On November 5, 2018, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Correa[i], which serves as an excellent review of various legal principles related to drug investigations. The relevant facts of Correa are as follows:

The investigation that led the DEA to defendants Jason Correa and Saul Melero began when a DEA confidential source obtained $500,000 in cash from two unidentified men. DEA agents tailed the men to a house a few miles away and put the house under surveillance. Eight days later, on October 27, 2011, agents followed one of the men (who drove the same car he had driven to meet the confidential source eight days earlier) to a grocery store in Chicago. With DEA task force members watching the parking lot and the grocery, the man parked his car next to a silver Jeep and then went into the grocery. The man met in a coffee shop inside the grocery with a man later identified as Correa. Six minutes later, the two men walked to the unidentified man’s car. He retrieved a multicolored bag and gave it to Correa, who put it in the silver Jeep.  Correa then drove away in the Jeep, tailed by task force officers in two unmarked cars. DEA Special Agent Thomas Asselborn radioed the officers and instructed them to stop Correa’s car if they saw a traffic violation.

It did not take long. The officer in the lead car, Mike Giorgetti, saw Correa turn left without signaling at 18th Street and Canal. After following Correa east across the Chicago River, Officer Giorgetti activated his lights and siren and pulled Correa over near the intersection of 18th Street and Wabash. Wearing a bulletproof vest marked “Police” on both sides, Officer Giorgetti approached the driver’s side of Correa’s car. The other task force officer, Steve Hollister, approached the passenger side. Officer Giorgetti asked Correa for his license and registration and asked Correa if he had anything illegal in the car. After Correa said no, Officer Giorgetti asked if he could search the car. Correa said “go ahead.” Officer Hollister witnessed the exchange.

Officer Giorgetti found the multi-colored bag that the unidentified man had given to Correa moments earlier. In a bag inside that bag, Giorgetti found what he thought was cocaine. After finding the cocaine, the officers also found a bag on the front passenger seat containing four garage door openers, three sets of keys, and four cell phones. The officers then arrested Correa. After the officers arrested Correa, but before they took him to the DEA office and gave him Miranda warnings, Agent Asselborn arrived on the scene and took the garage door openers and keys.

Agent Asselborn drove straight to 1717 South Prairie—the address where the unidentified men had taken the confidential source’s car and left with $500,000 in cash eight days earlier. That was a dead end: none of the garage door openers worked at that address. Agent Asselborn spent the next ten to fifteen minutes testing the openers on various nearby buildings. He tested them on “a bunch of townhouses with garages attached to them right in that area.” When that did not work, he “kind of did a grid system,” testing the openers on multiple buildings starting west of South Michigan Avenue and working his way east to an alley just east of Michigan Avenue. Eventually, the garage door opened for a multi-story condominium building at 1819 South Michigan Avenue. Thinking that someone else might have opened the door, Asselborn backed up down the alley, waited for the door to go down automatically, and then activated the opener again. The door opened. Asselborn used the opener “a third time just to be sure,” but he did not enter the garage.

The agents went to 1819 South Michigan Avenue. (They never did figure out what the other garage door openers opened.) Using a key fob from the same bag that had contained the garage door openers, agents entered the locked lobby of the building. They then tested mailbox keys from the same key ring on various mailboxes and found a match: Unit 702. Agent Asselborn contacted a supervisor who was back at the DEA office with Correa, to obtain Correa’s consent for a search of Unit 702. The supervisor told Correa that the keys from the car matched Unit 702, asked if there was “anything illegal” in the condominium, and then asked if Correa “minded if we check 1819 S. Michigan, Unit 702.” Correa said “go ahead and search it,” but he refused to sign a consent form.

Inside the condominium, the agents found a handgun and more than a kilogram each of cocaine and heroin, as well as quantities of marijuana, Ecstasy, and methamphetamine. They also found equipment for weighing and packaging drugs, and personal documents of Saul Melero’s. Correa I, at *2. After a neighbor told agents that Saul Melero was one of the condominium’s residents and was standing outside on Michigan Avenue, agents arrested him on the spot.

Correa and Melero were both charged with drug and firearm offenses.[ii]

Correa and Malero both filed motions to suppress and asserted multiple Fourth Amendment violations.  The district court denied the motions.  The defendants ultimately appealed the denial of the motions to suppress to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court examined the issues in chronological order.  As such, they examined the legality of (1) the traffic stop, (2) the search of the car, (3) the seizure of the garage door opener and keys, (4) the use of the garage door opener and keys to locate an address, (5) accessing the lobby and testing the mailbox key, and (6) searching the apartment.

Part One of the article will discuss the officer’s actions on the scene of the traffic stop (1-3 above) and Part Two will discuss the officer’s subsequent investigative actions (4-6).

It is important to note that when an issue relies on a factual determination made by the trial court, the court of appeals is required to accept the factual determination of the trial court unless it is clearly in error.

