United States District Court, S.D. New York
January 20, 2004.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA against JOHNNY VASQUEZ, Defendant
The opinion of the court was delivered by: VICTOR MARRERO, District Judge
DECISION AND ORDER
Defendant Johnny Vasquez ("Vasquez") was arrested by New York City
Police Department ("NYPD") officers in the Bronx, New York, after the
officers observed him selling narcotics. Vasquez was subsequently
transferred to federal custody and charged with possession of heroin with
intent to distribute and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug
trafficking offense. Vasquez has filed a motion pursuant to Fed.R. Crim.
P. 12(b)(3) to suppress evidence seized during his arrest. For the
following reasons, his motion is denied.
On the evening of July 22, 2003, an NYPD field team was conducting a
surveillance operation in an area of the Bronx known for drug sales. From
a rooftop, one officer observed Vasquez sitting alone in a parked vehicle
(the "Vehicle"). That officer saw Vasquez reach into a recess in the
passenger-side dashboard, remove an object, and give that object to
another person in exchange for cash at least twice. The officer radioed
his observations and a description of Vasquez to another member of the
surveillance team, who then arrested Vasquez.
At the time of the arrest, Vasquez was standing several feet away from
the Vehicle. The officers approached Vasquez and searched him. They
recovered a gravity knife, $930 in cash, and a vehicle key, and placed
Vasquez under arrest. The officers then used the key to unlock and search
the Vehicle. The officers recovered a loaded handgun and 1.75 ounces of
heroin from the recess in the passenger-side dashboard.
Vasquez argues that the police had no probable cause to search and
arrest him because when the officers approached him he was in a public
place and not engaged in any criminal behavior. He asserts that all
evidence seized from him and all evidence derived therefrom should be
suppressed. Vasquez alternatively argues that no exigent circumstances
existed to support a warrantless search of the Vehicle and therefore all
evidence seized from the Vehicle should be suppressed.
A police officer may arrest an individual in a public place for a
felony without a warrant if probable cause exists to support the arrest.
See Maryland v. Pringle, 124 S.Ct. 795, 799 (2003). Probable cause exists
if "`the facts and circumstances within [the officers'] knowledge and of
which they had reasonably trustworthy information [are] sufficient in
themselves to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that an
offense has been or is being committed.'"
United States v. McFadden, 238 F.3d 198, 204 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting
United States v. Cruz, 834 F.2d 47, 50 (2d Cir. 1987)). To determine
whether probable cause existed for an arrest, a court must "examine the
events leading up to the arrest, and then decide `whether these
historical facts, viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable
police officer, amount to' probable cause." Pringle, 124 S.Ct. at 800
(quoting Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 696 (1996)).
Before the police arrested Vasquez, a police officer conducting
surveillance in a location known for drug sales observed Vasquez reach
into a recess in the dashboard of the vehicle in which he was sitting,
retrieve an object, and hand that object to another person in exchange
for money at least twice. Vasquez does not deny that he engaged in this
conduct. The officer who observed this conduct informed another officer
of what he witnessed, and that second officer then arrested Vasquez. The
Court concludes that given these facts, a reasonable person could believe
that a crime was being committed. See United States v. Washington, 02 CR
1547, 2003 WL 21250681, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. May 29, 2003) (finding probable
cause to arrest when police officers witnessed defendant hand a small
item to another individual in exchange for money in an area where drug
sales were prevalent). Accordingly, Vasquez's
motion to suppress evidence seized from his person is denied.
II. SEARCH OF VEHICLE
After the officers arrested Vasquez, they used the key they recovered
from him to open the Vehicle. During a search of the Vehicle, the
officers discovered a loaded handgun and an amount of heroin. Vasquez
argues that these items should be suppressed because the police did not
have a warrant to search the Vehicle and there were no exigent
circumstances justifying the search.
A warrantless search of an automobile is justified when police have
probable cause to believe that contraband or other evidence is contained
in the vehicle and the vehicle is readily mobile. See Maryland v. Dyson,
527 U.S. 465, 466-67 (1999); Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940
(1996); California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565, 580 (1991); United States
v. Harwood, 998 F.2d 91, 96 (2d Cir. 1993). The Supreme Court has
expressly made clear that the automobile exception to the general
requirement of obtaining a search warrant contains no exigency element.
See Dyson, 527 U.S. at 466-67.
In this case, a police officer observed Vasquez repeatedly obtain items
from inside a vehicle and give them to people in exchange for cash in an
area known for drug sales. When police officers arrested Vasquez, they
discovered $930 in cash, a knife, and the key to the Vehicle on his
Vasquez argues that the Vehicle was not readily mobile because it was
locked and the police had Vasquez in custody. But merely because the
occupant of a vehicle is in custody does not mean that other individuals
do not have access to that vehicle. The Supreme Court has upheld searches
of vehicles made after police arrested defendants who were observed
selling drugs from those vehicles. See Labron, 518 U.S. at 939. The Court
has also stated that "the justification to conduct such a warrantless
search does not vanish once the car has been immobilized; nor does it
depend upon a reviewing court's assessment of the likelihood in each
particular case that the car would have been driven away, or that its
contents would have been tampered with, during the period required for
the police to obtain a warrant." Michigan v. Thomas, 458 U.S. 259, 261
The Court concludes that the facts and circumstances in the present
case would justify a person of reasonable caution in the belief that the
Vehicle contained contraband. Accordingly, the motion to suppress the
evidence seized from Mr. Vasquez's vehicle is denied.
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