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United States v. McReynolds

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 3, 2019

United States of America, Plaintiff,
Joseph Minh McReynolds, Defendant.


          G. Murray Snow Chief United States District Judge.

         Pending before the Court is the Motion to Suppress of Defendant Joseph Minh McReynolds (Doc. 33). For the following reasons the motion is denied.


         On June 19, 2018, Officer G. Varela of the Colorado River Indian Tribes Police Department (“CRITPD”) pulled over a car for speeding-he clocked the car traveling at 51 miles per hour in a 35 mile-per-hour zone-in Parker, Arizona. Officer Varela, while an employee of the CRITPD, is also certified by the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, and so is authorized to enforce both tribal and state law. Officer Varela was wearing a body camera during the incident and recorded his interactions with the two individuals in the car: Travis Malara, the driver, and Defendant, the passenger.

         Officer Varela approached the car and asked Malara if he was aware how fast he had been driving. Officer Varela asked Malara for his driver's license, and Malara stuttered as he answered. Officer Varela interpreted this action as Malara acting nervously. He therefore requested identification from Defendant as well. Because Officer Varela believed Malara was acting nervously, he asked the two men if they had any weapons. Defendant informed Officer Varela that he had a firearm in the front-right pants pocket.

         Officer Varela then informed Defendant that he would come around to the passenger side of the vehicle and remove the weapon from the vehicle. He told Defendant to not make any sudden moves and keep his hands in view. Officer Varela approached Defendant, asked if the gun had ammunition chambered (it did), and removed it from Defendant's pocket. When asked if he had any other weapons, Defendant said no.

         Officer Varela then called in Malara's and Defendant's names to dispatch to conduct a records check. While the check was being conducted, Officer Varela asked the two men if there were any drugs in the car and if Defendant had anything else on his person. Defendant said no. Officer Varela then called in the firearm's serial number to dispatch. While the records checks were being performed, Officer Varela and other officers who had arrived removed Malara and Defendant from the vehicle.

         The records check revealed that Malara had a non-extraditable warrant issued for him in California, and that there may also have been a “mental health order” for Malara. Dispatch also informed Officer Varela that Defendant had “major priors in the last seven years” and that he was currently on supervised release. Officer Varela therefore decided to request a more in-depth check of Defendant to determine if he was a prohibited possessor. However, dispatch was unable to contact Defendant's probation officer to confirm that he was a prohibited possessor. The stop ended less than twenty minutes after it began, but Officer Varela informed Defendant that CRITPD would be keeping Defendant's firearm until it could confirm that he was not a prohibited possessor. Officer Varela did not issue a citation to Malara, but instead gave him a verbal warning.

         Two days later, Defendant's probation officer informed CRITPD that Defendant was a prohibited possessor. CRITPD communicated the information to the United States Attorney's Office, which then filed this action against Defendant, charging him with a single count of prohibited possession. Defendant now moves to suppress all evidence obtained during the traffic stop as well as any statements he allegedly made while he was detained by Officer Varela during the traffic stop.


         The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. Traffic stops by law enforcement implicate the Fourth Amendment “because stopping an automobile and detaining its occupants constitute a seizure . . . even though the purpose of the stop is limited and the resulting detention quite brief.” Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653 (1979); United States v. Choudhry, 461 F.3d 1097, 1100 (9th Cir. 2006). For a traffic stop to be constitutional, law enforcement officers must have “reasonable suspicion” that a person in the car is breaking the law. Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, 135 S.Ct. 530, 536 (2014); Choudhry, 461 F.3d at 1100 (citing United States v. Lopez-Soto, 205 F.3d 1101, 1104 (9th Cir. 2000)). “Officers have reasonable suspicion when specific, articulable facts[, ] together with objective and reasonable inferences, form the basis for suspecting that the particular person detained is engaged in criminal activity.” Choudhry, 461 F.3d at 1100 (quoting United States v. Montero-Camargo, 280 F.3d 1122, 1129 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         I. Analysis

         A. Officer Varela had authority to make the traffic stop.

         Defendant contends that Officer Varela, as a member of the CRITPD, lacked authority to enforce the law against Malara and Defendant because neither are tribal members or nonmember Indians. “An Indian tribe's authority to enforce criminal laws on tribal land is nuanced. On tribal land, a tribe has inherent powers as a separate sovereign to enforce criminal laws, but only as to its tribal members and nonmember Indians.” United States v. Cooley, 919 F.3d 1135, 1141 (9th Cir. 2019) (citing United States v. Lara, 541 U.S. 193, 197-99 (2004)). Tribes' “authority over non-Indians is more limited. A tribe has no power to enforce tribal criminal law as to non-Indians, even when they are on tribal land.” Id. But “[t]ribal officers are often delegated authority by a ...

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