In 2016, Gustavo Lopez was driving a GMC Sierra northbound on Interstate 59 when he was pulled over by Detective Daniel Quave with the Pearl River County Sheriff’s Office for following another vehicle too closely. According to Detective Quave’s incident report, Lopez was identified by his Guatemalan Identification Card, and Lopez stated he was in the United States on a visa. Quave asked Lopez where he was headed, and Lopez stated that he had a small car dealership in Guatemala and that he was going to purchase at least one vehicle in Birmingham, Alabama.
For safety reasons, Quave asked Lopez to exit the vehicle and sit in the passenger seat of his patrol vehicle while he completed the traffic citation. During that time, they continued their discussion. As Quave asked Lopez questions, he believed that at least one of Lopez’s answers was rehearsed. Quave also noted that Lopez seemed very familiar with the area, and it appeared that he had traveled the area quite frequently.
Throughout their discussion, Quave observed Lopez continuously staring at the GMC Sierra. Quave asked Lopez if there was anything in the vehicle that he needed to be aware of, and Lopez responded “no” several times. When he asked Lopez if there were any illegal guns in the vehicle, Lopez responded no. Quave asked if there was marijuana, cocaine, or crystal methamphetamine in the vehicle, and Lopez consistently stated no.
However, when Lopez was asked specifically about heroin, he seemed to all of the sudden be out of breath but stated no. When Quave asked about heroin again, Lopez did not say anything. According to Quave, when he asked if there were any hidden compartments in the vehicle, Lopez looked directly at the bed of the GMC Sierra as he stated no. At that point, Quave asked Lopez for permission to search the vehicle and explained that he could refuse the search. However, Lopez responded, “No sir go ahead, everything is open.”
During the search of the vehicle, Quave noticed two metal bars that appeared to be tow saddles for tractor trucks. He also noticed that there was a large amount of grease, sand, and grass covering the tow saddles, which seemed odd to him. Quave retrieved his K-9 partner from his vehicle; the dog began to show interest in the area where the tow saddles were located.
At that point, the vehicle was moved to the Lenoir Rowell Criminal Justice Center Complex to safely continue the search. When Quave dismantled the tow saddles, he recovered twelve packages of heroin (1500.29 grams) wrapped in duct tape.
The next day, Quave conducted a post-Miranda interview. During the interview, Lopez stated that he was paid $5,000 to pick up the tow saddles in Texas and drive them to Pennsylvania, which he had done several other times. Lopez stated that he knew something was not right with the tow saddles, and he figured that they contained drugs because he was getting paid so much money.
Lopez pled guilty to possession of heroin with intent to traffic and was sentenced to 30 years. On appeal, he argued in a post conviction relief (PCR) via an ineffective assistance of counsel claim that 1) his statement should have been suppressed because he did not speak English proficiently, 2) the traffic stop was illegal, and 3) consent to search the vehicle was invalid for several reasons. MCOA affirmed.
It is unclear whether Lopez claims that he was not advised of his Miranda rights or that he was advised of his Miranda rights but could not validly waive them because he did not speak English proficiently. The evidence in the record suggests that Lopez was advised of his Miranda rights prior to giving his statement to law enforcement.
Additionally, the evidence in the record suggests that Lopez could speak English proficiently. In his petition to plead guilty, Lopez swore that he could read and write English. Then, at the plea hearing, he swore that he understood English.
In the order denying Lopez’s PCR motion, the court found that Lopez was proficient in English and was able to easily converse at the plea hearing without an interpreter. The court noted that there was no reason to believe Lopez could not understand or speak English; and had Lopez given any indication that he did not understand the proceedings or the consequences of entering a guilty plea, the court would have arranged for an interpreter to be present.
Finally, the court noted that Lopez’s attorney worked for a firm specializing in immigration law, and the court was confident that Lopez’s attorney would not have proceeded with his representation of Lopez without an interpreter if one was needed.
B. Traffic stop
Lopez suggests that the traffic stop was unlawful because law enforcement lacked reasonable suspicion. Lopez asserts that he was racially profiled and maintains that he could not have been following too closely because there were no vehicles “in the near front” of him.
However, Lopez does not present any evidence in support of his assertions other than his own statements. Furthermore, Lopez’s assertions contradict the evidence. In the incident report, Quave stated that he conducted a traffic stop on Lopez for following too closely. Specifically, Quave noted that he observed the vehicle in question traveling northbound on Interstate 59 approximately two and a half car lengths behind a vehicle in the right lane near the 4 mile marker.
First, Lopez argues that his consent was invalid because he did not speak English proficiently. However, for the reasons discussed above, this argument lacks merit.
Second, he argues that he was unaware of his right to refuse. However, Lopez does not produce any evidence that he was not advised of the right to refuse. Additionally, the incident report contradicts his assertion. According to Quave, he asked Lopez for permission to search the vehicle and explained that he could refuse the search. However, Lopez responded, “No sir go ahead, everything is open.”
Third, Lopez seemingly argues that the search exceeded the scope of his consent because it continued after his vehicle was taken to the criminal justice center complex. However, MSC in Blissett held that police officers who have legitimately stopped an automobile and who have probable cause to believe that contraband is concealed somewhere within it may conduct a warrantless search of the vehicle as thorough as a magistrate could authorize by warrant.
Quave legitimately stopped Lopez’s vehicle. Additionally, there was probable cause to believe that Lopez’s vehicle contained contraband. During the initial search, to which Lopez consented, Quave noticed that there was a large amount of grease, sand, and grass covering the tow saddles, which seemed odd to him. When he tapped one of the tow saddles, the metal sounded thin and hollow.
Quave retrieved his K-9 partner, and the dog began to show interest in the area where the tow saddles were located. At that point, the vehicle was moved to the criminal justice center complex to safely continue the search. Finally, the search was no more thorough than a magistrate could authorize by warrant.
In Austin, we said when probable cause justifies the search of a vehicle which the police have lawfully stopped, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search. Here, there was probable cause to suspect that drugs were hidden in the tow saddles.