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United States v. Zamora-Garcia

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 2, 2016

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee
Jorge Alberto Zamora-Garcia, Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: June 14, 2016

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Little Rock

          Before SMITH and GRUENDER, Circuit Judges, and KETCHMARK, [1] District Judge.

          GRUENDER, Circuit Judge.

         Jorge Alberto Zamora-Garcia was charged with possession with intent to distribute more than 500 grams of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). The district court[2] denied his motion to suppress the packages of methamphetamine gathered during the search of his vehicle. Zamora-Garcia entered a conditional guilty plea, preserving the right to appeal the court's denial of his motion to suppress. He now appeals, and we affirm.


         On July 23, 2012, Corporal Lowry Astin of the Arkansas State Police noticed that a car driving on Interstate 40 had something dragging underneath it. Corporal Astin stopped the car and informed its driver, Zamora-Garcia, of the dragging part. According to Corporal Astin, Zamora-Garcia was extremely nervous during this interaction, and Zamora-Garcia's hands shook as he retrieved his driver's license. After speaking briefly with Corporal Astin, Zamora-Garcia stepped out of the car to examine the underbody of the vehicle while his two passengers, his sister and niece, remained inside. Corporal Astin then invited Zamora-Garcia to join him in the patrol car while he checked Zamora-Garcia's license. While the two men were sitting in the car, Corporal Astin asked Zamora-Garcia where he lived and where he was going. Zamora-Garcia responded that he was from California and that he was traveling cross-country to visit family in Atlanta.

         After verifying Zamora-Garcia's license, Corporal Astin asked if the vehicle contained anything illegal. Zamora-Garcia replied, "No, sir." Corporal Astin then said, "Do you mind if I search it? Can I?" Zamora-Garcia responded, "Yeah, if you want to." Zamora-Garcia opened the trunk, and Corporal Astin conducted a roadside search.

         Corporal Astin noticed that the trunk's carpet had been glued to the floor. As a former automobile mechanic, he knew that car manufacturers typically do not adhere carpets to a vehicle's trunk in this manner, and he suspected that the car had been altered to contain a hidden compartment. He asked Zamora-Garcia if the car had been in a wreck, and Zamora-Garcia said no. Corporal Astin also noticed a large sum of cash, later inventoried as more than $1, 600, in a bag under the luggage in the trunk. When Corporal Astin commented on the cash, Zamora-Garcia quickly said that it belonged to his sister. Corporal Astin then crawled underneath the vehicle with his flashlight and saw that a metal box had been welded to the underbody of the car, spanning the car's entire width. Corporal Astin searched for a trapdoor to gain entry into this compartment. As he was doing so, an Arkansas state trooper stopped to assist. When Corporal Astin was unable to gain entry into the compartment, he decided to move the search to police headquarters. Corporal Astin told Zamora-Garcia, "What I need you to do is follow me back to headquarters. We need to pull this wheel off and look." He explained that the wheel area did not "look right" to him. Zamora-Garcia responded, "Okay" and "That's fine." After asking which officer he should follow, Zamora-Garcia drove his car to headquarters.

         Upon their arrival at headquarters, Corporal Astin and other law-enforcement officers continued to search for the compartment's trapdoor while Zamora-Garcia and his passengers waited inside the headquarters building approximately fifty feet from the car. Eventually, one of the officers drilled a hole through the trunk floor into the hidden compartment. When he removed the drill bit, it was covered with green cellophane and a white, crystal-like powder. The officers located the trapdoor in the frame of the car shortly thereafter and pried it open. Inside the compartment, they found fourteen one-pound cellophane bags of methamphetamine. Officers arrested Zamora-Garcia, and he was indicted for possession with intent to distribute more than 500 grams of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of methamphetamine. See 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1).

         Zamora-Garcia moved to suppress the packages of methamphetamine found in his vehicle, arguing that the officers' search violated the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied his motion, and Zamora-Garcia entered a conditional guilty plea. He now appeals, renewing his argument that the search was illegal and that the evidence should have been suppressed.


         Zamora-Garcia contends that the district court should have granted his motion to suppress because Corporal Astin and the other officers unlawfully searched his vehicle. "In an appeal of a denied motion to suppress, 'we review the district court's factual findings for clear error and its ultimate determination of whether those facts amounted to a constitutional violation de novo.'" United States v. Santana-Aguirre, 537 F.3d 929, 932 (8th Cir. 2008) (quoting United States v. Valencia, 499 F.3d 813, 815 (8th Cir. 2007)).

         The Fourth Amendment permits the warrantless search of an automobile for contraband if an officer has obtained voluntary consent to search, as long as the search stays within the scope of the consent. United States v. Guevara, 731 F.3d 824, 829 (8th Cir. 2013). Significant here, Corporal Astin did not begin searching Zamora-Garcia's vehicle until after he obtained Zamora-Garcia's express consent. Corporal Astin asked Zamora-Garcia if he could search the car, and Zamora-Garcia responded "Yeah, if you want to." At no time during the subsequent search did Zamora-Garcia attempt to withdraw this consent. Indeed, after observing Corporal Astin move luggage around the trunk to search the entire interior space, Zamora-Garcia offered to take-and subsequently took-one of the large bags out of the trunk to give Corporal Astin a better view. See United States v. Saenz, 474 F.3d 1132, 1137 (8th Cir. 2007) (finding consent was voluntary because the defendant gave consent to search the truck to two officers and he did not complain or question officers during the search).

         On appeal, Zamora-Garcia argues that the officers exceeded the scope of his initial consent when Corporal Astin instructed Zamora-Garcia to bring the car to headquarters in order to continue the search. However, we see no constitutional problem associated with this change of location. As the district court noted, Zamora-Garcia gave Corporal Astin unqualified consent to the search, and Zamora-Garcia did not object or otherwise withdraw his consent when Corporal Astin indicated that the search would continue at a second location or that the car wheel would be removed. See United States v. Lopez-Vargas, 457 F.3d 828, 830-31 (8th Cir. 2006) (finding no clear error in the district court's determination that a defendant's consent identifying one location permitted a subsequent search at a second location); United States v. Martel-Martines, 988 F.2d 855, 857 (8th Cir. 1993) (finding no Fourth Amendment violation related to a search conducted at two locations where an officer told the defendant that his truck would be taken to a second location and the defendant agreed to drive his truck to that location). Zamora-Garcia instead asked which officer he should follow and then drove his car to headquarters. "The standard for measuring the scope of a suspect's consent under the Fourth Amendment is that of 'objective' reasonableness, " an inquiry that asks what "the typical reasonable person [would] have understood by the exchange between the officer and the suspect." United States v. Sanders, 424 F.3d 768, 774 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Florida v. Jimeno, 500 U.S. 248, 251 (1991)). "[W]hether or not the suspect has actually consented to a search, the Fourth Amendment requires only that the police reasonably believe the search to be consensual." United States v. Sanchez, 156 F.3d 875, 878 (8th Cir. 1998). Given the circumstances here, we think the officers reasonably could have concluded that Zamora-Garcia's consent extended to the continued search at headquarters. Moreover, even if Zamora-Garcia's initial consent were somehow limited to the roadside search, we see no clear error in the district court's determination that Corporal ...

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