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UNITED STATES v. PELAEZ

April 11, 1997

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
MARIA GLADYS BUITRAGO PELAEZ and MADELINE DURAN, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: RAKOFF

 JED S. RAKOFF, U.S.D.J.

 Defendants Buitrago and Duran -- indicted in connection with an alleged money laundering conspiracy -- have moved to suppress evidence seized during the October 2, 1995 warrantless search of Tropical Travel, Inc., a business in Queens, NY. After reviewing the motion papers and hearing oral argument on the law, the Court held a lengthy evidentiary hearing, occupying portions of four days over the span of two months, at which most of the persons present during the search testified. During the same period, the Court also received supplemental papers from the parties as well as a videotape of the search made by a surveillance camera maintained on the premises of Tropical Travel. At the conclusion of the suppression hearing on February 21, 1997, the parties requested the opportunity to submit further briefs. Although informed that the case was to be re-assigned on March 1, 1997 to the Honorable Barbara S. Jones, U.S.D.J., the parties further requested that this judge retain jurisdiction of the suppression motion beyond that date in order to give them ample time to submit further papers and to give the judge who had seen and heard the witnesses the opportunity to rule on the motion. Judge Jones also consented to this procedure, and all time between February 21, 1997 and the decision of this motion was excluded from Speedy Trial calculations, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. ยง 3161. See Transcript of Suppression Hearing ("Tr.") at 622.

 Having now received the final papers of the parties and the transcripts of the hearing, the Court, following a complete review of all evidence and argument, concludes that the suppression motion must be denied.

 The relevant facts, as the Court finds them, are as follows:

 On the morning of October 2, 1995, various agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency and of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Internal Revenue Service commenced surveillance of Tropical Travel as part of an ongoing investigation of alleged money laundering activities. The surveillance team consisted of DEA Agents Steven Monaco and Brian Connelly and IRS Special Agents Thomas Beers, Robert Miranda, Steven Ashcroft, and Phillip Kirschen. The surveillance was conducted from automobiles parked at various locations around Tropical Travel.

 At around 5:35 p.m. two Hispanic males delivered a large, brown plastic bag to the premises and exited shortly thereafter without the bag. Based on prior information given to the agents (described infra), the agents had a reasonable basis for suspecting that the bag contained cash that was to be "laundered" by Tropical Travel. Tr. at 236-37.

 Fearful that the surveillance operation had been compromised, Agent Connelly radioed the other surveilling agents and described the exchange that he had just had with Anthony Duran. The Government agents thereupon decided to enter Tropical Travel and conduct a search. Tr. at 238. Although the time was now 7:30 p.m. and a small sign at the front of Tropical Travel indicated that the store normally closed at 7:00 p.m., the lights were still on and people could be seen milling about inside. Finding the door unlocked, the agents entered the front or public-reception portion of the premises. Tr. at 516. Although Anthony Duran, who of the three persons already inside was closest to the glass door entrance, waved his arms in a manner that might have been interpreted to indicate that the business was closed, the agents continued inside and, after identifying themselves as federal agents, patted down Anthony Duran, removing a concealed .9 mm semi-automatic firearm. They then proceeded to a middle office area separated from the front area by a door and glass partition, where Madeline Duran and Elsie Chacon were located. Tr. at 240. After conducting a protective sweep of the middle area and of a small back office, adjacent to the middle area and separated from it by a door that was partly open, the agents began separately interrogating Chacon, defendant Duran, and Anthony Duran. Tr. at 240-41. The questioning revealed, inter alia, that the owner of Tropical Travel, defendant Buitrago, was away on vacation, but that both Chacon and Madeline Duran were employees of the business, while Anthony Duran was not.

 Following further questioning, Chacon, who was seated in the middle area, was asked to sign a Spanish-language form consenting to a general search of the premises. After carefully reviewing the form and discussing it with Anthony Duran, she did so. Tr. at 136-38. Various records and other items were subsequently seized pursuant to this consent.

 Meanwhile, however, agents questioning Madeline Duran in the back office had noticed a locked safe located in that room and had asked Ms. Duran to open it. Although defendant Duran exhibited some hesitancy and expressed difficulty in remembering the combination, she eventually opened the safe, which proved to contain more than $ 70,000 in cash (some in what appeared to be the same plastic bag delivered earlier that day by the two Hispanic males), plus various bank books and other records evidencing a likely money laundering operation. Tr. at 575-76.

