Judge suppresses evidence in drug case
Seventh Judicial District Judge Matthew Reynolds upheld a defendant’s Fourth Amendment right to protection against unreasonable search and seizure on June 30, in a case that began with a traffic stop more than a year earlier.
After hearing arguments from Assistant District Attorney Robert Cates and public defender Lee Deschamps, the judge granted a motion to suppress evidence against Cassandra Ramirez-Aguilar, 25, of Socorro, obtained by Socorro police officers during the execution of a search warrant on April 9, 2010.
On April 8, 2010, according to the criminal complaint, the defendant was driving a car owned by Frank Alexander, 27, when police stopped her. Alexander was in the passenger seat. The complaint says the officers had been tipped off that Alexander was transporting narcotics to the Socorro area. The complaint also said that during a preliminary search of the vehicle, Alexander, who was detained on an outstanding warrant, told the officers they could not search a purse sitting on the driver’s seat.
The car was sealed and towed to the police department. Ramirez-Aguilar was released after no drugs were found on her person, and a search warrant was obtained for the car. When the car was searched the following day, the complaint says, drugs and paraphernalia were found in the purse. Ramirez-Aguilar was subsequently charged with possession and distribution of a controlled substance.
The problem, according to her attorney, was that the search warrant didn’t make specific reference to Ramirez-Aguilar’s purse, and was silent as to closed containers within the car.
Cates argued that the warrant was based on what officers observed when they made the stop, and the purse was within the scope of the search authorized by the warrant.
Citing a 2011 New Mexico Court of Appeals case, State v. Tiffany Bond, which reaffirmed the principle that a person’s purse is to be treated with the highest possible level of protection, Deschamps argued that the purse was in fact outside the specific authority of the warrant. In addition, he argued that it was a problem of ownership.
“They didn’t ask Cassandra for consent (to search the purse), they asked Frankie,” Deschamps said. “If it’s Frankie’s, it’s not hers. If it’s hers, it’s a warrantless search.”
Reynolds said it was the responsibility of the police officers to establish ownership of the purse.
“The problem I see with this is there is no reference to Cassandra Aguilar,” he said. “For the court to uphold the search of her purse, we would have to say that because she was with Mr. Alexander and driving his car, there was a reasonable suspicion. However, from what I see, based on the officer’s report there was no reasonable suspicion of Ms. Aguilar as a target.”
In other words, Reynolds said that if officers find a purse in a car, they need a more specific reason to search it than the fact that the person who owns the purse is with the target. Since there was nothing in the affidavit and search warrant that connected her and her property to the target, he concluded that Ramirez-Aguilar was entitled to Fourth Amendment protection, and granted the motion to suppress the evidence obtained in the search.
Later, at the Socorro police station, Det. Richard Lopez said cases are occasionally lost on warrants.
“It happens. We’re trying to get things done,” he said. “Then the lawyers and judges have weeks or months to pick apart what we had a few minutes or hours to do. We understand that’s the way it is, and we just have to get better and better.”
Lopez said police often have to make decisions in a matter of seconds, or even split-seconds.
“Our guys are doing our jobs — we’re doing the best job we can,” he said. “Unfortunately, the system doesn’t always work in our favor.”