United States District Court, D. Arizona
Pending before the Court are the Motion for Summary Judgment by Defendants (Doc. 94) and the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment by Plaintiff Jacobo-Esquivel (Doc. 95.) For the following reasons, the Court denies both motions.
On January 10, 2013, Officers Dustin Hooker and Daniel Beau Jones were patrolling the residential neighborhood surrounding 67th Avenue and Lower Buckeye Road in a fully marked City of Phoenix Police Department vehicle. They noticed a maroon 2002 Jeep Liberty parked in the driveway of the house at 6432 W. Cordes Road, Phoenix, Arizona. Officer Jones ran the Arizona license plate and found that it had been registered about two weeks prior to a nearby address.
A year and a half earlier the officers had searched the house with the consent of the residents who lived there at that time. Based on this previous contact, the officers stated that they believed the house on Cordes Road had once been a drug stash house,  and it was their experience with stash houses that drug traffickers register their vehicles to false addresses so as not to give up the location of their stash house. Officers Hooker and Jones decided to park down the street and try to make contact with anyone who left the residence.
At approximately 11:00 a.m., Plaintiff Jacobo-Esquivel exited the house and headed toward the Jeep parked in the driveway. He was joined by Jhovanny Vidal-Ramirez. Officer Hooker drove the patrol car to the residence. The parties dispute whether Officer Hooker parked directly behind the Jeep so as to block the driveway. (Compare Doc. 96 at ¶ 7 with Doc. 99 at ¶ 7.) Officer Jones exited the patrol car and approached the driver’s side of the Jeep.
The parties provide differing accounts of the events that transpired. According to Jacobo-Esquivel, he and Vidal-Ramirez were both seated in the Jeep with the engine running when the patrol car pulled into the driveway behind the Jeep and Officer Jones approached. Jacobo-Esquivel tried to step outside the Jeep to determine why the officers were on his property, but as he placed one foot outside the Jeep, Officer Jones ordered him to get back in and demanded to see identification from both men. After taking their identification cards, Officer Jones ordered Jacobo-Esquivel to get out of the Jeep. He complied. Officer Jones immediately frisked him and handcuffed him.
Meanwhile, Officer Hooker approached the passenger side of the Jeep and gestured for Vidal-Ramirez to exit the Jeep. Vidal-Ramirez complied, and Officer Hooker told him to put his hands behind his back. Vidal-Ramirez complied, and Officer Hooker grabbed Vidal-Ramirez’s hands, led him to the back of the Jeep, and frisked him. Officer Hooker felt a bulge near Vidal-Ramirez’s waist. He asked Vidal-Ramirez if it was a gun, which Vidal-Ramirez denied. Officer Hooker removed a package from Vidal-Ramirez’s sweatshirt pocket. Upon questioning, Vidal-Ramirez admitted that it contained heroin. Vidal-Ramirez was handcuffed and placed in a police car, where he admitted that drugs and guns were inside the house.
Two more officers, Officers Benjamin Catalano and Francisco Banuelos, arrived. The four officers searched the residence without obtaining prior consent. Officer Banuelos, who speaks fluent Spanish, translated communications between the arrested men and the officers. Plaintiff alleges that Officer Banuelos coerced Vidal-Ramirez into signing a form stating that he had consented to the search of the residence by telling him that if he did not sign it, any children at the home, including Jacobo-Esquivel’s daughter, would be taken into the custody of Arizona Child Protective Services (CPS). After being so threatened, Vidal-Ramirez signed a form consenting to the search that had already taken place.
The officers then transported Jacobo-Esquivel from his home to the parking lot of a CVS, and then to another residence at 7121 W. Toronto Way. Officer Banuelos asked Jacobo-Esquivel whether that residence contained drugs and guns. When Jacobo-Esquivel replied that he did not know, Officer Banuelos threatened to tell the occupants of the residence that Jacobo-Esquivel had snitched on them. After leaving this residence, Officer Hooker took Jacobo-Esquivel to jail and booked him.
Defendants’ account of the events that transpired differs significantly. According to Defendants, when Officer Jones exited the patrol car after pulling up in front of the house, Jacobo-Esquivel was standing beside the Jeep with the door open. Officer Jones asked if Jacobo-Esquivel would talk with him. Jacobo-Esquivel agreed and then reached into the Jeep and turned it on.
Officer Hooker approached the passenger side and asked Vidal-Ramirez if he would talk with him at the back of the Jeep. Vidal-Ramirez replied, “Sure, ” and quickly exited the Jeep. Officer Hooker noticed a large bulge in Vidal-Ramirez’s sweatshirt pocket near the waistband of his pants. He asked Vidal-Ramirez if it was a gun, which Vidal-Ramirez denied. He frisked him and heard a “crunch” sound. Officer Hooker asked Vidal-Ramirez if he had a package containing drugs, and Vidal-Ramirez responded affirmatively and told him it was heroin, and that there was more heroin in the house, along with guns. He gave verbal permission to search the house. Officer Hooker then removed the package from Vidal-Ramirez’s sweatshirt pocket and handcuffed him.
Officers Benjamin Catalano and Francisco Banuelos arrived. Vidal-Ramirez told Officer Banuelos, in detail, where to find drugs and guns in the house and identified the key to his room on the keys he had in his pocket. He also signed a written consent form prior to any search of the house. Officers Jones and Hooker unlocked Vidal-Ramirez’s bedroom door with the keys found in Vidal-Ramirez’s pants pocket and searched the room. They found over two pounds of heroin, over three pounds of cocaine, $3000 in cash, packaging supplies and a scale, ice chests with false bottoms, two guns, and a drug ledger notebook. After the search, Officer Hooker interviewed Vidal-Ramirez, and he stated that Jacobo-Esquivel helped him to package and deliver drugs supplied to him by a cartel, and that the two of them had been about to make a delivery.
The Jeep Liberty in the driveway was impounded, as was another vehicle which was parked in the garage.
Vidal-Ramirez and Jacobo-Esquivel were charged with possession of dangerous drugs, possession of drug paraphernalia, and misconduct involving weapons. During the criminal trial, they moved to suppress all evidence on the ground that the officers violated their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
Superior Court of Arizona Judge Dawn Bergin held a five-day evidentiary hearing and made findings of fact that align with Jacobo-Esquivel’s account of the events, including that Officer Hooker parked his patrol car directly behind the Jeep in the driveway of the residence, that the officers were in full uniform and armed with handguns and tasers, that Jacobo-Esquivel and Vidal-Ramirez were seated in the Jeep when Officer Jones approached, and that when Jacobo-Esquivel tried to exit the vehicle, he was ordered back in. (Doc. 37 at 24.) The court concluded that “a reasonable person would not feel free to back out of a driveway with a patrol vehicle behind him while two uniformed police officers approached both sides of his car, ” and therefore a seizure occurred when the officers approached the Jeep. (Id. at 25.) The court also concluded that even if the police car had not blocked the driveway, the encounter would have been a seizure. (Id.) The court stated that it “agree[d] with Officers Hooker’s and Jones’ testimony that they did not have reasonable suspicion to seize [Jacobo-Esquivel and Vidal-Ramirez] until [Vidal-Ramirez] admitted that he was carrying heroin.” (Id.) As such, the court granted the motion to suppress all evidence. (Id.)
The criminal charges against Jacobo-Esquivel and Vidal-Ramirez were dropped. By that time, the arrested men had spent more than a year and a half in pretrial incarceration. Additionally, each accrued $60, 000 in attorney’s fees during the criminal litigation.
Plaintiff Jacobo-Esquivel brings suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
I. Legal Standard