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United States v. Guevara

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

October 3, 2013

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee
Susana GUEVARA, Defendant-Appellant.

Submitted: June 26, 2013.

Page 825

Richard Haile McWilliams, AFPD, argued, Omaha, NE, for Appellant.

Page 826

Martin Conboy, IV, AUSA, argued, Omaha, NE, for Appellee.

Before RILEY, Chief Judge, MELLOY and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

KELLY, Circuit Judge.

Susana Guevara (" Guevara" ) appeals her conviction for possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute. Guevara consented to a search of her vehicle during a routine traffic stop. The search exposed a hidden compartment in the engine that contained methamphetamine. The district court [1] denied defendant's motion to suppress. We affirm.

I. Background

On May 11, 2011, Susana Guevara was stopped by Trooper Russell Lewis of the Nebraska State Patrol. Guevara was driving a 1996 Jeep Cherokee eastbound in the left lane of I-80 going sixty-eight miles per hour in a seventy-five mile-per-hour zone. Trooper Lewis first noticed the Jeep slowly passing a semi because a line of cars had built up behind the Jeep. When the Jeep finally passed the semi, the Jeep did not move over to the right lane. Instead, the Jeep continued in the left lane for another five miles, forcing cars behind it to pass on the right. Trooper Lewis followed the Jeep and attempted to signal the Jeep to move over to the right lane. Eventually, Trooper Lewis stopped the Jeep.

Trooper Lewis told Guevara that he pulled her over because she was " impeding traffic." He said that she could stay in the left lane to pass, but that she then needed to get over to the right lane to allow faster moving cars to pass as well. Trooper Lewis asked Guevara to accompany him back to his car. While processing Guevara's information, Trooper Lewis asked Guevara where she was headed. Guevara stated she was going to Minneapolis to visit her aunt. Guevara was not sure where her aunt lived but said she had written it down on a piece of paper in her car. Guevara later suggested that she needed to call her aunt for the information but had not yet been able to reach her. Trooper Lewis testified that he knew it was common for drug smugglers to know the city, but not the specific address, of their destination. Trooper Lewis also asked if she owned the Jeep, and Guevara said no. Guevara said a friend had helped her borrow the vehicle from its owner, whom Guevara did not know very well. Trooper Lewis noted that the vehicle had an open title, meaning the owner of the vehicle had signed the seller's portion of the title but had left the buyer's portion blank. Trooper Lewis testified that he knew from his experience that smugglers will often use a third-party vehicle or a vehicle with an open title.

Trooper Lewis left Guevara in his car and went to talk to the passenger of the Jeep, Guevara's sister. Trooper Lewis asked the passenger for her identification. While running the passenger's information, Trooper Lewis asked Guevara for her consent to search the Jeep. He told her that because she was the driver of the vehicle and in possession of the vehicle, she could consent to the search. Guevara asked if she had to consent, and Trooper Lewis said she did not. He asked again whether Guevara would consent to a search, and she ultimately consented. Trooper Lewis then asked for the passenger's consent. The passenger limited her consent to a search of her luggage.

Page 827

Trooper Lewis radioed for assistance with his search but started to conduct his search alone, with Guevara's passenger still in the passenger seat. Trooper Lewis began by searching the passenger cabin and the luggage. At one point, Trooper Lewis returned to his squad car, and Guevara objected to the search of her luggage. Trooper Lewis informed her that he had already opened her luggage and that he had not disturbed the contents. Shortly thereafter, Trooper Pelster arrived to assist Trooper Lewis. Trooper Pelster moved Guevara's passenger from the passenger seat of the Jeep to his squad car. When Trooper Pelster later engaged the passenger in conversation, he noted that the sisters gave inconsistent stories regarding whom they were going to visit. Guevara stated they were going to see their aunt, while Guevara's sister stated they were going to see their mother. When asked, Guevara said her mother lived in California, not in Minnesota.

After searching the passenger cabin and underside of the car, the troopers began to search the engine compartment. The troopers testified that, on this type of vehicle, the air intake manifold was one spot where smugglers commonly build a compartment. The troopers found that the engine was very clean for such an old vehicle, and they noticed what they thought could be evidence of tampering. In particular, it appeared that the air intake manifold bolts were " tooled," showing wear from being opened and put back together. They also noticed fingerprints and smudge marks that suggested someone had handled or touched the area. Trooper Lewis got a wrench and removed the bolt securing the air intake manifold cover; this cover, or hose, came off very easily. Trooper Lewis inserted the wrench through a hole in the manifold to check for a hidden compartment. The wrench went in about two inches and abruptly struck a piece of metal. In an unmodified vehicle, the wrench should have gone in six to eight inches. Peering into the hole, the troopers noticed that the inside had been painted black. The troopers could see scratches in the paint from the wrench and paint flakes on the wrench.

Trooper Lewis then drilled a small hole in the metal of the compartment. Through the hole, the troopers could see the compartment contained cardboard. They enlarged the hole to about the size of a dime, which revealed cardboard and plastic. Seeing something inside the compartment, the troopers decided to detain the women and move the car to a mechanic's garage where the engine could be disassembled. Trooper Pelster told Guevara's passenger, who was in his squad car, that she was being detained. Meanwhile, Trooper Lewis told Guevara she was under arrest. Before significant time had passed, the troopers realized they had given the women inconsistent information. After discussing the matter with Trooper Pelster, Trooper Lewis informed Guevara that she was not under arrest but was simply being detained while the Jeep was towed to a garage. At the garage, methamphetamine was found inside the hidden compartment.

Susana Guevara and her sister were transported to the Nebraska State Patrol office, where Guevara made incriminating statements. In her motion to suppress, Guevara challenged the constitutionality of the traffic stop, the destructive search of her vehicle, her subsequent detention, and the use of her statements at trial. The district court adopted the magistrate ...

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