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United States v. Betancourt

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division

July 8, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff,
v.
Uriel Betancourt, Defendant.

          ENTRY AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT MOTION TO SUPPRESS. (ECF 23).

          THOMAS M. ROSE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court is a motion to suppress filed by Defendant Uriel Betancourt. ECF 23. The motion requests an order suppressing evidence seized from a red Chevy pickup truck and statements made subsequent to his arrest. Betancort contends that the search of the truck's transmission was unconstitutional and that the fruits of that search, including narcotics seized and statements made, should be suppressed.

         Background

         On June 7, 2018, Sgt. Coverstone of the Ohio State Patrol was working on I-70 in Preble County. (Transcript of 4/11/19 hearing, R.30 at PageID 123). Coverstone noticed a red truck that was utterly unremarkable:

What caught my attention about the vehicle was that it appeared to be going slower than other traffic in the area, as there was cars in the left lane passing it. As the vehicle got closer to me, I was able to see a male driver sitting very upright, rigid in his seat with both hands on the steering wheel at approximately the 10 and 2 o'clock position staring straight ahead with the lack of any common movement. ... He was very stiff, as far as no -- he wasn't, you know, one arm on the wheel looking around, drinking, doing anything. He was intently focused and staring straight ahead driving when he drove by me.

         PageID 124-25. Coverstone “checked its speed with the laser [and registered] 68 miles an hour, which was two miles an hour [within] the speed limit.” PageID 125-26.

         Having no reason to follow the red truck, but constitutionally requiring none, Coverstone followed the truck and ran its license plate number, incorrectly leaving off the subscript ending letter used on some State of Illinois issued plates, and due to his own error, determined that the license plate was not issued to a red truck. Coverstone admits that based on these reasons, he determined to pull the truck over, but before doing so, noticed that the car was following the truck ahead of it too closely. The Court has reviewed the dashcam tape of the incident and has determined that the red truck was indeed failing to maintain a safe distance from the truck ahead of it.

         Coverstone approached the stopped truck and engaged in conversation with the lone male driver, later identified as Defendant Uriel Betancourt. (Id. at PageID 131- 132). Coverstone explained how the registration on the plate should have been on a Chevy van and asked for Betancourt's driver's license and registration. (Id.). While Betancourt was looking for the requested items, Coverstone asked questions regarding Betancourt's ownership of the vehicle and travel. (Id.). Betancourt provided a Texas driver's license and indicated that he was coming from Dallas and going to Columbus, which prompted questions regarding the vehicle's Illinois license plate. (Id. at PageID 131-133). Betancourt was able to provide an insurance card in the name of Gonzalo Betancourt, which listed Uriel Betancourt as additional driver. (Id. at PageID 134). After a couple minutes of looking and Betancourt being unable to locate registration paperwork, Coverstone observed what appeared to be registration paperwork and asked to look at that it. (Id.). However, the registration that Coverstone had noticed was an expired one for an individual from Las Vegas, Nevada. (Id.).

         Coverstone then halted Betancourt's search for his registration and ordered him to his cruiser. (Id., Transcript of 4/11/19 hearing R.31 at PageID 157-158). Coverstone made this decision because he was unable to verify ownership of the vehicle and the tag had not come back, and he believed it was safer to review the paperwork from the patrol car in order to prevent any pursuit should the vehicle information come back stolen. (R. 31 at PageID 158). Nevertheless, the Court notes that Coverstone theoretically had the ability to check the VIN through other avenues. (R.31 at PageID 205). At approximately 10:38 am, Coverstone contacted Trooper Wheeland to request a K-9. (Id. at PageID 135).

         Coverstone perceived Betancourt as nervous (Id. at PageID 134), Betancourt's hands as shaking excessively (Id. at PageID 131), and his speech as changing patterns upon being questioned about the family he was travelling to see (Id. at PageID 135). Before Coverstone had Betancourt enter the cruiser, Coverstone conducted a pat-down for weapons. (Id. at PageID 136). During the pat-down, Coverstone claims to have noted that Betancourt's heart was beating very quickly, which prompted Coverstone to inquire if Betancourt was feeling alright or taking medications. (Id. at PageID 136, 138).

         While in the cruiser, Coverstone discussed with Betancourt that the license plate was coming back to another vehicle and showed Betancourt the computer screen. (R. 30 at PageID 137-138). After nine minutes, at approximately 10:47 a.m., Coverstone confirmed with dispatch that Betancourt's license was valid and that he had no criminal history. (R. 30 at PageID 139-141).

         A minute earlier, at 10:46 a.m., Wheeland had arrived and Coverstone signaled to have Wheeland's K-9 walk the truck. (R. 30 at PageID 140). Wheeland walked his narcotics detection K-9, around the vehicle with the command to find. (R. 30 at PageID 82-83). The dog alerted at the lower door seam. (R. 30 at PageID 85). That alert occurred at 10:48 am, approximately 12 minutes after the traffic stop occurred. (R. 30 at PageID 141). At that time, Coverstone had not yet resolved the registration issue and thus had not gotten to the point of writing a ticket for the traffic violation. (R. 30 at PageID 140-142). Additionally, Coverstone had not run the VIN of the vehicle to determine if he could resolve the registration. (R. 31 at PageID 160).

         As part of his investigation, Coverstone contacted the El Paso Intelligence Center and obtained information about border crossings. (R. 30 at PageID 142). Consequently, Coverstone learned that Betancourt and his vehicle had crossed the border two days prior at the Presidio checkpoint. (R. 31 at PageID 162). Coverstone verified that the Presidio checkpoint was approximately 8 1/2 hours away from Dallas, from where Betancourt indicated he had travelled. (Id.).

         After securing his dog, Wheeland pulled Betancourt's vehicle further off the side of the highway for officer safety before he followed up on this dog's alert with a search of the of the vehicle. (R. 30 at PageID 85-90). When Wheeland's check found nothing, Coverstone decided that he wanted the vehicle to be taken to a private garage called “Fudge's” for a more in-depth search. (R. 30 at PageID 88). Knowing of the recent border crossing and the K-9 alert, ...


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