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United States v. Castellanos

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

May 29, 2013

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Arturo Castellanos, Defendant-Appellant.

Argued: January 31, 2013

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, at Greensboro. N. Carlton Tilley, Jr., Senior District Judge. (1:11-cr-00031-NCT-5)


Michael E. Archenbronn, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for Appellant.

Sandra Jane Hairston, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellee.


Ripley Rand, United States Attorney, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellee.

Before TRAXLER, Chief Judge, and AGEE and DAVIS, Circuit Judges.


AGEE, Circuit Judge:

Arturo Castellanos conditionally pled guilty in the Middle District of North Carolina to conspiracy to distribute cocaine. His sole challenge on appeal is to the district court's denial of his motion to suppress the cocaine, which had been found in the gas tank of a Ford Explorer as the vehicle was being transported on a commercial car carrier. We agree with the government that Castellanos failed to prove he had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the vehicle, and we affirm the judgment of the district court.


On September 20, 2010, Captain Kevin Roberts of the Reeves County, Texas, Sheriff's Department, was conducting a routine patrol at a truck stop near Pecos, Texas. He observed a Direct Auto Shippers ("DAS") commercial car carrier at a fuel filling station, and became suspicious that one of the vehicles being transported on the car carrier, a Ford Explorer (the "Explorer"), bore a dealership placard in lieu of a regular license plate.

Upon questioning the driver of the car carrier about the Explorer, Roberts was provided shipping documents identifying the owner of the vehicle as Wilmer Castenada. The docu- ments also reflected a trip origin in California with a final destination for delivery of the vehicle in Greensboro, North Carolina. Roberts attempted to contact Castenada using the phone number provided to DAS, but received no answer. He then attempted to verify the origin and destination addresses provided to DAS, but the California address was not associated with anyone bearing Castenada's name, and the North Carolina address matched two unrelated businesses. When Roberts contacted those businesses, their representatives each stated they had never heard of Castenada and were not expecting delivery of a vehicle.

Unable to contact Castenada, Roberts asked the driver of the DAS car carrier for permission to search the Explorer. The driver consented, and Roberts opened the Explorer and began to search the interior of the vehicle. He immediately noticed "grass and stuff" in the utility area, which, in his view was inconsistent with the Explorer coming from a dealership. He also noticed the "strong odor of Bondo, " a compound commonly used in the repair and after-market alteration of vehicles. (J.A. 38). Roberts observed fresh tool marks where the rear seats were anchored to the floor, indicating those had recently been removed or installed. When he pounded on the rear floorboard, Roberts noticed an inconsistency in the sound on the passenger side above the gas tank.

Roberts then inserted a fiber optic scope into the Explorer's gas tank in order to peer into its interior. When he did so, Roberts observed several blue bags floating in the tank. He then asked the car carrier driver if he (Roberts) could take custody of the Explorer. The driver consented and Roberts, with other officers, took possession of the Explorer and transported it to another location for further examination. When Roberts and other officers examined the Explorer in more detail, they found that the gas tank had been opened and resealed with Bondo, and recovered 23 kilogram-sized bricks of cocaine with a street value of approximately $3 million.

Subsequently, DAS informed Roberts that someone claiming to be Castenada had been calling DAS to inquire about the delivery of the Explorer. Using new contact information for Castenada received from DAS, Roberts called the telephone number claiming to be an employee of a wrecker service in Texas. Roberts falsely informed the individual claiming to be Castenada that the driver of the DAS carrier had been arrested and his cargo impounded so that Castenada would be required to travel to Texas in order to claim the Explorer. A few days later Roberts learned that someone, later identified as Arturo Castellanos, had arrived locally and was waiting for a ride to the wrecker service to claim the Explorer.

Police located and detained Castellanos, who had in his possession the title to the Explorer, the DAS tracking number for that vehicle, and a piece of paper bearing Roberts' phone number from the earlier calls. Castellanos waived his Miranda[1]rights, and told Roberts that he was in the process of purchasing the Explorer from Castenada, who lived in North Carolina. He then explained that Castenada advised him to go from Castellanos' home in California to Texas to retrieve the Explorer, then drive it to Castenada in North Carolina where Castellanos would pay Castenada for the vehicle. Castellanos would then drive the Explorer back to California. After Roberts expressed considerable skepticism at his story, Castel-lanos terminated the interview.

Police also seized two duffle bags that a co-conspirator (not party to this appeal) left at a local motel's front desk. Castel-lanos, who claimed to be traveling alone, denied that either of the bags belonged to him. When Roberts opened one of the bags, he found, in addition to other items, a contoured neck pillow. Feeling a foreign object inside the pillow, Roberts opened it and discovered a cellular telephone in a plastic bag. When Roberts turned the phone on, he found that the number of the telephone matched the number provided by DAS that he had been using to contact Castenada.

