Monday, July 23, 2007

Various Suppression Arguments Rejected

United States v. Khanalizadeh, No. 06-41544 (5th Cir. July 18, 2007) (per curiam) (Jolly, Clement, Owen)

Based on wiretaps and surveillance, the FBI believed that a black Dodge Durango was running cocaine from Dallas to Memphis. Word of this suspicion was relayed to Sergeant Harry Washington, an officer with the Ark-La-Tex drug task force. Washington was also told that the Durango didn't have a front license plate (a violation of Texas law). Washington stopped the Durango; Khanalizadeh was at the helm. The typical fact pattern ensued: Washington ran checks on the vehicle registration and Khanalizadeh's license, and Khanalizadeh gave what Washington believed to be conflicting information about his travel plans and the ownership of the Durango. After the checks came back, Washington told Khanalizadeh "that it is part of his job to 'make sure nobody's trafficking in any illegal narcotics[,]'" and apparently asked several times for consent to search the vehicle for drugs and weapons. Khanalizadeh consented to the search. Washington saw some things that made him believe there was a secret compartment in the Durango, and had it taken to a nearby auto shop. There turned out to be 15 pounds of cocaine hidden in a compartment behind the back seat.

Khanalizadeh pled guilty to drug conspiracy charges (conditionally), and appealed the district court's denial of his motion to suppress the cocaine. The court of appeals affirmed, rejecting all three of Khanalizadeh's arguments.

First, the court held that the missing front license plate justified the stop, regardless of the true motivation for the stop (see Whren).

Second, and what makes this case worth mentioning, the court held that Washington did not exceed the permissible scope of the stop by asking for consent to search for drugs and weapons after the license and registration checks came back. The "discrepancies in Khanalizadeh's story," along with the FBI drug alert (on which Washington could rely based on the collective knowledge doctrine, even though he had no personal knowledge of the facts), created reasonable suspicion to look for evidence of drug activity. What about Jones, Dortch, Valadez, and Santiago, you say? "The FBI drug alert distinguishes this case from cases in which the detaining officers did not possess reliable information that the detainees were presently engaged in drug trafficking."

Third, the court held that the district court did not err by failing to address several issues pertaining to consent. There was abundant evidence that Khanalizadeh's consent was voluntary, there was no need to determine whether the consent was an independent act of free will because there was no Fourth Amendment violation in the first place, and it was unnecessary for the district court to consider whether Khanalizadeh revoked his consent before Washington took the Durango to the auto shop because there was probable cause to search the vehicle by that point in time.

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