, Agent Michael Tamez ("Agent Tamez") of the Kingsville Specialized Crimes and Narcotics Task Force observed a Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck with a non-functioning brake light; a computer check of the vehicle's license plate indicated that the truck might not be insured. Because both the faulty brake light and driving without valid liability insurance are violations of the Texas Transportation Code, Agent Tamez initiated a traffic stop.[1] Agent Tamez asked Perales, who was the sole occupant of the truck, for his identification and proof of liability insurance. Perales provided his identification, but could not readily locate his insurance documentation. According to Agent Tamez, "[Perales] looked underneath the seat. He looked near the left door panel . . . and eventually he went to the glove compartment. And the documentation was inside the glove compartment, " which was completely empty except for the insurance documents. Agent Tamez observed that the insurance policy had been purchased the day before the traffic stop and was only good for thirty days. At the suppression hearing, Agent Tamez testified that, in his experience as a drug interdiction officer, it was common in instances of drug trafficking for the driver of the vehicle to be unfamiliar with the location of insurance documents and for the interior of the vehicle to lack signs of personalization. It was also common for smugglers to get a 30-day liability insurance policy so that if the vehicle is seized carrying contraband, "the [smuggling] organization itself does not lose out on money by buying a six month or year long (sic) insurance policy."

         After receiving Perales's identification and insurance paperwork, Agent Tamez asked Perales "how he was doing, " and asked him to "exit the vehicle and step to the rear." Perales complied, and Agent Tamez "asked him to sit inside the front seat of [the] patrol unit." Perales again complied. Agent Tamez climbed into the driver's seat of the patrol unit, explained the traffic violation to Perales, and told Perales that he was going to issue him a warning. Agent Tamez began preparing the warning, which he testified required that he both verify and input information into three different computer systems using three different screens. While preparing the warning, Agent Tamez noticed that the name and address listed on the vehicle registration differed from that included on Perales's driver's license. Agent Tamez then asked Perales a series of questions about several subjects, including how long Perales had owned the truck, where he was traveling to and from, and the purpose for his trip. Perales responded that he owned the truck and had purchased it three months prior, and that he was traveling to Houston from Brownsville to find a job. Although Agent Tamez observed that Perales was not nervous when answering his questions, Agent Tamez testified that Perales gave inconsistent or deceptive answers to his questions. Agent Tamez also drew suspicion from the make and model of Perales's vehicle, which, in his experience and training, was commonly used by drug smugglers to hide drugs. Agent Tamez asked Perales whether the truck contained any drugs or weapons, and Perales responded it did not.

         Based on his interaction with Perales, Agent Tamez asked for consent to search the vehicle. Perales offered consent, and Agent Tamez began searching the vehicle. At the time of the request, Agent Tamez had yet to return Perales's driver's license or issue him the warning citation. Perales remained seated in the front seat of Agent Tamez's patrol unit unrestrained.[2]

         Agent Tamez and Agent Moya searched Perales's vehicle and ultimately found 2.99 kilograms of cocaine concealed in the engine compartment of the truck.[3] Agent Tamez also found a notebook piece of paper with directions to Charleston, South Carolina, in Perales's back pocket. Perales was subsequently charged by criminal complaint with conspiring to possess with intent to distribute, and possessing with intent to distribute, more than 500 grams of cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 846 and 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(B).

         Before trial, Perales sought to suppress the bundles of cocaine discovered during the search of the truck, arguing, inter alia, that he did not voluntarily consent to the search of his vehicle.[4] The district court held an evidentiary hearing on Perales's motion to suppress, during which it heard testimony from Agent Tamez and watched a video recording of the traffic stop that was captured on Agent Tamez's body camera. At the close of testimony and after hearing additional argument from both sides, the district court concluded that Agent Tamez conducted a "pretty routine traffic stop, " and that "[Perales] clearly gave consent." As is relevant to the instant appeal, the district court found that Agent Tamez did not use coercive police procedures, although it ambivalently opined that placing Perales in the patrol unit might have been coercive.[5] Concerning the voluntariness of Perales's consent, the district court concluded that "there are factors going both ways" with "more factors . . . in favor of finding the consent to be voluntary, " and that, given the totality of the circumstances, "the consent was voluntary under the law." The district court orally denied Perales's motion to suppress, and, after a two-day jury trial, Perales was convicted of the substantive drug count. At sentencing, the district court imposed the statutory mandatory minimum sentence of 60 months' imprisonment and four years of supervised release.


         A. Standard of Review

         In reviewing a district court's grant of a motion to suppress evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment, this court reviews the district court's factual findings for clear error and its legal conclusions de novo. United States v. Gonzalez, 328 F.3d 755, 758 (5th Cir. 2003). Voluntariness of consent is a factual inquiry that is reviewed for clear error. United States v. Rounds, 749 F.3d 326, 338 (5th Cir. 2014). A factual finding is not clearly erroneous if it is plausible when reviewed in the light of the entire record. United States v. Jacquinot, 258 F.3d 423, 427 (5th Cir. 2001). "Where a court has based its denial on live testimony, 'the clearly erroneous standard is particularly strong because the judge had the opportunity to observe the demeanor of the witnesses.'" Rounds, 794 F.3d at 338 (quoting United States v. Santiago, 410 F.3d 193, 197 (5th Cir. 2005)). We view the evidence introduced at a suppression hearing in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, here, the Government. United States v. Orozco, 191 F.3d 578, 581 (5th Cir. 1999).

         B. ...

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