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United States v. Prix

decided: February 22, 1982.


Defendants were convicted of importing and conspiring to import narcotics after a six-week jury trial before Bramwell, J., E.D.N.Y. They appeal, alleging error in the admission of evidence seized in a warrantless search, and challenging various trial rulings. Affirmed.

Before Feinberg, Chief Judge, Lumbard, Circuit Judge, and Bartels, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Lumbard

On the night of November 11-12, 1978, the United States Coast Guard and other law enforcement agencies seized 23.4 tons of marijuana and 499,000 pills of methaqualone found in vehicles and aboard a fishing boat at the Yancarib Marina on Jamaica Bay, Queens, New York. Subsequent investigation discovered that the seizure had terminated a massive conspiracy to import drugs, beginning with the purchase of the shrimp boat TERRY'S DREAM in November 1977 and continuing through three trips between Colombia and New York. Fifteen people were indicted in the Eastern District of New York on various counts of possession and conspiracy; ten were tried*fn1 and five were found guilty after a six-week jury trial before Judge Bramwell (E.D.N.Y.). They appeal. Jules Saint Prix, lessee and operator of the Yancarib Marina, argues that seizure of the drugs violated his fourth amendment rights. James R. Blakley, his son James T. Blakley, John Bennett and Glenn H. Hutchison challenge various trial rulings.*fn2 We affirm.

A caller identifying himself only as "George" phoned the Coast Guard station at Governors Island from a New York City tavern at 9:50 p. m. on November 11, 1978.*fn3 He said a tug and a shrimp boat were expected at the Yancarib Marina in Queens, and that men with vans and trucks were waiting to unload the boats. He said none of the vans and trucks had any ice-indicating that they were expecting to unload not fish, which must be refrigerated, but a somewhat hotter cargo of narcotics. It took an hour and a half for this information to reach Lieutenant David Van Patten, acting group operations officer at the Coast Guard station at Rockaway, who had jurisdiction over Queens. Called at home at 11:20 p.m., Van Patten reached the Rockaway station by 11:35. "George" was at the station; he told Van Patten that about 25 men were unloading bales of marijuana at the marina. Van Patten told the duty officer to order land based police to the marina, and left for the marina aboard an unlit 41-foot utility boat.

The Yancarib Marina comprises about two acres of woods and marsh, a clearing which contains a few buildings, and piers extending into the Somerville Basin of Jamaica Bay. The marina fronts on two city streets with row houses across one street and a vacant lot across the other; on the third side is a junk yard and on the fourth side is Somerville Basin. A cyclone fence demarcates the land borders of the marina. Detective Miller Edwards and his partner from the United States Park Police arrived at the marina first. They climbed over the fence, and with guns drawn felt their way along the bulkhead at the marina's shoreline. They found nobody. They watched the Coast Guard cutter swing alongside a 50-foot tugboat which was lashed to a 75-foot shrimp boat.

Lieutenant Van Patten found the tugboat and the shrimper as described by the informer. He and his crew boarded the tugboat, which was called the BILL MATHER. They then climbed onto the shrimper TERRY'S DREAM. Van Patten smelled marijuana in the afterhold-a cargo compartment in the back of the boat-but the hold was empty. He entered the pilot house, saw sophisticated navigational equipment not usually found on such fishing boats, and touched a cup of coffee which was still hot. The forward hold underneath the pilot house was nearly filled with 152 60-pound burlap-wrapped bales of marijuana, each measuring approximately 3 by 2 by 2 feet. Some of the bales were labeled "Product of Colombia." The hold also contained cartons of methaqualone pills worth about $1.5 million wholesale.

At some point after the Coast Guard boarded the shrimp boat, Detective Edwards and his partner identified themselves and joined Van Patten aboard the TERRY'S DREAM. Van Patten radioed ground units to move into the marina and he disembarked to begin a search. The Park Police, New York City police, customs officials and agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration participated in the search. No people were found, but the searchers discovered three vans and four 18-20 foot trucks. Two vans were filled with bales of marijuana; one was littered with marijuana scraps. Two trucks were filled with bales; one was partially full. In all, 291 bales were seized from boat and vehicles worth about $15 million wholesale. The police searched the marina office and found mayonnaise, cold cuts, partly made sandwiches, beer and warm coffee-evidence of a recently interrupted meal.

