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United States v. Peters

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

January 29, 2019




         On December 14, 2018, Norman Peters (“Defendant”) moved to suppress evidence of cocaine seized during a motor vehicle stop by police officers from the Stamford Police Department on April 1, 2016. Defendant's Motion to Suppress, dated Dec. 14, 2018 (“Suppression Mot.”), ECF No. 43. Mr. Peters challenges both the validity of the stop and the reasonableness of the search subsequently undertaken, which resulted in finding the cocaine.

         On January 16, 2019, the Government filed its opposition to Mr. Peters's suppression motion. Government's Opposition to Suppression Mot., dated Jan. 16, 2019 (“Gov't Opp.”), ECF No. 57.

         On January 24, 2019, the Court conducted an evidentiary hearing and held argument on the motion. Minute Entry, dated Jan. 24, 2019, ECF No. 60.

         For the following reasons, the motion to suppress is DENIED.


         A. Findings of Fact[1]

         This case is part of a larger investigation and prosecution into a drug trafficking conspiracy allegedly operated by Bobby Gutierrez, coordinated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”), in partnership with state and local law enforcement agencies- including the Stamford Police Department. See Notice of Related Case, dated Sept. 6, 2018, ECF No. 10. That investigation resulted in the prosecution of nine defendants, including Mr. Gutierrez, who pleaded guilty to two counts before this Court on November 21, 2016 and was sentenced to 160 months imprisonment on May 8, 2017. See United States v. Gutierrez, No. 16-cr-114 (VAB), ECF Nos. 145, 308.

         DEA agents intercepted wire and electronic communications by Mr. Gutierrez under Title III warrants approved by United States District Judge Stefan R. Underhill on March 10, 2016 and March 16, 2016.[2]

         On April 1, 2016, law enforcement officers involved in the wiretap investigation intercepted a phone call to Mr. Gutierrez's cell phone from the number (646) 887-5350, made by a person who identified himself as “Ski.” “Ski”, a known alias for Mr. Peters, had used this telephone number before. Mr. Peters had become known to the law enforcement officers as someone involved in drug trafficking, as he had previously been convicted for sale of narcotics.

         The monitored call led the officers to believe that Mr. Peters was arranging a drug sale:

PETERS: This is Ski. What up?
GUTIERREZ: What up? Oh, oh okay, I know. What's going on with you?
PETERS: Ain't shit. You around?
GUTIERREZ: Yeah, what's good?
PETERS: Shit, I'm about to be out there in, like, but I'm almost out there. But I'm about to go eat first. So like 45 minutes.
GUTIERREZ: Alright, what exit you going to be on?
PETERS: Uh, 14.
PETERS: Alright.

         Transcript of Call No. 467, admitted as Gov't Ex. 1. From this conversation, the officers understood that a drug sale was likely to occur. DEA Special Agent Ryan McHugh testified that the reference to the exit number, 14, related to the amount of cocaine being purchased: fourteen grams of cocaine.

         About forty-five minutes later, “Ski” called Mr. Gutierrez again:

GUTIERREZ: Hold up, Michael! Hold up! [Pause]
PETERS: Shit! Where you want me to come?
GUTIERREZ: Shit. I'll be by my job in a couple of minutes.
Like 10, 15 minutes.
PETERS: Alright. [Voices overlap]
GUTIERREZ: 15, 20 minutes, 15, 20 minutes, really.
PETERS: Alright, I'm already out here. So I'll wait for you.

         Transcript of Call No. 473, admitted as Gov't Ex. 1. Agent McHugh testified that at this point, the officers believed Mr. Peters would be meeting Mr. Gutierrez at B&B Deli, located at 988 State Street in Bridgeport, Connecticut-which they had already identified through previous intercepts as a location where Mr. Gutierrez would meet with traffickers.

         Agent McHugh then testified that he contacted several police departments to see if they had units available and ultimately dispatched Stamford Police Officer Jose Alvarez, who was part of the investigative team, to conduct surveillance on 988 State Street.

         Agent McHugh also testified that the investigative team conducted a motor vehicle records check to discover whether Mr. Peters had a valid driver's license. He described this as a routine investigative technique used to identify whether local law enforcement could have reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle unrelated to the Title III investigation. By doing this, local law enforcement would be able to stop the vehicle and provide an explanation for the stop that would not jeopardize the ongoing Title III investigation.

         Agent McHugh testified that the search revealed Mr. Peters did not possess a valid driver's license. As a result, Agent McHugh and his team decided that they would use this information as a basis to stop the vehicle that they could communicate with Mr. Peters, with the hope that they could verify that Mr. Gutierrez was distributing cocaine without jeopardizing the ongoing Title III investigation.

         Officer Alvarez arrived at 988 State Street in an unmarked car and began conducting surveillance. He soon saw a gray 2008 Toyota Avalon with Connecticut license plate 692-YHN pull into the parking lot of the store. He testified that he was not close enough, however, to identify whether Mr. Peters was the driver.

         Agent McHugh recalls that Officer Alvarez called out the license plate number to the investigative team through his Nextel device, which allowed him to communicate with other investigative team members.[3] A motor vehicle records search indicated that the car was registered to a woman other team members identified as a relative of Mr. Peters.

         Officer Alvarez testified that, a few minutes later, he saw Mr. Gutierrez drive his car into the parking lot. Mr. Gutierrez briefly went into the deli at 988 State Street before leaving and getting into the gray Toyota. The car then left the parking lot with Mr. Gutierrez, drove 200 yards down the street ...

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