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United States of America v. Alex A. Melendez.

August 20, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Robert M. Dow, Jr.


Before the Court is Defendant Alex Melendez's motion to suppress evidence and quash the arrest [60]. For the reasons below, Defendant's motion [60] is denied.

I. Background

The Seventh Circuit has described "the resolution of a motion to suppress" as a "fact-intensive inquiry" in which the district court must make "credibility determinations" based on "its opportunity at the suppression hearing to hear the testimony and observe the demeanor of the witnesses." United States v. Kempf, 400 F.3d 501, 503 (7th Cir. 2005); see also United States v. Springs, 17 F.3d 192, 194 (7th Cir. 1994) (explaining the deference given to the credibility determinations of the district judge who has "heard the conflicting testimony, observed the witnesses, and then reached a determination about whom to believe"). In this case, the Court convened a suppression hearing on June 12, 2012, at which time counsel for Defendant Melendez and counsel for the Government presented the testimony of three witnesses: Defendant Melendez, Special Agent Brett O'Connor of the Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA"), and Lake County Sheriff's Deputy John Van Dien. After considering the testimony of the witnesses and assessing their credibility, the Court sets forth the following recitation of the facts surrounding the encounter between Melendez and the law enforcement officers that gave rise to the federal charges against Melendez and the motion to suppress currently before the Court.

During the afternoon of March 16, 2011, as part of an ongoing investigation, DEA agents and local police officers were conducting surveillance on the home of Melendez's co-defendant, Jesus Gonzalez, in the 600 block of Fulton Street in Waukegan, Illinois. At approximately 3:15 p.m., a white Mercury sedan parked in the driveway of Gonzalez's residence. Gonzalez met briefly with the occupants of the Mercury sedan, and then the vehicle departed. At approximately 3:23 p.m., Lake County sheriff's department deputies stopped the Mercury sedan and found small amounts of marijuana inside the vehicle. The occupants of the vehicle were placed under arrest and charged in state court with possession of controlled substances.

Between 3:23 p.m. and 4:10 p.m., officers conducting surveillance observed approximately six additional vehicles park in Gonzalez's driveway for brief periods of time and then depart. One of the vehicles was a red Dodge Stratus driven by Melendez. The agents watched Gonzalez walk from his home and briefly enter the front passenger seat of the Dodge Stratus. Gonzalez then left the vehicle and Melendez drove away.

Lake County sheriff's deputies and DEA agents began to follow the Dodge Stratus. Special Agent Brett O'Connor, who was conducting the surveillance of the house, instructed sheriff deputies John Van Dien and Felix Pena, to observe and stop the vehicle when they had obtained independent probable cause to conduct a traffic stop. At approximately 4:15 p.m., Melendez turned on to State Route 120 (also known as Belvedere Road), less than a mile from the house on Fulton Street. Melendez later told O'Connor that he was talking on the phone with his brother as he was driving down Route 120. As Melendez continued down Route 120, O'Connor and the deputies observed Melendez's vehicle change lanes-from the outside lane to the inside lane-without using a signal. Upon making that observation, O'Connor directed the deputies to perform a traffic stop of Melendez and his vehicle.

When Melendez noticed the police vehicle behind him, he pulled over to the shoulder. Van Dien and Pena then approached the vehicle and asked Melendez for his license and proof of insurance. Melendez asked why he had been pulled over, and Van Dien advised him that he did not use his turn single while changing lanes. Defendant then responded, "Come on Van Dien. You know you don't pull people over for turn signals. What did you stop me for?" Van Dien then asked Melendez who owned the vehicle. Melendez stated that it belonged to a girlfriend.

Van Dien observed a large amount of cash inside the center console and asked Melendez if he had anything illegal in his vehicle. Melendez said he did not. Van Dien asked if Melendez would consent to a search of the vehicle; Melendez declined. Van Dien then advised Melendez that he was going to call a canine unit and run Melendez's information through the computer. As Van Dien turned to walk back to the police vehicle, Pena yelled out that he saw something suspicious in the vehicle. On closer inspection, however, it turned out that the item that Pena saw was a gum wrapper.*fn1

Before Van Dien reached his patrol car, Pena yelled to Van Dien that Melendez wanted to talk to him. Van Dien returned to the Dodge Stratus, and Melendez said, "I know you just didn't pull me over for the traffic. I know what you're all about. So do all the other people in the area." Melendez then said that he needed to talk to Van Dien but he did not want to talk on the street because "gang bangers" were watching them. Van Dien asked Melendez where he would like to go, and he said that he wanted to go down the street. Van Dien informed Melendez that there was an elementary school, Andrew Cooke Magnet School, approximately half a bock away and that the deputies would follow Melendez to the school. Melendez agreed to meet at that location. He then drove to the school with the officers following him.

When both cars reached the school, Van Dien got out of his car and approached Melendez, who was still in the driver's seat. Van Dien asked Melendez what he wanted to discuss and he stated, "Well, you got me." He said he knew that he was not pulled over for a traffic offense and added, "I got a brick of cocaine on me. You got me." Van Dien asked Melendez what he meant, and Melendez began to reach under his seat. Van Dien expressed concern, to which Melendez responded, "Van Dien, I would not shoot you." Melendez began to pull a white plastic grocery bag from under the seat, but stopped and said he could not continue. Van Dien asked why, and Melendez said he was afraid that other people were watching and listening.

Van Dien then informed O'Connor-who had been watching from around the corner- what was in the car. The deputies and O'Connor assisted Melendez out of the car, handcuffed him, patted him down, and placed him in the back of the patrol vehicle. Melendez continued to express concern for his safety, so the officers told him to put a hoodie over his face and lie down in the back seat. The deputies then transported Melendez to the Lake County Sheriff's Office. Van Dien advised Melendez not to say anything until he was advised of his rights. When the deputies and Melendez arrived at the office, they escorted Melendez through the back entrance because he was concerned about being seen by prisoners who were housed near the front entrance.

Special Agent O'Connor, Special Agent Keith Bakewell, and Task Force Officer Jay Tapia arrived at the sheriff's office, and at approximately 5:30 p.m., Melendez was advised of his rights and signed a waiver of those rights. In a subsequent written statement, Melendez admitted that he changed lanes without using a turn signal, claiming that he was trying to get away from a "guy flying." Melendez also admitted that he paid $30,000 for the brick of cocaine and that he had picked up cocaine from the house on Fulton Street approximately twice. At 9:25 p.m., Melendez made an additional handwritten statement that admitted that "I pulled up in Cooche's [Gonzalez's] driveway. He was standing in driveway waiting for me. I pulled up, he jumped in my car. I gave him a bag of $30,000 and he handed me a brick. . . Law dogg [Van Dien] pulled me over so we talk for a bit then I asked to move down street. He asked ...

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