Castellanos and other individuals not party to this appeal were later indicted in the Middle District of North Carolina on one count of conspiracy to distribute five kilograms or more of a mixture containing a detectable amount of cocaine hydro-chloride, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 812, 841(a)(1), and 846(b)(1)(A).

Prior to trial, Castellanos moved to suppress the items contained in the duffle bag and the cocaine found in the gas tank. The government's evidence adduced at the suppression hearing consisted entirely of testimony from Roberts, who detailed the search and seizure of the vehicle and the subsequent investigation that lead to the arrest of Castellanos.

Notably, Castellanos did not introduce any evidence to show that he owned the Explorer at the time Roberts conducted the warrantless search or had permission to use the vehicle. Although Castellanos appeared in Texas with a title document to the Explorer, he did not put the title into evidence or otherwise attempt to demonstrate any ownership or possessory interest in the vehicle. Castellanos' out-of-court statements, as relayed by Roberts, made clear that Castellanos himself maintained that Castenada was a different person, insofar as he claimed the purchase of the Explorer from Cas-tenada was an incomplete transaction. Castellanos made no showing that he and Castenada were one and the same person or that Castenada was his alias.

After hearing argument, the district court issued a short ruling from the bench. The court stated that

I'm going to deny [Castellanos'] motion as to both the duffle bags, and with regard to the automobile, which had been given over to a common carrier with addresses which were ascertained to be false addresses. There was no legitimate expectation of privacy at that point. The shipper's address was false. The person who was to receive it was a false address.

(J.A. 72.)

The court did not make any findings of fact.

Prior to trial, Castellanos entered into a conditional plea agreement with the government and pled guilty to the sole count of the indictment, conspiracy to distribute cocaine hydrochloride. Pursuant to Rule 11(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, Castellanos reserved the right to appeal the district court's adverse decision on his motion to suppress. Castellanos was sentenced to 120 months' imprisonment and noted a timely appeal. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291.


The sole assignment of error raised by Castellanos on appeal is that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress the evidence of the cocaine discovered in the gas tank of the Explorer.[2] The government rejoins, however, that as a threshold matter, Castellanos cannot challenge the search because he failed to show a reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle's gas tank. If the government is correct, that issue is dispositive on appeal so we address it first.

We review de novo the district court's legal conclusions on a motion to suppress. See United States v. Cardwell, 433 F.3d 378, 388 (4th Cir. 2005). Normally, we would review the dis- trict court's factual findings in the suppression context for clear error. See id. Here, however, the court made no findings of fact. "It is, of course, the better practice for the district court to make such findings, but where the district court fails to do so, we assume the district court construed the evidence in the light most favorable to the party who prevails on the suppression motion below, " id., in this case, the government.

The Fourth Amendment protects "against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. A government agent's search is unreasonable when it infringes on "an expectation of privacy that society is prepared to consider reasonable." United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 113 (1984). "In order to demonstrate a legitimate expectation of privacy, [Castellanos] must have a subjective expectation of privacy, " United States v. Bynum, 604 F.3d 161, 164 (4th Cir. 2010), and that subjective expectation of privacy must be "objectively reasonable; in other words, it must be an expectation that society is willing to recognize as reasonable, " United States v. Bullard, 645 F.3d 237, 242 (4th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). The burden of showing a legitimate expectation of privacy in the area searched rests with the defendant. Rawlings v. Kentucky, 448 U.S. 98, 104 (1980).

The government argues that Castellanos lacked any expectation of privacy in the Explorer because the record failed to establish that he actually owned the vehicle or established any legitimate possessory interest in it. In the absence of such evidence, the government argues, Castellanos is essentially seeking the protection of the Fourth Amendment vicariously and such a status is inadequate upon which to raise a Fourth Amendment claim.[3]

"The Fourth Amendment protects people, not places." Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 351 (1967). Accordingly, Fourth Amendment rights "may not be vicariously asserted." United States v. Rumley, 588 F.3d 202, 206, n.2 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128 133-34 (1978)). "A person who is aggrieved by an illegal search and seizure only through the introduction of damaging evidence secured by a search of a third person's premises or property has not had any of his Fourth Amendment rights infringed." Rakas, 439 U.S. at 134 (citing Alderman v. United States, 394 U.S. 165, 174 (1969)). Conversely, "suppression of the product of a Fourth Amendment violation can be successfully urged only by those whose rights were violated by the search itself, not by those who are aggrieved solely by the introduction of damaging evidence." Alderman, 394 U.S. at 171–72. The "capacity to claim the protection of the Fourth Amendment depends . . . upon whether the person who claims the protection . . . has a legitimate expectation of privacy in the invaded place." Rakas, 439 U.S. at 143.

For the reasons explained herein, we agree with the government and hold that Castellanos has failed to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that, at the time of the search, the evidence showed that he ...

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