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United States v. Villafranco-Elizondo

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

July 27, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellant

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana

          Before HIGGINBOTHAM, SOUTHWICK, and COSTA, Circuit Judges.


         Jesus Villafranco-Elizondo was driving from Texas to Louisiana when a law enforcement officer pulled him over for a couple of minor traffic violations. The officer claims that during the traffic stop, he developed a reasonable suspicion that the trailer contained contraband. After questioning Villafranco-Elizondo for approximately eleven minutes, the officer ran a check on his driver's license. Before the check was complete, the officer approached Villafranco-Elizondo with additional questions. During this exchange, Villafranco-Elizondo gave the officer consent to search the trailer, and a subsequent search found a hidden compartment containing cocaine. Villafranco-Elizondo filed a motion to suppress, arguing that his consent to search was tainted because the traffic stop was both unjustified at its inception and unlawfully prolonged. The court granted the motion. We now reverse.


         Corporal James Woody of the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office ("WBRSO") received an alert to be on the lookout for a white Chevrolet pickup truck with a green utility trailer (the "BOLO Alert"). Woody testified that he saw the truck driving down the highway and followed until he saw it following another car too closely and hitting the white fog line. Woody activated his vehicle's lights and his dashboard camera began recording. The truck pulled over onto the shoulder. Woody's partner Lieutenant Chris Green soon arrived and adjusted the dashboard camera in Woody's vehicle to record the stop.

         Woody explained why he made the stop, and Villafranco-Elizondo responded that he suspected one of his tires had low pressure, indicating that might be why he struck the fog line. Woody asked about his itinerary and how long he had been driving. Villafranco-Elizondo responded that he had been driving for around two-and-a-half hours and that he was travelling from Houston, Texas, to Gonzales, Louisiana, to pick up a concrete crawler he had purchased online. During this conversation, Woody noticed a large suitcase in the backseat of the truck.

         At the suppression hearing, Woody testified that, on approaching, he noticed several odd features of the trailer including: (1) that the trailer's gate was modified such that it would not be flush with the trailer floor when lowered, rendering the trailer's ramp nonfunctional; (2) that the trailer had reflective tape on the inside gate, where it served no apparent purpose; and (3) that the trailer had a diamond plate metal floor rather than a more typical wooden floor, making the trailer heavier. Woody claimed the modifications were all suspicious because each one made the trailer less functional.

         About three minutes into the stop, Woody asked Villafranco-Elizondo to step out of the truck and walk to the back of the trailer. The dashboard camera recording shows Woody looked closely at the trailer before mentioning that the trailer floor looked "a little raised," and asking if it is "supposed to be like that." Woody also said the trailer looked like it had "weight on [it]."

         Woody then turned the conversation back to Villafranco-Elizondo's trip, asking how long he planned to stay in Gonzales. Villafranco-Elizondo said just long enough to pick up the concrete crawler. Woody asked about the large suitcase, and Villafranco-Elizondo implied he might need the suitcase because he did not know how long it would take to load the crawler onto the trailer. When Woody asked whether the "little trailer" would hold the concrete crawler, Villafranco-Elizondo responded that it was not that large. Villafranco-Elizondo then returned to the truck to retrieve paperwork from the sale.

         After briefly going through the paperwork, Woody asked Villafranco-Elizondo to walk back to the trailer. Now approximately seven minutes into the stop, Woody pointed out an unusual feature of the trailer, and Villafranco-Elizondo said that he purchased the trailer that way. Villafranco-Elizondo then showed Woody paperwork that said Villafranco-Elizondo purchased the concrete crawler for $1, 500. Woody asked whether this was a good price, and Villafranco-Elizondo responded that this type of equipment usually costs around $12, 000. Woody told Villafranco-Elizondo the deal sounded "too good to be true." After going through the paperwork, Villafranco-Elizondo acknowledged that he did not know the address where he would be picking up the crawler.

         Woody then asked why there were locks on the trailer, and Villafranco-Elizondo responded that they were to prevent anyone from stealing the trailer. When Woody asked whether he had any issues with theft, Villafranco-Elizondo said no. Woody again asked whether Villafranco-Elizondo "bought the trailer like this," and he said yes.

