United States v. José Garza, United States Court of Appeals, 5th Circuit, Docket No. 12-40530

After an officer noticed that José Garza's truck matched a description given over dispatch, the officer stopped Garza in a tiny border town called Fronton, Texas (only 5 miles from the Rio Grande and the U.S.-Mexico border) when Garza tried to leave a gas station. This stop would lead to an alleged consensual search, which revealed undocumented aliens in the truck's flatbed.


Garza subsequently pled to trafficking aliens for financial gain, but he reserved the right to appeal his motion to suppress the search of his vehicle that resulted from the officer's Terry stop.


Although the information that lead to Garza's arrest was based on a CI, the Fifth Circuit never addressed the issue. Rather, the court relied on Brignoni-Ponce factors, concluding that the officer had enough information to support an inference of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.


In border cases, like in all Terry cases, there must be "specific articulable facts" that form the basis for reasonable suspicion, not just a hunch.


While the Brignoni-Ponce case mentions eight factors, the Garza court notes that in considering the totality of circumstances of a near-border stop, it need only find a couple of the factors weighing in favor of the stop, not all.


The Fifth Circuit placed considerable importance on these factors:


1. The characteristics of the area. Fronton was known to have a high frequency of illegal drug and human trafficking activity.


2. Agent experience. The border agent had more than two years' experience in the Fronton area and knew the kind of traffic that passed through.


3. Proximity to the border. The gas station was only 5 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border; citing case precedent, the Fifth Circuit explained that "Anything less than 50 miles ... implicates the proximity factor."


4. The vehicle's appearance. Plywood boards are often used to hide illegal cargo and can be a sign of possible trafficking.


5. The driver's appearance. When the agent approached in his vehicle, Garza nervously finished pumping his gas and quickly moved into his vehicle, giving the agent reason to suspect his nervous evasive behavior."


Taken together, without mention of the CI's tip, the Garza court concluded there was reasonable suspicion for an investigatory stop.


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