Defendant unlawfully seized because encounter was not consensual and the circuit court’s denial of motion to suppress reversed and conviction vacated
In a reversal, the Third District Appellate Court (the “Court”) ruled a motion to suppress was improperly denied based on an illegal search and seizure. The circuit court’s decision was reversed and the conviction of Defendant Aldo Salas (“Salas”) was vacated.
This case centers on a citizen-police encounter. There are three tiers to these encounters: : (1) arrests, supported by probable cause; (2) brief investigatory detentions, supported by a reasonable, articulable suspicion of a criminal activity; and (3) encounters with no detention or coercion that do not implicate the Fourth Amendment. People v. Smith, 2016 IL App (3d) 140648, ¶ 28; People v. Luedemann, 222 Ill. 2d 530, 542 (2006).
In this case, the third type of encounter is implicated. Salas argued he was compelled to comply due to coercive actions by law enforcement.
Prior to the Encounter
Before the encounter, an Illinois State Police special agent and member of the Narcotics and Currency Interdiction Task Force (“Task Force”) was notified by another agent about two individuals traveling via Amtrak to Naperville, Illinois. The two individuals were interviewed and searched in New Mexico and were initially traveling to Denver, Colorado before changing their destination to Naperville.
As a result, the special agent and other Task Force members were conducting surveillance at the Amtrak station on January 5, 2019 with the provided description.
Salas and his girlfriend arrived at the Amtrak station in Naperville and were approached by two plain clothes officers with badges on their belts who asked them about “drugs, money, and guns.” The officers asked to search Salas, which he denied.
At this point, one officer said, “let’s take this inside the train station.” Salas, 2023 IL App (3d) 220162-U, ¶ 5. Salas later testified that, while neither officer touched him, he did tell the officers he did not want to go inside the station. However, Salas did go in the station where more officers were waiting.
These additional officers separated Salas and his girlfriend and began searching her luggage and Salas’ backpack. Salas testified he did not give permission for the search and told the officers they had already been searched in New Mexico. A second officer inspected Salas’ backpack where a blue box was recovered and, when asked what was in it, Salas’ stated it was “something [he] shouldn’t have.” A canine officer was called who alerted the box, revealing the cocaine.
Surveillance footage from the incident was admitted into evidence that reflected the special agent’s testimony.
Circuit Court’s Denial & Defendant’s Appeal
Salas moved to suppress the cocaine based on an illegal search and seizure. However, the circuit court ruled a reasonable person would not feel compelled to comply, absent physical touching or weapons, and that there was no evidence the search was not consensual.
On appeal, Salas argued the circuit court erred in denying the motion to suppress evidence because it was an unreasonable search and seizure. Salas asserted he was seized without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, leading to a nonconsensual search of his backpack. Based on this nonconsensual search, Salas asserted the exclusionary rule required his conviction to be reversed outright.
The Court focused on the third type of police-citizen encounters – those where there is no coercion or detention, and thus no Fourth Amendment interests at stake. Luedemann, Ill.2d, at 544. This requires analyzing if the officers’ actions were coercive. Generally, even without a basis for suspicion, a police officer may ask questions of an individual, request identification, or request consent to a search. Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 434 (1991). When merely questioning an individual, the person may voluntarily answer without a seizure occurring Id.
To weigh the voluntariness of an individual’s consent, the Court looks at the totality of the circumstances and recognizes it is not voluntary if the acquiescence stems from assertions of police authority. People v. Graf, 265 Ill.App.3d 746, 750 (1994); People v. Cardenas, 237 Ill.App.3d 584, 588 (1992).
A seizure occurs when “in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.” United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554 (1980). Determinative factors supporting a seizure includes the presence of several officers, some physical touching of the person, display of an officer’s weapon, or a tone of voice/use of language indicating possible compulsion. Id.
Here, the Court found the circumstances amounted to a seizure. Salas was immediately approached by two officers when he exited the train, was directed into a small vestibule in the train station and encountered three more officers inside. Salas also implicitly denied consent to search his bag when he stated he was previously searched in New Mexico. The special agent’s reply that he was “going to have to search [his] bags” would lead a reasonable person to feel denial was futile.
As a result of the unlawful seizure, all evidence obtained in connection was suppressed. Because the conviction could not stand without the backpack’s contents, it was reversed outright.