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United States v. Aguilera

United States District Court, S.D. California

September 7, 2017



          HON. Janis L. Sammartino United States District Judge

         Currently pending before the Court are Defendants' motions to suppress evidence challenging the stop and search of the vehicle they were occupying at the time of their arrest (ECF Nos. 43 and 44). The Government filed a response in opposition to Defendants' motions and an evidentiary hearing was held on July 12, 2017. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Court requested additional briefing. Defendants each filed a supplemental motion, the Government filed a response in opposition, and Defendants each filed replies. Having now fully considered the submissions of the parties as well as the evidence and testimony presented at the hearing, the Court will grant Defendants' motions.


         On January 19, 2017, Border Patrol Intelligence Agents were conducting undercover surveillance on a suspected stash house for undocumented aliens on G Street in Brawley, California. Brawley is located north of El Centro, California, approximately 30 miles from the U.S./Mexico border. According to the testimony of Border Intelligence Agent Rachel McCaslin, two highways in the Brawley area are commonly used to smuggle aliens towards Los Angeles: Interstate 8 and the S-2. ECF No. 60 at 14.

         Agents first began surveilling the G Street residence on January 4, 2017, after they followed the caretaker of a different suspected stash house removing mattresses from that house and delivering them to the G street house. On that day, 15 days prior to the vehicle stop at issue in this case, agents stopped Defendant Savellano with an undocumented alien. Defendant Savellano was released, but told agents that the S-2 highway was being used frequently to bring undocumented aliens north to Los Angeles. Id. at 19. Defendant Savellano told agents that the S-2 route had been used the previous week, using a grey vehicle agents previously observed during the investigation, to bring illegal aliens north to Los Angeles and $20, 000 cash south. Id.

         On the evening of January 19, 2017, agents observed a burgundy Ford F-150 pickup truck arrive at the G Street house. Id. at 42. By this time, agents had been conducting daily surveillance of the residence for a two-and-a-half-week period and had observed suspected undocumented aliens enter the house, but never saw them exit. Id. at 24.

         Border Intelligence Agent Widhalm was in an unmarked vehicle nearby and began following the F-150 after it left the residence. Id. at 44. Agent Widhalm followed the vehicle, at varying distances, for close to an hour, for approximately 50 miles. Id. at 45. At one point, as Agent Widhalm got close to the vehicle to look at the license plate, it appeared to him that “there may have been the silhouette of people sitting in the back seat.”[1] Id. at 45-46. This was significant to Agent Widhalm because he thought he'd overheard that only two people had showed up at the G Street house in the vehicle, so any additional passengers in the truck would have suggested that they picked somebody up there. Id. at 46.

         Agent Widhalm did not recall if he conveyed the information about the silhouettes in the back seat to anyone else. Id. at 47. Agent Widhalm did not stop the vehicle, or ask for it to be stopped, that decision was made Widhalm's supervisor, Agent Alexander. Id. There was no radio chatter from the agents following the truck indicating that rear seat passengers were seen inside the truck. Id. at 36. To the contrary, transcripts of the radio transmissions during the surveillance reflect an observation that only the driver and passenger were visible inside the vehicle. ECF No. 69 at 26.

         Border Patrol Agent Harwin was on duty in a marked vehicle on the evening of January 19, 2017 when he received a call to initiate a stop of the F-150. ECF No. 60 at 57-58. Transcripts of the radio transmissions preceding the stop indicate that agents were concerned that the F-150 might be headed to Campo. ECF No. 69 at 33 (“I don't want to follow this thing all the way to Campo like last time.”)

         When Agent Harwin initially received the call to stop the vehicle, he was told the truck was travelling westbound on I-8. ECF No. 60 at 59. However, when Agent Harwin caught up to it, the truck had turned westbound onto the S-2. Id. at 59-60. During the time he followed the vehicle, Agent Harwin observed only the silhouettes of two heads, the driver and passenger. Id. at 61.

         Border Patrol Agent Barrientos was also in the area in his marked vehicle when he heard a request over the radio to stop a vehicle “possibly loaded with illegal aliens that loaded at the stash house.” Id. at 63. Agent Barrientos encountered the F-150 approximately ten to fifteen seconds after Agent Harwin pulled it over. Id. at 64. Agent Barrientos approached the driver's side of the F-150 and asked the driver, Defendant Aguilera, for his proof of citizenship. Id. Agent Barrientos asked Defendant Aguilera to lower the back windows, because they were dark-tinted. Id. Agent Barrientos then observed four individuals seated in the back seat of the truck. Id. Agent Barrientos was not able to see any of the rear passengers before Defendant Aguilera rolled the rear window down. Id. at 67.

         The four rear passengers were subsequently determined to lack authorization to be in the United States. During depositions following their arrest, the material witnesses testified that, prior to being pulled over, they were laying down in the rear seat area of the truck, two on the floor, and two on the seat. ECF No. 43, Exs. B-D. Defendant Aguilera and Defendant Savellano, the passenger, were arrested and charged with four counts of illegal transportation of aliens in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(ii), (v)(II), and (a)(1)(B)(i).


         The Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures extends to the investigatory stop of a vehicle. United States v. Sigmond-Ballesteros, 285 F.3d 1117, 1121 (9th Cir. 2002), citing United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, 878 (1975). In making a determination of reasonable suspicion, the court must look to the totality of the circumstances of each case to see whether the detaining officer has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting legal wrongdoing. United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273 (2002). Although an officer's reliance on a mere “hunch” is insufficient to justify a stop, the ...

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