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Driving carefully while being observed by the police is not grounds for a traffic stop

People v. Mendoza, 2020 WL 562981 (Cal.App. 4 Dist., 2020)

Conviction for transporting cocaine reversed because of no reasonable suspicion to detain

Facts:  Blanca Luna Mendoza was convicted of transporting for sale more than four kilograms of cocaine based on evidence a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent acquired after a traffic stop on Interstate 15. Mendoza argued that  the agent did not have reasonable suspicion she was engaged in criminal activity when he stopped her and the evidence should be excluded.

The traffic stop was not based on sufficient evidence of criminal activity

The agent’s decision to stop Mendoza was based on these factors:

  • She was driving in a known smuggling corridor in a vehicle which had crossed the United States-Mexico border in the prior week.
  • She slowed and changed lanes after the agent pulled alongside her in an unmarked car, rolled down his window, and stared at her.
  • She drove at approximately 50 miles per hour to stay behind him.
  • She refused to look at him when she finally passed him a few minutes later.

The trial court held that the stop was justified Mendoza was  convicted  of transporting narcotics for sale. Mendoza appeals her conviction challenging the propriety of the stop.

The Court of Appeals held that there was insufficient evidence that Mendoza was engaged in criminal activity to justify a stop.  The agent improperly acted on a hunch. The Court  reversed the conviction.

The Border Patrol Agent’s Decision to Stop Mendoza

United States Border Patrol Agent Arturo Acosta had been a border patrol agent for almost 10 years and a member of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force for less than a year. His training included behavior analysis, which he described as “being able to—for us to be able to pull over a vehicle, we need reasonable suspicion. For me, a reasonable suspicion is a hunch of articulable facts that will allow us to pull over a vehicle.  The explanation could be something simple, something simple as a lane change, the behavior or the person in the vehicle, the vehicle slowing down.”

Agent Acosta ran Mendoza’s plates and learned that the  vehicle had recent nexus to the border and that the car was registered to a woman who resided in Chula Vista, near the U.S.-Mexico border. Agent Acosta said he obtained no other information about the car or the driver at that time and acknowledged there was nothing else about the vehicle that drew his attention.

After rolling down the window of his unmarked vehicle and making eye contact with Mendoza, he testified that Mendoza, “immediately slowed down in speed and then got behind me.” Agent Acosta then moved his vehicle into the slow lane, to the right of her, but Mendoza “was not willing to pass me even though I slowed down to approximately 50 miles an hour.” Agent Acosta drove  ahead of Mendoza and one lane to her right, for about three miles.  Mendoza finally passed Agent Acosta’s car on the left. Acosta said she had both hands on the wheel and didn’t look at him as she passed.

Agent Acosta decided to initiate a traffic stop and activated his patrol vehicle’s lights and siren once he was behind her. Agent Acosta noticed a black backpack on the passenger-side backseat of the car. He asked Mendoza for permission to search the vehicle and she consented. Inside the backpack, he found seven packaged bricks of cocaine, each weighing approximately one kilogram.

Motion to suppress the evidence found during the search of her car because of unlawful stop

Mendoza argued that  because law enforcement did not have reasonable grounds to stop her in the first place, the stop was unlawful and the trial court should have suppressed the fruits of the search conducted after the stop. (People v. Loewen (1983) 35 Cal.3d 117, 122-123, (Loewen).)

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. (Terry v. Ohio (1968) 392 U.S. 1, 8-9.) The primary purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to “impose a standard of ‘reasonableness’ upon the exercise of discretion by government officials, including law enforcement agents, in order to ‘safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions.’ ” (Delaware v. Prouse (1979) 440 U.S. 648, 653-654, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 59 L.Ed.2d 660.) “A defendant may move … to suppress as evidence any tangible or intangible thing obtained as a result of a search or seizure” if “[t]he search or seizure without a warrant was unreasonable.” (Pen. Code, § 1538.5, subd. (a)(1)(A).) A traffic stop is a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. (Delaware v. Prouse, at p. 653, 99 S.Ct. 1391.)

Specific and articulable facts needed for a traffic stop

Law enforcement officers are not free to detain citizens at will. “[T]o justify an investigative stop or detention the circumstances known or apparent to the officer must include specific or articulable facts causing him to suspect that (1) some activity relating to crime has taken place or is occurring or about to occur, and (2) the person he intends to stop or detain is involved in that activity.” (In re Tony C., at p. 893, 148 Cal.Rptr. 366, 582 P.2d 957.)

An officer’s suspicion must be objectively reasonable. An investigative stop or detention predicated on mere curiosity, rumor, or hunch, is unlawful, even though the officer may be acting in complete good faith.” (In re James D. (1987) 43 Cal.3d 903, 919-920.)

The traffic stop was illegal-no reasonable grounds

Merely Driving on the I-15 is not sufficient to warrant a stop because it is in a “high crime” area.  Mendoza’s “nexus” to the border provided almost no basis for thinking she was involved in criminal activity. Agent Acosta drove an unmarked vehicle and did nothing to identify himself as law enforcement and Mendoza’s avoided  him because she found his conduct threatening and potentially aggressive. Agent Acosta did not appear to make this connection but instead inferred she was trying to avoid him to cover up her criminal conduct. It was natural for Mendoza to keep her hands on the steering wheel and her eyes on the road.

A person must be aware they are under observation by law enforcement and react with more than nervousness to  warrant a stop. Mendoza’s reaction to being observed was so minor it wouldn’t provide adequate ground for suspicion even had the agent been driving a marked law enforcement vehicle.

Agent Acosta’s “good faith suspicion” Mendoza was “engage[d] in criminal activity was not reasonable. None of the … factors [he] testified to … ‘mysteriously bec[a]me imbued with an aura of guilt merely by viewing them in their “totality.” ’ ” (Loewen, supra, 35 Cal.3d at p. 129, 196 Cal.Rptr. 846, 672 P.2d 436.)