 Against this factual background, defendants challenge whether the agents lawfully entered Tropical Travel, whether they lawfully obtained a valid consent from Ms. Chacon to search the premises, and whether they lawfully obtained a valid consent from Ms. Duran to search the safe. In its final submission to the Court, dated March 10, 1997, the Government for the first time questioned whether defendants Buitrago and Duran had standing to raise these claims. But even assuming the Government had not already waived the objection (compare United States v. Kinsey, 843 F.2d 383, 390 (9th Cir. 1988), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 836, 102 L. Ed. 2d 75, 109 S. Ct. 99 (1988) (no waiver), with United States v. Emery, 541 F.2d 887, 889 n.3 (1st Cir. 1976) (waiver)), the objection must be rejected. While the thrust of the Government's argument on standing is that the cash and other items seized did not belong to Duran or even "to Buitrago either personally or as proceeds of her business," see 3/10/97 Govt. Mem., the technicalities of property law are not the key to the determination of Fourth Amendment standing. See Mancusi v. DeForte, 392 U.S. 364, 368-69, 20 L. Ed. 2d 1154, 88 S. Ct. 2120 (1968). Instead, whether a person possesses standing to object to a search turns on whether that person has a "reasonable expectation of freedom from governmental intrusion" in the areas searched and the items seized. See Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 352, 19 L. Ed. 2d 576, 88 S. Ct. 507 (1967). Both Buitrago, as owner of the premises on which the safe was kept, and Duran, as the employee whom Buitrago entrusted with the combination to the safe, had a reasonable expectation of privacy as to the contents of a locked safe to which they controlled access. See Mancusi, 392 U.S. at 368-69 (union official had standing to object to search and seizure of union records from an office shared with other union officials, where the official had custody of the records at the time and reasonably expected that the records would not be touched except with permission of other union officials). Moreover, Buitrago as owner, and Duran as a supervisory employee, had a reasonable expectation of freedom from unwarranted government intrusion into the premises of Tropical Travel generally. Id.

 While defendants Buitrago and Duran thus have standing to object to the search of Tropical Travel and the safe, their objections prove, in the end, unavailing. With respect to the initial entry, there were sufficient objective indications that the publicly accessible portions of the premises were still open as to warrant entry by the agents. More importantly, exigent circumstances permitted the agents to lawfully enter Tropical Travel, regardless of whether the store was open or closed, because the agents, under the circumstances here presented, reasonably believed that their surveillance operation had been uncovered and that important evidence was in immediate jeopardy of being destroyed or removed. See United States v. Schaper, 903 F.2d 891, 894-95 (2d Cir. 1990). The surveillance was instituted after the agents had received reliable information, both from a confidential informant and from consensually monitored phone calls, of substantial money laundering activities at Tropical Travel. In one instance, for example, a confidential informant, having been directed to go to Tropical Travel to pick up $ 100,000 to be laundered, was directed to the back office, where defendants Buitrago and Duran placed bundles of cash in his backpack. See Affidavit of Timothy J. Ryan (lead agent in the overall investigation), dated Nov. 1, 1996, at P 4. The agents had also received specific information that $ 40,000 in to-be-laundered funds was to be picked up from the premises on October 2, 1995. Tr. 236-37.

 In these circumstances, it was objectively reasonable for the agents to believe that the bag delivery they had witnessed around 5:35 p.m. was a deposit of substantial amounts of cash that was in the process of being "laundered" and that a person objectively identified with the security of the premises (Anthony Duran) had now, minutes before the entry, uncovered the surveillance operation. Indeed, if, as the defense asserts, the agents should have regarded the premises as already closed to the public, it would have only added further exigency to their already ample basis for believing that, now that their surveillance had been detected, important evidence of serious criminal activity was in immediate jeopardy of being destroyed or removed. See United States v. Zabare, 871 F.2d 282, 290-91 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 856, 107 L. Ed. 2d 119, 110 S. Ct. 161 (1989) (warrantless search justified by exigent circumstances of preventing destruction of evidence ...


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