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United States v. Sam

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 2, 2017

United States of America, Plaintiff,
v.
Mary Elizabeth Sam, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge.

         Pending before the Court is Defendant Mary Elizabeth Sam's Motion to Suppress, (Doc. 45). For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies the motion.

         I. Background

         On March 16, 2016, Agent Renteria of the United States Border Patrol ("USBP") stopped Defendant Mary Elizabeth Sam ("Sam") and her two children at a checkpoint at milepost 30 on Federal Route 15 ("the FR 15 checkpoint"). At the evidentiary hearing held on this motion, Agent Renteria testified that Sam was nervous, jittery, and reluctant to make direct eye contact with him. Due to Sam's demeanor, Agent Renteria asked Sam if he could search her trunk. Sam verbally agreed to Agent Renteria's request and unlocked the trunk. Upon opening the trunk, Agent Renteria observed an open box of laundry detergent with a strong odor. Alongside the laundry detergent was a large, heavy, sports bag. Agent Renteria asked Sam if he could inspect the bag. Sam said that he could, and upon opening the bag Agent Renteria found what he suspected to be two large cellophane bales of marijuana. Sam was then placed in custody. The bundles tested positive for marijuana. Sam was charged with one count of Conspiracy to Possess with Intent to Distribute a Controlled Substance (Marijuana) and one count of Possession with the Intent to Distribute a Controlled Substance (Marijuana). See 21 U.S.C. §§ 84(a)(1), (b)(1)(D).

         Sam asserts the marijuana taken from her vehicle should be excluded from evidence because it was obtained as the result of an unlawful search. (Doc. 45 at 1.) Sam argues that the FR 15 checkpoint is unconstitutionally operating as a general crime checkpoint instead of as a lawful immigration checkpoint, and the detention and questioning were longer than legally permitted. (Id.)

         II. Legal Standard

         To overcome a defendant's motion to suppress, the government bears the burden of demonstrating the evidence was not the fruit of an unlawful search or seizure. See United States v. Johnson, 936 F.2d 1082, 1084 (1991) (citing Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 390-91 (1978)).

         III. Analysis

         The government has met its burden in demonstrating that the marijuana obtained from Sam's vehicle was the result of a lawful search. The search occurred at a lawful immigration checkpoint, Sam was not detained longer than necessary under the law, and Sam voluntarily consented to the search of her vehicle's trunk and bag.

         A. The FR 15 checkpoint lawfully operates as an immigration control checkpoint.

         It is well established that immigration control is a valid primary purpose for briefly stopping cars without individualized suspicion at highway checkpoints near the border. The Supreme Court, undertaking the balancing of government and individual interests, has determined that "the flow of illegal aliens cannot be controlled effectively at the border" and there is only a limited intrusion on individuals' Fourth Amendment rights when they are briefly stopped for limited questioning at these checkpoints. See United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543, 556-57 (1976).

         Here, the government has demonstrated, and Sam does not contest, that the FR 15 checkpoint was designed with the primary purpose to detect and deter illegal immigration. The FR 15 checkpoint shares similar characteristics with the checkpoints upheld as constitutional in Martinez-Fuerte. The checkpoint is along a highway which feeds into two major routes to the international border, approximately 65 miles north of the border, in compliance with federal regulations. See 8 U.S.C. § 1357(a)(3) (stating checkpoints must be placed "within a reasonable distance" from the border); 8 C.F.R. § 287.1(a)(2) (defining a "reasonable distance" to be within 100 miles); see also Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. at 556-57 (1976) (finding a legitimate governmental interest in placing permanent checkpoints on important highways leading away from the border, for "in their absence such highways would offer illegal aliens a quick and safe route into the interior").

         There is an additional immigration reason justifying the placement of the checkpoint in the northern portion of the Tohono O'odham reservation. The Tohono O'odham reservation extends into Mexico, and members of the Tohono O'odham Nation live on both sides of the international border. Members of the Tohono O'odham Nation who are not United States citizens are allowed to be present upon reservation land in the United States but do not have permission to travel further into the United States. Thus, citizens of the Tohono O'odham Nation who are residents of Mexico are turned back at the checkpoint. The extent of the nation's reservation both south and well north of the border provides an additional immigration-related reason for the placement of the checkpoint in the northern portion of the Tohono O'odham Nation, even though it is somewhat distant from the border. Testimony at the suppression hearing indicated that Border Patrol wished to place the checkpoint even further north within reservation lands at least partly for this reason, but the present location was the one approved by the Tohono O'odham Nation.

         Every car traveling northbound is briefly stopped at the FR 15 checkpoint and its occupants are asked about their citizenship. This is constitutionally permissible. SeeUnited States v. Preciado-Robes, 964 F.2d 882, 884 (9th Cir. 1992) ("[A] stop is constitutional so long as the scope of the detention is limited to a few brief questions about immigration, the production of immigration documents, and a visual inspection of the vehicle . . . limited to what can be seen without a search." (internal quotations and citation omitted)); see also Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. at 556-57 (finding the ...


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