Police search a semi-truck hauling a ford explorer. 40 pounds of meth found. Fourth Amendment.

“An individual asserting Fourth Amendment rights must demonstrate that he personally has an expectation of privacy in the place searched, and that his expectation is reasonable.” United States v. Russell , 847 F.3d 616, 618 (8th Cir. 2017) (citation omitted). “The defendant moving to suppress bears the burden of proving he had a legitimate expectation of privacy that was violated by the challenged search.” Id. (citation omitted).

The main issue in this appeal is whether Sierra made an initial showing of a reasonable expectation of privacy in the Ford. He would have a privacy interest if he owned it, since “[o]ne who owns and possesses a car, like one who owns and possesses a house, almost always has a reasonable expectation of privacy in it.” Byrd v. United States , ––– U.S. ––––, 138 S. Ct. 1518, 1527, 200 L.Ed.2d 805 (2018).

But Sierra didn’t prove he owned the Ford. He had no title, no bill of sale, and no registration. The only evidence he provided, proof of a tire change supposedly done as part of a trade for the Ford, was dated February 19. The search of the Ford took place on February 17. So even if the tire change was enough to prove that Sierra owned the Ford, that wouldn’t prove he owned it at the time of the search.

In a similar situation, the Fourth Circuit held that a defendant did not have standing to challenge a search of a car entrusted to a car hauler. United States v. Castellanos , 716 F.3d 828 (4th Cir. 2013). Despite the defendant claiming that he owned the car, he had no title, no bill of sale, no DMV registration, and no other indication that he was the owner. Id. at 834. His claim that he owned the car was “not substantiated in any way by the record.” Id. And even if he did eventually own the car, there was no evidence that “he did so prior to the search.” Id. The same goes for Sierra.

Even if he wasn’t the owner, Sierra might have shown a reasonable privacy interest in the Ford if he proved he was its sender or intended recipient. See United States v. Jacobsen , 683 F.2d 296, 298 n.2 (8th Cir. 1982) (noting “[t]he sender and intended recipient of a package clearly have ‘an adequate possessory or proprietary interest in the … object searched’ to give them standing to question the propriety of its search or seizure”), rev’d on other grounds , 466 U.S. 109, 104 S.Ct. 1652, 80 L.Ed.2d 85 (1984) (citation omitted). But Sierra didn’t prove that either. The name on the bill of lading was Ana Garcia. Sierra never claimed that Ana Garcia was his pseudonym. See Castellanos , 716 F.3d at 834 (finding no standing because “Castellanos adduced no evidence at the suppression hearing demonstrating that the name ‘Wilmer Castenada’ was simply an alias”). In fact, according to the Presentence Investigation Report, officers later found out that Ana Garcia was Alatorre’s alias, not Sierra’s. Regardless, Sierra introduced no reliable evidence showing that he shipped the Ford or was the intended recipient.

Sierra suggests that because he picked up the Ford in Minneapolis, he must be its intended recipient. But that’s not enough. Sure, Sierra was clearly an intended recipient of the drugs in the Ford, but people don’t have a privacy interest in contraband. See Illinois v. Caballes , 543 U.S. 405, 408, 125 S.Ct. 834, 160 L.Ed.2d 842 (2005) (“[A]ny interest in possessing contraband cannot be deemed legitimate ….”) (citation omitted).

As for the truck, simply receiving a package doesn’t make someone its intended recipient. See 18 U.S.C. § 1702 (criminalizing opening a letter addressed to someone else). Someone who steals a package off a front porch doesn’t transform into its intended recipient. Plus, Sierra wasn’t alone in picking up the Ford—Alatorre was there too. All told, Sierra just doesn’t provide enough evidence that he was the intended recipient of the Ford.

Full case here: United States v. Sierra-Serrano, 11 F.4th 931, 933-34 (8th Cir. 2021), https://casetext.com/case/united-states-v-sierra-serrano-1

Anton Vialtsin, Esq.
LAWSTACHE™ LAW FIRM | Criminal Defense and Business Law
(619) 357-6677

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