         Eleven minutes into the stop, Woody returned to his vehicle to run a check on Villafranco-Elizondo's license and registration. Woody turned off his microphone when he entered the vehicle. He then spoke with Green, who exited the police car and visually inspected the trailer. Green later testified that he noticed the same modifications to the trailer and believed, based on his training and experience, that the trailer was modified to conceal and transport contraband.

         Just under fourteen minutes into the stop, Woody exited his vehicle, restarted his microphone, and approached Villafranco-Elizondo. He told Villafranco-Elizondo that the license check was still running, and asked whether he had any criminal record. He then asked Villafranco-Elizondo if he was responsible for everything in the truck and trailer. Villafranco-Elizondo said yes. Woody said that the trailer looked suspicious and asked whether there was anything illegal in the truck or trailer. Villafranco-Elizondo said no. He then told Woody "you can check whatever you want, that's fine." Woody responded, "I can check, I can search it, you're fine with that? Both the trailer and the truck?" Villafranco-Elizondo said yes.[1] Woody asked Villafranco-Elizondo to wait a few steps away from the trailer. He then lowered the trailer's gate, called Villafranco-Elizondo back over, and pointed out the misaligned ramp.

         About sixteen minutes into the stop, Woody and Green placed Villafranco-Elizondo in handcuffs and read him his Miranda rights. Green informed Villafranco-Elizondo that there was "no doubt in [his] mind this trailer [was] loaded . . . with contraband," and he again asked Villafranco-Elizondo if there was anything illegal in the trailer. The officers then began to inspect the trailer. Green testified that he noticed fresh "bondo dust" and paint on the trailer, which indicated that the trailer had been modified. Woody testified that he also noticed "weak welds" on the tailgate, which again signaled that the trailer had been modified. Green testified that he brought out a density meter to measure the density of various parts of the trailer, and that the device gave inconsistent density readings, which he considered more evidence that the trailer contained a hidden compartment. The officers also looked underneath the trailer, where Green claims he noticed fresh mud smears that could have been intended to conceal modifications.

         Approximately thirty-nine minutes in, Woody directed his canine to perform a "free air sniff" of the trailer. The dog did not come to a final response. Woody testified that the dog's behavior indicated that he detected an overwhelming odor of narcotics that could not be pinpointed. After the canine search, Woody and Green decided to move the vehicle to the WBRSO workshop to continue the search. At the workshop, the officers drilled into the trailer and found cocaine on the drill bit. The officers eventually recovered thirty-one kilograms of cocaine from hidden compartments inside the trailer.

         On October 13, 2016, a grand jury returned a one-count indictment for possession with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine. On November 22, 2016, Villafranco-Elizondo filed a motion to suppress the evidence. After a hearing, the district court found that the traffic stop was valid at its inception, but that Woody lacked reasonable suspicion to extend the stop beyond the eleven-minute mark and that Villafranco-Elizondo's consent was invalid. The court also ruled that, even if there had been reasonable suspicion to prolong the stop, that suspicion dissipated when the canine failed to alert to narcotics. The court suppressed the evidence obtained from the search. The government appealed.


         On appeal from a motion to suppress, we "review the district court's factual findings for clear error and its legal conclusions de novo."[2] "A factual finding is not clearly erroneous if it is plausible in light of the record as a whole."[3] The evidence should be viewed "in the light most favorable to the prevailing party."[4] "[I]n carrying out this de novo review, we must give due weight to inferences drawn from [the] facts by resident judges and law enforcement officers."[5]


         We evaluate the legality of a traffic stop under the two-step framework of Terry v. Ohio, asking first whether "the officer's action was justified at its inception"-that is, whether the initial stop was valid-and then whether the officer's subsequent actions "were reasonably related to the circumstances that justified the stop, or to dispelling his reasonable suspicion developed during the stop."[6]


         A lawful traffic stop must be based on "an objectively reasonable suspicion that some sort of illegal activity, such as a traffic violation, occurred or is about to occur."[7] This is a fact-specific inquiry. "The correct analysis requires district courts to consider the facts and circumstances of each case, giving due regard to the experience and training of the law enforcement officers, to determine whether the actions taken ...

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