JUDGE: DRUG SEARCH LEGAL
Wednesday, March 30, 2005
By Brendan Kirby
An Alabama state trooper did not cross the legal line when he searched
pickup truck after a traffic stop earlier this year and found millions of
dollars worth of methamphetamines, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge William Steele denied a request by defense lawyers to
bar evidence turned up by the Jan. 10 traffic stop on Interstate 10 in
Steele determined that the stop was valid because the trooper noticed the
2002 Chevrolet Avalanche weaving. Steele also pointed to the trooper's
testimony that driver Juan Perez-Oliveros and passenger Juvenal Espinoza
appeared extremely nervous, with trembling hands.
"So now we've got suspicion ratcheted up a notch. That may or may not be
enough" to go forward with a search, Steele said.
He added that each man in the truck gave a different account of where the
duo was headed. That, coupled with the judge's determination that the men
voluntarily consented to the search, proved sufficient cause.
Defense lawyers Dom Soto and Carlos Williams expressed disappointment
after the hearing.
"That's what goes on in federal court these days," Soto said.
State Trooper Charles Anderson testified that he pulled over the Avalanche
just east of the Theodore exit on I-10 at 12:20 a.m. on Jan. 10. He said
he initially became suspicious by the men's demeanor, especially
Perez-Oliveros, whose anxiety level he termed "one of the highest I have
seen" in thousands of traffic stops. He said the driver's nervousness did
not subside even after Anderson issued a warning rather than a ticket.
Anderson said his suspicion grew when Perez-Oliveros could not tell him
his passenger's name, despite the fact they had been driving together for
Anderson said Perez-Oliveros told him a friend had paid for him to fly to
San Antonio to drive the friend's uncle to Atlanta. But Anderson said
Espinoza separately told him that he was traveling from Laredo, Texas, to
When Anderson asked Perez-Oliveros why his friend did not simply pay his
uncle to fly to Atlanta, the suspect answered that Espinoza wanted his
truck with him, the officer testified. Anderson testified that he followed
that reply by questioning what Espinoza would want with a truck since he
had no driver's license. The trooper testified that Perez-Oliveros did not
"Your honor, you've got a preposterous story unraveling here," Assistant
U.S. Attorney George May said during argu ments. "The more the officer
probes, the more preposterous the story becomes."
Federal defender Carlos Williams, who represents Espinoza, argued that his
client was too English-deficient, too hard of hearing and too retarded to
understand Anderson during that stop. He also noted testimony that the
driver had a valid license, that the truck was registered to Espinoza and
neither man was wanted by authorities.
"The government has weaved this (drug) courier story," he said. "They need
more (justification), and they don't have it."
Soto, who represents Perez-Oliveros, recounted a story of visiting Cuba in
1998 and watching police interrogate his interpreter on allegations of
operating illegally as a cabbie. Soto said he had known the man for three
years but drew a blank on his name when police asked.
"You just can't imagine what it is to be a stranger in some place and be
accosted," he said. Anderson testified that Perez-Oliveros consented to a
search both orally and in writing. He said he got a "yes" answer when he
asked Espinoza -- in Spanish after the suspect had difficulty
communicating in English -- if he could search the vehicle. Espinoza
declined to sign the form but again said "yes" and gestured toward the
vehicle when asked a second time, Anderson testified.
Troopers removed the inner panels from the wall of bed on both sides of
the truck and found 52 odd-shaped packages wrapped in black tape. The
packages contained 66.25 pounds of methamphetamines and another 18.75
pounds of a purer form of drug called "ice."
A Drug Enforcement Administration agent testified that street value of the
drugs would exceed $7 million.
In his own testimony, Perez- Oliveros denied driving erratically.
"There was no reason to stop me," he said. "He checked my license and I
didn't even have a ticket."
DOM SOTO'S HOMEPAGE