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United States v. Castellanos, No. 12-4108

Decided: May 29, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court that Castellanos failed to prove he had a legitimate expectation of privacy in a vehicle that was holding cocaine in its gas tank and being transported on a commercial car carrier.

On September 20, 2010, Captain Kevin Roberts of the Reeves County, Texas, Sheriff’s Department was conducted a routine patrol in Pecos, Texas when he observed a Direct Auto Shippers (“DAS”) commercial car carrier at a gas station. Captain Roberts first became suspicious of a Ford Explorer (“the Explorer”) that was being transported on the DAS carrier  when he noticed that it bore a dealership plate rather than a traditional license plate.  After questioning the DAS driver, Roberts was provided the shipping documents that identified the owner of the Explorer as Wilmer Castenada.  The documents also provided that the trip origin was in California with a final destination in North Carolina.  Roberts attempted to contact Castenada with no luck.  He also attempted to verify the origin and destination of the vehicle by contacting the locations on the shipping documents, but both locations were not associated with Castenada nor were the business representatives that answered the phone aware of the delivery.  Without being able to contact Castenada, Roberts asked the DAS driver if he could search the vehicle; to which the driver acquiesced.  The initial search revealed several abnormalities and caused Roberts to insert a fiber optic scope into the vehicle’s gas tank, which revealed several blue bags floating in the tank.  Roberts then requested to take custody of the vehicle and a more in-depth search revealed “23 kilogram-sized bricks of cocaine with a street value of approximately $3 million.”    After the search, DAS informed Roberts that someone claiming to be Castenada had contacted DAS and was asking about the delivery of the Explorer.  Roberts then lured the caller by telling him that the driver of the DAS carrier had been arrested and the Explorer had been impounded.  A few days later, Roberts was told that someone identified as Castellanos had arrived in the area and was waiting for a ride to pick up the Explorer from the impound lot.  Police subsequently detained Castellanos, who had, inter alia, the title to the Explorer in his possession, the DAS tracking number for the vehicle, and other documentation linking him to the Explorer.  He initially waived his Miranda rights and told Roberts he was in the process of purchasing the vehicle from Castenada, who lived in North Carolina, and that he was instructed to pick up the vehicle and drive it to North Carolina.  After Roberts challenged the story, Castellanos discontinued the interview.  Police also seized circumstantial evidence from a co-conspirator that linked Castellanos to the vehicle.  Castellanos was indicted in the Middle District of North Carolina on one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine hydrochloride.  Prior to trial, he attempted to suppress the search of the cocaine found in the gas tank.  The district court fueled that Castellanos had not introduced any evidence to show that he owned the Explorer and, as a result, could not object to the search of the vehicle because he had no reasonable expectation of privacy to its contents.  Castellanos entered into a conditional plea agreement and pled guilty to the sole count of the indictment, but reserved his right to appeal the district court’s decision to deny his motion to suppress the evidence.

The Fourth Circuit only addressed the issue that Castellanos could not challenge the search because he could not show that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the Explorer’s gas tank.  The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s legal conclusions de novo because the district court had made no finding of fact.  The Fourth Circuit agreed with the Government that Castellanos “failed to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that, at the time of the search, the evidence showed that he had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the Explorer.”  Though Castellanos asserted that he was purchasing the Explorer from Castenada, there was no evidence entered into the record to prove that fact.  Rather, Castellanos did not enter the title of the Explorer into evidence nor did he provide any bill of sale.  He also failed to show that anyone had give him permission to use the vehicle or any other right with respect to the vehicle.  In the end, Castellanos failure to provide any evidence definitively linking him to the Explorer forced the court to hold that Castellanos failed to support a conclusion that he “had anything more than a distantly attenuated connection to the Explorer” and, as such, had no reasonable expectation of privacy in its contents.  Therefore, he could not challenge the warrantless search on those grounds.

Full opinion

– John G. Tamasitis