United States v. Gonzalez, 2021 WL 4891449 (1st Cir. 2021)
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) conducted an extensive investigation into drug trafficking and money laundering in the Boston area. The investigation involved physical surveillance, GPS tracking and cell phone communications wiretaps on one of the targets of the investigation, Roberto Mejia. Agents suspected Mejia was the leader of a major drug distribution organization in Boston that was supplied by his brother, Enrique Mejia, who lived in Sinaloa, Mexico.
Agents saw Mejia purchase a Chrysler Sebring in cash. He registered the vehicle in his female companion’s name. Mejia delivered the Sebring to an auto-body shop. Based on an intercepted phone conversation, agents believed the shop installed a hidden compartment to conceal drugs. Some time later, agents developed enough information for a search warrant for the Sebring and for Mejia’s residence. The agents decided the safest way to execute the search warrant for the residence was to first conduct a “vehicle containment” of the Toyota Sienna in which Mejia was riding. Ruben Gonzalez was driving the Sienna.
Vehicle containment is an advanced apprehension technique used by tactical teams to contain and extract a suspect located inside a vehicle. The primary purpose of a vehicle containment is to apprehend a suspect meeting certain criteria (usually a felony suspect who presents a substantial risk to public safety). A secondary purpose of vehicle containment is to prevent a dangerous high-speed vehicular pursuit. Finally, a tertiary purpose of vehicle containment is to prevent the suspect from having the time or presence of mind to discard or destroy contraband and/or evidence. The core elements of a vehicle containment involve positioning vehicles on all four sides of the suspect vehicle and making a fluid, coordinated, rapid convergence on the suspect vehicle.
The court observed that Gonzalez’s case involved a seizure that is “distinguishable from, yet has some features normally associated with, an arrest.”
As the agents executed the vehicle containment, making contact with the front bumper of the Sienna, Gonzalez accelerated in reverse, crashing into the rear blocking vehicle and then another vehicle. Mejia surrendered quickly. Gonzalez resisted arrest but was eventually taken into custody. Agents found a black plastic bag containing cocaine and heroin in the Sienna.
Gonzalez argued the agents executed the vehicle containment without reasonable suspicion and asserted the drugs found inside of the Sienna were inadmissible as evidence. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, and the appellate court affirmed. Not surprisingly, the appellate court held Gonzalez was seized, for Fourth Amendment purposes, at the point the agent’s vehicle touched the Sienna’s front bumper. But was it an arrest, which would have required not only reasonable suspicion, but probable cause?
The court observed that Gonzalez’s case involved a seizure that is “distinguishable from, yet has some features normally associated with, an arrest.” At the point his vehicle was stopped and he was seized, “Gonzalez was not handcuffed, was not subdued, and was in a public place—factors suggesting that Gonzalez was not under arrest…On the other hand, nine or ten law enforcement vehicles were present, emergency lights were activated, weapons were drawn, and used physical force to stop Gonzalez in his vehicle—factors suggesting that Gonzalez was arrested at the time of the vehicle containment.” The court noted the distinction between a “temporary detention and de facto arrest is elusive and not easily defined.”
In this case, the court assumed a vehicle containment constituted an arrest. However, the court held that the agents had probable cause to arrest Gonzalez when they initiated the vehicle containment tactic. Thus, in some other case it may be possible (but not very likely) that the prosecution could convince a court a vehicle containment is merely a temporary seizure and not an arrest. The best practice for officers to manage both civil liability and avoid the risk of suppression of evidence is to generally limit use of a vehicle containment technique to situations where safety considerations warrant it.
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