Thursday, March 13, 2008
Court Upholds Search of Vehicle With Concealed Ownership
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A drug trafficker who disassociated himself from a car so that its use in transporting illegal drugs could not be traced back to him lacks standing to challenge evidence obtained from the vehicle’s seizure, the Third District Court of Appeal has ruled.
In an opinion released Monday, the court held that Sacramento Superior Court Judge Richard H. Gilmour properly denied Antonio Villasenor’s motion to suppress evidence obtained after law enforcement officers installed a GPS tracking device in a vehicle that Vellasenor purchased—but took pains to keep his name off of—because Villasenor’s actions left him with no legitimate expectation of privacy in the vehicle.
Villasenor was one of the heads of a large drug-trafficking operation that, among other illegal activities, sought to transport large quantities of cocaine from Texas to Sacramento.
On March 21, 2002, Villasenor gave his brother $3,000 and sent him to Grass Valley, Calif., northeast of Sacramento, to purchase a 1993 Chrysler Concorde he had found in a newspaper advertisement.
Antonio Villasenor did not sign any paperwork for the car, and only his brother’s name was listed on the title and release of liability. Knowing that one of his “load drivers” would be taking the car to Texas and returning with a shipment of drugs—and not wanting the car to be associated with him if she were caught and the car searched—he also failed to register the car with the Department of Motor Vehicles or to obtain insurance under his name.
Through an investigation of Villasenor’s drug-related activities, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department concluded Villasenor and his coconspirators would use the Concorde as a load car to transport controlled substances. On this basis, they obtained a search warrant authorizing entry into the Concorde and installation of a GPS tracking device.
Investigators tracked the Concorde as it traveled to Texas, and on May 16, 2002, they arranged for law enforcement officers in Texas to stop the Concorde and another car with which it was traveling. The resulting search revealed 49 kilograms of cocaine stashed in a false compartment in the Concorde.
Villasenor moved to suppress the evidence obtained by tracking the Concorde, supported by a declaration asserting his ownership of the vehicle.
However, Gilmour denied the motion, reasoning that—because Villasenor purposefully distanced himself from the car to avoid detection—the law did not recognize his expectation of privacy in the vehicle as legitimate.
A jury convicted Villasenor of charges including conspiracy to transport and sell cocaine, conspiracy to transport and sell methamphetamine, and possession of a false compartment to conceal a controlled substance, and the judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison.
On appeal, Villasenor argued that he had a property right in the vehicle giving him the ability to challenge state action; that installation of the GPS tracking device was a seizure of the Concorde for the purposes of constitutional analysis; and that his ownership interest in the vehicle created a privacy right.
However, the court, in an opinion by Justice George Nicholson, flatly rejected Villasenor’s contentions as failing “to recognize the reasonable inferences to be drawn from the evidence.”
Focusing on whether society was willing to recognize Villasenor’s expectation of privacy, Nicholson wrote that “Villasenor’s own actions delegitimized his privacy interest in the Concorde.”
Comparing the situation to that presented to the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in United States v. Hawkins (11th Cir. 1982) 681 F.2d 1343—where the Court of Appeals held that the defendant’s disclaimer of ownership of a suitcase that he knew contained a controlled substance at the time of a warrantless search was inconsistent with his later claim of a privacy interest, and therefore defeated the claim—Nicholson said that Villasenor’s actions were “more reprehensible.”
“While in Hawkins, the defendant, acting on the spur of the moment, disclaimed ownership of a suitcase that he knew contained a controlled substance, Villasenor orchestrated an attempt to accomplish the same purpose by careful advanced planning and exploitation of others. As one of the leaders of the conspiracy, he sought to have others take the blame if the illegal acts were detected…
“Villasenor conspired to transport controlled substances, foresaw the possible search of the car, disassociated himself from the car, and now asserts that he had a constitutionally-protected privacy interest in the car. Because the Fourth Amendment was not intended to protect this type of illegitimate privacy interest, Villasenor’s attempt to assert such an interest fails.”
Presiding Justice Arthur G. Scotland and Justice Fred K. Morrison joined Nicholson in his opinion.
The case is People v. Tolliver, 08 S.O.S. 1521.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company