Court Opinions: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion for Dec. 16

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

United States v. Gonzales

Richard Lopez, a Socorro County sheriff’s deputy, received information that on June 7, 2018, Mary Gonzales would be delivering methamphetamine to a house in Socorro, New Mexico, where a known drug dealer, Javier Martinez, lived. On June 7, as Lopez was surveilling the area, he saw Gonzales arrive at Martinez’s house in her truck. Lopez rushed from his vehicle to get a better look, and from about 40-50 yards away, he saw Martinez’s girlfriend interact with Gonzales at her truck for around 30 seconds. From what Lopez could see, he believed a drug transaction had occurred.

When Gonzalez drove away, Lopez pursued and stopped her. He asked Gonzales to step out of her vehicle and she complied. He confronted Gonzales by lying and claiming he had a source who told him she was dealing drugs. Lopez observed a plastic bag sticking out of her shirt and ordered her to give it to him and she did. Chemists later confirmed it contained pure methamphetamine. During the brief conversation, Gonzales said she had to “drop off,” which Lopez took to mean delivering drugs.

Lopez handcuffed Gonzales and asked if she had any other drugs. She reached into her truck and handed Lopez a pouch containing pure methamphetamine, heroin, prescription Suboxone strips, a digital scale and a glass methamphetamine pipe. Lopez also found a .22 caliber revolver after searching Gonzales’ purse with her consent. Gonzales made incriminating statements during the stop without receiving Miranda warnings. Lopez only read her Miranda warnings at the station, where she made more incriminating statements.

A federal grand jury indicted Gonzales for possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine, possession with intent to distribute heroin, felon in possession of a firearm and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime. 

Gonzales filed two pretrial motions to suppress, the second of which she sought to suppress her roadside statement to Lopez as Miranda violations, her post-Miranda statements at the station as involuntary under the Fifth Amendment and the drugs, firearm and any testimony about them as the fruit of the poisonous tree. The district court granted in part and denied in part the motion to suppress. The district court suppressed her roadside statements made after handcuffing and at the police station but declined to suppress the evidence prior to being handcuffed, ruling out any asserted Miranda violation. 

During the trial, the government called Lopez, two DEA chemists and an FBI agent. The FBI agent testified the methamphetamine and heroin were highly pure and were at distribution-level quantities, not personal use quantities. Alongside the FBI agent and Lopez’s testimony, the government entered into evidence the drugs and revolver. 

On appeal, Gonzales argued the district court should have suppressed her pre-handcuffing statements because she was in custody and admitting the statements wasn’t harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.    

A 10th Circuit Court of Appeals panel out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, ruled any error in admitting Gonzales’ pre-handcuffing statement was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because the government provided overwhelming proof of Gonzales’ intent to distribute the drugs. The 10th Circuit affirmed Gonzales’ conviction and sentence. 

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