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7th Circuit: traffic stop constitutional

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A traffic stop in which police found drugs after telling the defendant he was free to go did not violate the defendant's Fourth Amendment rights, ruled the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals today.

In U.S.A. v. Fernando Figueroa-Espana, No. 06-4270, Figueroa-Espana challenged the denial of his motion to suppress evidence and his sentence of 176 months for his guilty plea to one count of possession with intent to distribute 5 kilograms of cocaine.

An Indiana State trooper stopped Figueroa-Espana March 7, 2006, after seeing him tailgate a car while driving on Interstate 65. During the traffic stop, the police officer spoke in broken Spanish and English to Figueroa-Espana to try to figure out who owned the truck, if he had a valid driver's license, and his destination. Another trooper, who spoke better Spanish, came to the scene. Figueroa-Espana did not have a valid driver's license, did not own the truck he was driving, nor did he know who owned it. Figueroa-Espana told the second trooper he was in the country illegally; both troopers said Figueroa-Espana was acting nervous during the stop.

After issuing him a warning ticket and telling him he was free to go, the troopers decided to ask him some more questions and one honked his police horn, which caused the siren to go off briefly. The second trooper asked Figueroa-Espana if he could search the truck, and Figueroa-Espana consented. The troopers found hidden compartments containing approximately 10 kilograms of cocaine.

Figueroa-Espana was arrested, read his Miranda rights, and admitted to knowingly transporting the drugs. At trial, he filed a motion to suppress the drugs recovered from the search of the truck; the District Court denied his motion. Figueroa-Espana then entered a conditional guilty plea and was sentenced to 176 months in prison and five years' supervised release.

Figueroa-Espana argued that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated by the search of the truck, so the drugs recovered should not be allowed at trial. The Circuit Court found that his constitutional rights weren't violated because the troopers told Figueroa-Espana he was free to go at any time after he was given the ticket and the activation of the police siren did not indicate a new traffic stop. He was also told he didn't have to allow the troopers to search the truck, but he consented.

Figueroa-Espana did not own the truck he was driving and he had no reasonable expectation of privacy, so he would not have any constitutional protection over the search of the car, wrote Judge William Bauer.

Finally, Figueroa-Espana argued the District Court's sentence was affected by his motion to suppress evidence but, Judge Bauer wrote, the fact he lied repeatedly about who owned the truck impacted his sentence.

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