Overly Cooperative Hotel Owner Produces Admissible Evidence

United States v. Cordova-Espinoza, 2022 WL 4587860 (5th Cir. 2022)

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents learned undocumented immigrants were gathered in Room 115 at the OYO Hotel in Alpine, Texas. The agents went to the hotel, spoke with the desk clerk, and attempted a knock-and-talk at Room 115. However, no one answered the door.

Two of the agents encountered the hotel’s owner, Yogesh Patel. An agent explained to Patel why the agents were there and asked for details regarding Room 115. The agent did not ask Patel to open the door to Room 115, but Patel offered regardless. In response, the agent told Patel “no,” and explained that he needed to go speak with his supervisor first. The two agents then left the office and returned to the other agents in the parking lot outside of Room 115.

Suddenly, Patel turned away from the agents and opened the door to Room 115. Patel subsequently testified the agents were “struggling” and he wanted to help them. Patel also said he was “concerned illegal activity was taking place” in the room and that he did not want the agents to break his door. The agents saw two individuals in the room and ultimately entered the room and spoke with Cordova. They found wet clothes and pizza, water and soft drinks. Cordova was charged with illegal reentry. He asked the court to suppress the evidence gleaned from the opened door, claiming Patel was acting as a government agent when he opened the door. The trial court refused to suppress the evidence and the appellate court affirmed.

Suddenly, Patel turned away from the agents and opened the door to Room 115.

The court held Cordova offered no evidence that the agents knew about or acquiesced to Patel’s intrusive conduct before he opened the door. Nor did Cordova show that the agents directly or indirectly encouraged the search. To the contrary, the trial court found “all agents credibly testified that they did not know Mr. Patel would open the door,” a finding supported by the testimony of agents that they were surprised to see Patel opening the door. “Additionally, the record shows that the agent told Patel not to open the door until the agent had heard from his supervisor,” the court noted.

The court acknowledged there are slight differences in the various tests to determine whether an actor was a government agent or acting entirely as a private party. Notwithstanding, under any of the various analytical approaches, there was no question Patel acted on his own. The Fourth Amendment does not touch private searches. Thus, the evidence was properly admitted.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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