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United States v. Larson

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 20, 2016

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
v.
JUSTIN LARSON, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Paula Xinis United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is Defendant Justin Larson's motion to suppress the fruits of a warrantless search conducted on a package shipped from China and destined for Gaithersburg, Maryland. ECF No. 12.[1] The Government contends that the warrantless search was justified as under the extended border search doctrine. For the following reasons, the Court agrees and will deny Defendant's motion.

         A. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On March 28, 2016, Larson was charged with one count of distribution of a controlled substance analogue with death resulting, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C) and one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance analogue in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846. On August 3, 2016, the Government filed a superseding indictment, adding four counts of possession of a controlled substance analogue with intent to distribute, one count of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, and one count of attempted possession of a controlled substance analogue with intent to distribute. ECF No. 16.

         Larson then filed a motion and supplemental motion to suppress evidence and statements. ECF Nos. 6, 12. In his motion, Larson challenged, inter alia, the constitutionality of a warrantless search and seizure of a package that had been transported from China and destined for a Gaithersburg, Maryland address. On December 12, 2016, the Court held a suppression hearing where the Government contended that the warrantless seizure and search of the package was justified as an extended border search. After hearing from two witnesses called by the Government-Special Agent Jason Shatarsky from the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Corey Evans, the Operations Manager of TNT, a private commercial carrier-and oral argument, the Court requested supplemental briefing from the parties. ECF No. 35. On December 14, 2016, the Court received supplemental letter pleadings from the Government and Defendant. ECF Nos. 38, 41.[2]

         B. OPERATIVE FACTS

         At the suppression hearing, the following undisputed facts were established. On February 10, 2015, the parcel in question began its journey from China to the United States. Its ultimate destination was to be 19413 Brassie Place, Gaithersburg, Maryland. TNT, an international parcel delivery service akin to FedEx Express, was responsible for shipping the package. TNT took custody of the package in China and airmailed it to the United States. The package entered the United States at John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) in New York. As is routine with all TNT packages delivered from China to the United States, TNT maintains constant custody and control over the packages from the moment TNT takes possession until the package is delivered to its final destination. Specifically, when the packages arrive at JFK, TNT loads them into a secure warehouse where they are then loaded into a secure TNT truck and transported to a TNT distribution hub in geographic proximity to its final consumer destination. During transport, the packages are locked securely in a truck and not accessible to anyone including the driver. Once the packages reach the TNT hub in Bowie, Maryland, they are then sorted and delivered to their final destinations.

         TNT from time to time works cooperatively with federal law enforcement to hold and search packages deemed suspicious. Because such cooperation often delays the delivery of the packages, TNT will also, at law enforcement's request, manipulate the package tracking information publicly available to its customer base to hide the real reason for the delay. TNT further will provide space in its facility for law enforcement to search packages.

         This is precisely what happened here. Special Agent Shatarsky testified that while the package in question was in transit, DHS learned of four other similarly sized and weighted packages which were shipped from China via TNT through JFK, all of which contained illegal narcotics. Specifically, on February 9 and 10, 2015, Agent Shatarsky was involved in the seizure and search of two such TNT packages which contained methamphetamine. Agent Shatarsky testified to seizing and searching the first two packages on February 9. Agent Shatarsky then participated in a controlled delivery involving the second two packages and received consent to search those two additional packages on February 10.

         Each of the searches uncovered illegal narcotics packaged the same way: a mylar plastic bag held the drugs; the bag was then secreted in a small water cooler; the box holding the water cooler appeared to be the commercial packaging for the water cooler. Of the four prior deliveries, two originated from a Shanghai address that was nearly identical for all practical purposes to originating address for the package in question. See Gov't Ex. 1-5.

         As a result, when the package in this case came to Agent Shatarsky's attention, he contacted TNT operations manager Corey Evans to intercept it. Agent Shatarsky specifically requested that Mr. Evans hold the package and make it appear in the TNT website that delivery was delayed for a period of time sufficient to allow the Agents to search the package. When the package arrived at the Bowie, Maryland location, it was placed in a secure cage where it remained until February 17, 2015. At that time, Agents Shatarsky and another fellow agent arrived at the TNT Bowie facility. Evans provided the agents a designated area to search the package.

         Agents observed that the parcel was consistent in size, shape and weight to the prior four shipments. Based on those similarities and in combination with the similarity of sender address to the prior two packages, Agent Shatarsky opened the package. Inside he found a water cooler almost identical in appearance to the ones used in the prior four shipments. This cooler was packaged similarly to the prior four, and contained within the water cooler was a mylar bag of similar size and color. The bag contained what appeared to be controlled substances. Agent Shatarsky then contacted fellow agents to retrieve the package.

         The substance in the package ultimately tested positive for acetyl fentanyl. A controlled delivery was made to its final destination, 19413 Brassie Place, Gaithersburg, Maryland. Amber Sullivan, Larson's girlfriend, signed a fake name and accepted the package. Agents then took Sullivan and another individual into custody. After being read her Miranda rights, Sullivan told the agents that Larson asked her to pick up the package. During Sullivan's detention with the agents, Larson called Sullivan's cell phone to confirm the package had been delivered.

         C. ...


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