  1. The Traffic Stop

The court noted that officers were instructed to stop Correa’s car if they observed a traffic violation.  The officers observed a traffic violation, failure to signal a turn, and conducted a traffic stop, although there was an ulterior motive for the stop, particularly, the drug investigation.  The trial court credited the officer’s testimony regarding the observation of the traffic violation.  Thus, the court accepted it and examined potential legal issues.

First, the court examined the fact that the stop was pre-textual, or there was an ulterior motive to the stop.  The court of appeals held that the stop was based on the observation of a traffic violation, which provided probable cause for the stop, and as such, the stop was lawful, even if the officers had an ulterior motive to investigate illegal drugs.  The court stated

[P]robable cause satisfies the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness requirement even if the officers were more interested in suspected drug trafficking than in dangerous driving on the streets of Chicago. See United States v. Taylor, 596 F.3d 373, 376 (7th Cir. 2010) (stop proper because driver’s failure to wear seatbelt gave officers probable cause to believe driver committed traffic offense); see also Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 810 (1996) (“As a general matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.”), citing Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 659 (1979), and Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 109 (1977).[iii] [emphasis added]

Therefore, the ulterior motive did not invalidate an otherwise valid traffic stop.

Second, the defendant argued that the task force officer, a Willow Springs police officer who made the stop, was outside of his jurisdiction and as such, the stop was not valid.  The court first noted that under Illinois law, a police officer may conduct a stop outside of his home municipality if he personally observes a traffic violation.  The court also noted that even if the officer lacked jurisdiction to enforce that traffic violation, the stop would still be legal under the Fourth Amendment analysis because seeing the traffic offense provided probable cause for the stop.  The court stated

Officer Giorgetti was a Willow Springs police officer acting as part of a DEA task force. See id. at *3. Under Illinois law, he could conduct a traffic stop outside his home municipality based on his observation of a turn made illegally without signaling. See People v. Gutt, 640 N.E.2d 1013, 1016 (Ill. App. 1994). Even if the stop had not complied with state law, that would not affect the constitutionality of the stop, for which the officer’s observation of a traffic offense gave him probable cause, or the resulting search. See Virginia v. Moore, 553 U.S. 164, 176 (2008).[iv] [emphasis added]

Therefore, the stop was legal under the Fourth Amendment.

  1. The Search of the Car

The officer conducted what was held to be a lawful traffic stop.  He asked Correa if he “had anything in the vehicle that [he] needed to be aware of, anything illegal.”  Correa replied that he did not, and the officer asked if he could search the vehicle.  Correa replied, “go ahead.”  The trial court held that the consent was voluntary, and the court of appeals accepted that determination.

The court of appeals examined whether the officer who searched the vehicle searched within the scope of the consent.  The consent was to search for “anything illegal” and Correa did not limit his consent by telling the officers that they could not search a particular area or item.  The court stated

As the Supreme Court has explained, the ‘scope of a search is generally defined by its expressed object.'” United States v. Thurman, 889 F.3d 356, 368 (7th Cir. 2018), quoting Florida v. Jimeno, 500 U.S. 248, 251 (1991). Correa knew that Officer Giorgetti was looking for “anything illegal,” so he had to have known that the officers could be looking for drugs. “Generally, consent to search a space includes consent to search containers within that space where a reasonable officer would construe the consent to extend to the container.” United States v. Melgar, 227 F.3d 1038, 1041 (7th Cir. 2000), citing Jimeno, 500 U.S. at 251, Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295, 302 (1999), and United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798 (1982).[v] [emphasis added]

In light of the above legal principles, the court held that an officer could reasonably understand Correa’s consent to apply to any container that may contain drugs.

Therefore, the consent search that led to the discovery and seizure of the illegal was legal under the Fourth Amendment.

  1. The Seizure of the Garage Door Openers and Keys

Correa argued that because the garage door openers and keys were not illegal, the officers could not seize those items under the scope of his consent.  However, the court noted that during the course of a drug investigation, and after discovering the illegal drugs in Correa’s vehicle, the officers could reasonably infer that that multiple garage door openers, keys, and cell phones could be evidence of criminal activity.  The court stated

Evidence is not limited to contraband, of course. See, e.g., United States v. Johnson, 383 F.3d 538, 545 (7th Cir. 2004) (permitting warrantless search of car “if there is probable cause to believe it contains contraband or evidence of a crime”) (emphasis added). The police “may have probable cause to seize an ordinarily innocuous object when the context of an investigation casts that item in a suspicious light.” Cellitti, 387 F.3d at 624.[vi] [emphasis added]

Therefore, the seizure of the garage door openers and keys was legal under the Fourth Amendment.

Part two of this article will cover the actions of the officers in the subsequent drug investigation after they left the scene of the traffic stop (Issues 4-6).



[i] No. 16-2316, 16-2467 (7th Cir. Decided November 5, 2018)

[ii] Id. at 2-5

[iii] Id. at 7

[iv] Id. at 8

[v] Id. at 9

[vi] Id. at 10

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