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7th Circuit upholds drug convictions for lack of standing

February 3, 2017

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a man’s drug convictions after holding Friday that he did not have a reasonable right to privacy in a vehicle containing methamphetamine that he paid a car hauler to ship across the country.

In United States of America v. Abel Covarrubias, 16-3402, a New Mexico State Police patrolman stopped a car hauler and noticed that a Saturn Vue on the trailer lacked a license plate. The paperwork for the car indicated that it was being shipped from California to a man named Juan Pablo in Indianapolis, but the Vue’s vehicle identification number revealed that it was owned by neither the shipper nor the receiver.

Suspicious that the vehicle was being used for drug trafficking, the patrolman received permission from the car hauler to search the Vue and discovered 46 pounds of meth in a hidden compartment. The car hauler agreed to a controlled delivery of the Vue, and when he delivered the car to the designated address, Abel Covarrubias arrived, paid the hauler and drove the car away.

Covarrubias was arrested a short time later and, after declining an interpreter and waiving his Miranda rights in writing, admitted that he had paid for the car hauler and represented himself as “Juan Pablo.” He also admitted he knew the car contained meth and that he was being paid $2,000 to deliver the car to an associate.

After he was charged with possessing with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of meth and conspiring to commit this crime, Covarrubias moved to suppress the drugs, arguing that the patrolman’s search violated his reasonable expectation of privacy in the car because the car hauler did not have the authority to consent to the search.

Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana denied his motion to suppress, finding that he lacked standing because he did not have either a subjective or objective expectation of privacy in the vehicle. Covarrubias had “no apparent ownership of possessory right in the vehicle, as either the shipper or receiver,” Pratt wrote, and further, “no expectation of privacy in the Saturn Vue after it was turned over to the shipping company.”

After his conviction on both counts, Covarrubias appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, challenging the district court’s analysis of his standing to raise his privacy claim. But in a Friday per curiam opinion, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, holding that Covarrubias did not have an expectation of privacy in the car because he was not the car’s owner, had never been inside the vehicle and had no control over its contents.

Covarrubias further argued that he did not knowingly waive his Miranda rights because he did not understand the contents of the Miranda documents, which were written in English. Thus, his statements to law enforcement regarding his work as a middleman should be suppressed.

But the circuit court held Friday that his argument was irrelevant because he did not have an expectation of privacy in the car once the hauler received it. Further, several law enforcement officers testified that Covarrubias spoke and understood English, and Covarrubias himself declined an interpreter and sent text messages in English.
 

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