Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Friday, April 30, 2021

Gonzalez-Zea: Affirming Denial of Suppression Motion

In United States v. Gonzalez-Zea, No. 19-11131 (Apr. 30, 2021) (Newsom, Branch, Ray), the Court affirmed the denial of defendant's motion to suppress.  

Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") agents in the process of staking out a home in search of an ICE fugitive, whose social security number had been linked to a utility account at the address in question, stopped a car leaving the residence in the early morning hours.  The defendant was driving that car.  When the ICE agents asked him for identification, he produced an ID card issued in Mexico.  The agents asked if he had any other identification on him, and he said no, admitting that he was unlawfully present in the United States.  At that point, the agents were pretty sure the defendant was not the fugitive they were searching for.  The agents explained that they were looking for an ICE fugitive, and defendant responded that he lived alone.  He did, however, give the agents permission to search his house.  During that search, the agents discovered firearms "in plain view."  They then arrested the defendant for possession of a firearm and ammunition by an illegal alien, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(5) and 924(a)(2).  Defendant moved to suppress the evidence, and the district court denied his motion.

On appeal. defendant argued that the district court should have granted his motion to suppress because: (1) ICE agents did not have the requisite individualized reasonable suspicion to stop him; (2) the ICE agents unlawfully prolonged the stop; and (3) his consent to search his home was involuntary.  The Court rejected the defendant's arguments on appeal.  

As to whether the agents had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant, the Court held that they did under the totality of the circumstances--the social security number associated with the fugitive was connected to the house's utility service, and because it was still dark outside when the defendant left his home, the agents could not be sure he was not the fugitive they were looking for.  The agents also believed that if he was not the fugitive, he may have had information about the fugitive's whereabouts.  The Court also clarified that the fact that the defendant was in his car at the time he was stopped did not transform the stop into a traffic stop.  This case was not one where a traffic stop based on a suspicion of mere potential general criminality formed the basis of the Fourth Amendment violation.  

Next, the Court held that the agents did not unlawfully prolong the stop.  The only questions the agents asked the defendant during the stop related to verifying his identity, which was the purpose of the stop.  Agents did not ask any other questions relating to the investigation of another crime. 

Finally, as to whether the defendant's consent to search his home was involuntary, the Court held that it was not.  The seizure itself was lawful, and the agents did not coerce the defendant into consenting.  The interaction between the defendant and the agents was "friendly" and "cordial"--when asked if the agents could search his house, he said yes, drove home, unlocked the house for them, and walked them through the house.  The agents' holstered firearms, the activated red and blue police lights on their cars, their retention of the defendant's identification card, their failure to expressly advise him of his right to refuse consent, and their failure to inform him that he was free to go, did not change the analysis.