The marina was leased and operated by defendant Jules Saint Prix. The day of the seizure Saint Prix had ordered his employees to build a plywood wall in one of the vans in which marijuana was found to separate the drivers of those vans from loose cargo carried back. Also on the day of the seizure, Saint Prix told his employees to adjust small docks attached to marina piers in order to accommodate the BILL MATHER and TERRY'S DREAM. Both boats had previously docked at the Yancarib Marina. Prior to 1978, Saint Prix was thousands of dollars in arrears on the marina lease, but in 1978, the period of the alleged conspiracy, he paid his $16,600 rent and at least $6,000 more.*fn4

The history of the TERRY'S DREAM and the BILL MATHER linked the Blakleys to the conspiracy. Records kept by New York City Transit Authority employees at a toll bridge linking Queens with the end of the Rockaway Peninsula show that BILL MATHER and the TERRY'S DREAM left the Rockaways for the Atlantic Ocean in February, August and October of 1978. The February trip was interrupted by the Coast Guard. Petty Officer Jesus Vega boarded the shrimper and smelled marijuana. The commanding officer of Vega's ship, however, decided against searching the boat.*fn5

Before the August trip, the conspirators repaired the TERRY'S DREAM at the Lantana boatyard, Lantana, Florida, and worked on the BILL MATHER at the Muller boatyard in Brooklyn. James R. Blakley signed work forms at Lantana. Robert DeGrande, the government's prime witness,*fn6 testified that he worked with the Blakleys on the TERRY'S DREAM at Lantana, and that he, the Blakleys and others took the TERRY'S DREAM to Colombia, picked up a load of marijuana and returned to New York.

The October trip was preceded by further repairs on the TERRY'S DREAM in September 1978 at the Rivara boatyard in Queens. Maureen Marshall, who worked behind Rivara's lunch counter, identified James R. Blakley. Frederick Ardolino, a tug boat inspector,*fn7 did not identify the Blakleys but did testify to a "feeling" that the people working on the TERRY'S DREAM were father and son. Records at the International Hotel, Kennedy Airport, for October 1978 bore the name "Blakley." The TERRY'S DREAM left Rivara's on October 6, and proceeded to Key West, Florida. James R. Blakley had a room at the Key West Holiday Inn from October 15 to 18; he and his son James T. Blakley signed room service bills at the Inn. The TERRY'S DREAM returned to New York on November 11 to be seized by the Coast Guard.

One of the cars parked at the marina on the night of the seizure was a 1974 Buick registered to the defendant John Bennett. The keys to Bennett's car were found on a desk in the marina office, amidst the abandoned sandwiches and drinks. Ardolino testified that Bennett purchased the BILL MATHER in January 1978 at the Loveland boatyard in Norfolk, Virginia for $59,000*fn8 cash on behalf of the "J&L Towing Co." of 302 London Road, Staten Island, New York. The company was fictitious but the address was real. It was a house owned by Bernard D'Aquila, who rented the house in 1977-78.*fn9 D'Aquila testified that a man identifying himself as "John Bennett" answered the phone at 302 London Road; the man said that he lived there from time to time. Someone using the name "Bennett" paid the Robin Ford dealership on Staten Island $8,000 cash towards the purchase of two of the vans in which marijuana was found. Bennett also purchased a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for $4,000 cash in 1978. Bennett filed no tax return for 1978; the source of cash that paid for the boat and motorcycle was unexplained.

In the glove compartment of Bennett's Buick was a temporary New York State insurance identification card for the defendant Glenn Hutchison. D'Aquila identified Glenn Hutchison as someone living at 302 London Road. Someone using the name Glenn Hutchison showed up at Robin Ford to purchase one of the marijuana vans. When the BILL MATHER was repaired at the Muller boatyard in April 1978, the repairs were paid for with money orders bought from Security Federal Savings & Loan, Staten Island. The hand printing on the money orders was identified as Glenn Hutchison's handwriting. Hutchison spent almost $22,000 on a BMW and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in 1978. He, too, failed to file a tax return, and the income supporting those purchases remained unexplained.

The legality of the search on November 11-12 is the central issue on appeal. Saint Prix argues that the evidence should have been suppressed because the search was made without a warrant in violation of his fourth amendment rights. At the pre-trial suppression hearing, Judge Bramwell ruled that the Coast Guard's warrantless search of the TERRY'S DREAM and the BILL MATHER was authorized by 14 U.S.C. § 89 (1976), and therefore not subject to the usual warrant requirements. Judge Bramwell found that the Coast Guard faced exigent circumstances as the search of the boat indicated that the crew had just left. This, coupled with the Coast Guard's authority to search for contraband under 19 U.S.C. § 482 ...

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