Thursday, June 2, 2011

Fifth Circuit Admits Statement Subsequent to Unlawful Search

The Fifth Circuit holds that when a law enforcement officer conducts an unlawful search and discovers narcotics, subsequent statements regarding other narcotics may still be admissible.
Maria Cantu was a passenger in Jose Aguilar's car. While driving through La Pryor, Texas, Aguilar was pulled over by Deputy Sherriff Ricardo Rios for failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, because the front and rear license plates were mismatched, and the vehicle was missing a registration sticker.

Finding the vehicle highly suspicious, Rios asked Aguilar to produce his license and registration, but the names did not match and Aguilar could not provide the vehicle owner's name. Aguilar claimed he was driving to San Antonio to purchase clothes for his son, but when pressed for details, Aguilar could not remember the boy's name.

Deputy Lopez arrived to assist Deputy Rios in investigating further. Rios then separately quizzed Aguilar and Cantu on their relationship. Aguilar claimed that Cantu was his wife, while Cantu answered that Aguilar was a friend and the owner of the vehicle.

The deputies then sought permission to search the car, which Aguilar granted. Deputy Rios saw two bags in the front passenger's seat. Both bags were zippered shut. Rios asked Cantu if the bags were hers and Cantu confirmed they were. Rios proceeded to unzip and search both bags without requesting or receiving consent. A small amount of marijuana was discovered. Rios asked Cantu if the marijuana was hers, and Cantu confirmed that it was.
Cantu was placed under arrest and a K9 unit was dispatched to the scene. Without Mirandizing, Rios interrogated Cantu, and Cantu stated that she believed Aguilar probably had drugs in the vehicle. When the K9 unit arrived, a hidden compartment containing cocaine was discovered. The case was referred to Officer Fuentes, a local police officer deputized as part of a Drug Enforcement Agency taskforce.

Cantu was interviewed by Fuentes and other DEA agents at a different location 4.5 hours after Rios' interrogation. Nobody from the sheriff's office was present in the DEA interview. The DEA agents wore plain clothes (distinguishing them from the uniformed deputies), did not refer to Cantu's statements to Rios, and properly Mirandized Cantu before beginning her interrogation.

In the DEA interview, Cantu told agents that she and Aguilar had a romantic relationship, that she knew there were narcotics in the vehicle, and that she suspected Aguilar was involved in drug trafficking. She did not, however, know the type or quantity of drugs Aguilar had in the car or what he planned to do with the drugs. Agents asked Cantu if she would provide a written statement. She agreed to do so and was left alone in a room for 1.5 hours to prepare her written statement.

With her case before the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, Cantu moved to suppress the admission of the marijuana discovered, her statements to Rios, the discovery of cocaine, and her written statement to the DEA agents. The District Court suppressed the admissibility of the marijuana as a clear Fourth Amendment violation. Cantu's statements to Rios were also suppressed because of the Deputy's failure to provide a Miranda warning prior to interrogation. However, the district court ruled that as a passenger, Cantu could not challenge the discovery of cocaine in the vehicle, and her written statement to DEA agents was isolated from Rios' unconstitutional actions and thus admissible. Cantu was tried and convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.

Cantu appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, arguing that her written confession should not have been admitted. Cantu explained that if it were not for the facts uncovered by Deputy Rios' unconstitutional actions, she would not have provided any written confession.

The court of appeals affirmed the ruling of the district court. They agreed that Deputy Rios did not have authority to search bags he knew belonged to Cantu simply because Aguilar consented to the search of his car. That Cantu did not state her objection to the search while it was being conducted did not validate the search. Rios violated the Fourth Amendment. Similarly, Rios' failure to provide a Miranda warning before was proper grounds for suppression of statements Cantu made to Rios.

However, noting that in Oregon v. Elstad, the Supreme Court held that "[a] subsequent administration of Miranda warnings to a suspect who has given a voluntary but unwarned statement ordinarily should suffice to remove the conditions that precluded admission of the earlier statement," the court of appeals held that the statements made to DEA officers were sufficiently removed from the taint of Rios' actions so that they did not need to be suppressed. Cantu had a period of several hours without being interrogated. She was interrogated in a different location by different officers who were out of uniform. A proper Miranda warning was given before the DEA interrogation, and the DEA agents conducted their interview outside the presence of any deputies and without referencing Cantu's earlier statements.
Since Cantu was made aware of her right not to make any statement, had time to collect her thoughts before making a statement, and was in a completely different environment with different people, Cantu was able to make a voluntary statement free of the taint of Rios' actions. The prior unconstitutional "discovery that [Cantu] had possession of a small quantity of marijuana [did not] compel her to confess to possession of a large quantity of cocaine when it was later found," so her written statement to DEA agents was admissible. Cantu's conviction was affirmed.

Click here to read the case.

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