CONCORD — Cash, 400 grams of fentanyl and two phones were unlawfully seized from a Lawrence, Massachusetts, man during an Interstate 95 traffic stop and cannot be used as evidence against him, U.S. District Court Judge Landya McCafferty ruled Tuesday.
The judge's order finds in favor of John Enrique Hernandez, who is facing a felony drug-trafficking charge based on the stop in North Hampton by New Hampshire State Trooper Michael Arteaga. The trooper's arrest report documents a series of his hunches, leading to the discovery of multiple "fingers" of fentanyl totaling 400 grams, inside a Walmart bag in the rental car Hernandez was driving.
The federal Centers for Disease Control reports fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more than morphine. In New Hampshire its been cited as the cause of most recent drug deaths. The trooper alleged the drugs seized from Hernandez are worth $40,000 to $60,000 and he also seized two cell phones and about $1,000 in cash.
All that evidence is now inadmissible as a violation of the Fourth Amendment which, the judge wrote, "requires officers to end a traffic stop once its mission is — or reasonably should be — over."
"This stop should have ended once the trooper learned that the driver's license was valid and there were no outstanding warrants," McCafferty's order states. "By prolonging the stop beyond that point and asking the driver to exit his car to further investigate, the trooper violated the Fourth Amendment."
In her 36-page order, the judge summarized the traffic stop and Hernandez's arrest as follows:
On March 26, 2018, the trooper was in an unmarked cruiser, north of the Hampton tolls, monitoring northbound traffic and randomly picking license plates and running them in his database.
"He testified that he was monitoring traffic at this location because I-95 is a 'known drug corridor," according to the court order.
One Massachusetts plate Arteaga ran came back as a rental vehicle and based on his experience, the trooper believes rentals are commonly used for drug trafficking. When he noted the color of the rented Toyota did not match the color on its registration, the trooper followed it, then pulled it over for following another vehicle too closely.
Hernandez was never cited for following too closely and the trooper asked where he was going because he suspected "criminal activity." Hernandez said he was going to the Kittery, Maine malls and the trooper later testified at an evidentiary hearing that "he knows the Kittery outlets to be a location where drug transactions occur."
Hernandez said he was going shopping for Hollister jeans and the trooper returned to his cruiser and did an internet search that showed there's no Hollister store at the Kittery outlets. He determined Herandez's license was valid and there were no warrants for his arrest, returned to Hernandez's stopped vehicle and asked him to step out "to speak with him further."
Hernandez consented to a pat-down for weapons when the cash and one of the phones were found in his pockets. The trooper continued to question Hernandez about the Hollister jeans and told him there is no Hollister store in Kittery.
About 15 minutes after the stop and Hernandez had complained he was being harassed, he agreed to a search of the rental vehicle. A second trooper arrived on scene and the 400 grams of fentanyl was found in the center console. Hernandez was subsequently indicted for possession with intent to distribute fentanyl.
In January, Hernandez's attorney, Charles Keefe of Nashua, filed a motion to suppress all seized evidence.
"This case demonstrates why this court should curtail the temptation by law enforcement to use a traffic stop to investigate other supposed criminal activity," Keefe petitioned the federal court. "As the trooper violated the defendant's constitutional rights by extending the scope of the seizure without any reasonable suspicion, any evidence derived after this constitutional violation should be suppressed."
The judge agreed, on Tuesday ruling that because the seized items were "fruit of the poisonous tree," they cannot be used against Hernandez.
His criminal case remains pending.