Attorneys for Tapia move to suppress evidence in drug trafficking case
Published: August 28, 2013
Font size: [A] [A] [A]
ST. THOMAS - Defense attorneys for Roberto Tapia, Chief of Enforcement for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, V.I. Police Sgt. Angelo Hill and two other defendants have filed motions to suppress the bulk of the government's evidence in the drug trafficking case against them.
The government has until Tuesday to respond to the motions, and the case is scheduled for trial Sept. 16.
The motions contend that the government had insufficient probable cause to initiate six wire taps federal agents used to track drug transactions and racketeering activity that led to Tapia's May 17 arrest outside the Red Hook ferry terminal.
The 7.72 kilograms of cocaine that federal agents said Tapia was carrying when he was arrested should also not enter into evidence against him, as they were the result of the wire taps and therefore a violation of Tapia's Fourth amendment rights under the legal doctrine of the "fruits of the poisonous tree," according to a motion filed by Tapia's public federal defender, Gabriel Villegas.
Tapia's arrest triggered the arrest of five other co-conspirators in May.
A 35-count indictment filed July 11 said that the men were part of a drug trafficking ring that supplied cocaine to a buyer in Puerto Rico. It also charges the men under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly used to prosecute complex, organized criminal activity.
The indictment names DPNR as "the enterprise" in relation to the RICO charges, and states that Tapia is guilty of federal program theft because he used his DPNR-issued boat and vehicle to traffic drugs. Tapia also tried to orchestrate a $40,000 bribe for a DPNR contract for the removal of marine scrap metal and illegally sold two vessel engines belonging to DPNR for personal gain, according to the indictment.
Two fishermen from Puerto Rico, Eddie Lopez-Lopez and Stephen Torres, were arrested May 18 after agents boarded a boat they were on in the open waters near Sail Rock off the coast of St. Thomas. Aerial surveillance and intercepted phone calls led agents to believe that Tapia had met with the men at Sail Rock the afternoon of May 17 and obtained cash he later used to purchase the 7.72 kilograms of cocaine from Hill.
Tapia intended to deliver the cocaine to the fishermen for ferrying to Puerto Rico, but he was arrested, according to court documents and the testimony of FBI agent Jackson Purkey.
In addition to the motion filed on behalf of Tapia, an attorney for Torres, Daniel Cevallos, has filed a motion to suppress "cell site information" linking the defendant to the conspiracy. Law enforcement agents did not obtain a warrant for the seizure of cell tower data used to identify the location of the accused trafficker. The United States Attorney's office did issue an order to cellular providers for a "pen register" and "trap and trace" to track Torres "in order to interdict and seize the transportation of narcotics before reaching its intended destination in Puerto Rico," the motion states.
However, because the government did not obtain a warrant, this omission violated Torres' Fourth Amendment rights, and agents engaged in "drag net law enforcement practices" that have been struck down through various Supreme Court decisions, according to Cevallos' motion.
Lopez-Lopez and Hill have both joined in the motion written on behalf of Tapia to suppress evidence, according to court records.
Tapia's motion to suppress makes public new details about how he became a target of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"The investigation that led to the superseding indictment in this matter appears to have begun in 2008 when the DEA received information from a confidential source (CS1) in regard to another individual (referred to herein as "AF") who is alleged to have been an active drug supplier in St. Thomas," the motion states. "Defendant Tapia was identified as a possible target subject by another confidential source (CS3). The DEA used multiple confidential sources from 2008 in support of the wiretaps."
The six wire taps covered the time period from May 25, 2012, to June 1, 2013, and were supported by the eventual use of eight confidential sources. The first intercepted phone call involving Tapia occurred on June 24, 2012, according to the motion.
Because the information prompting the wire taps dates back to 2008, the motion argues, the evidence against Tapia was "stale" and does not meet statutory requirements for probable cause for the issuance of later wire taps. The wire taps were issued after DEA agent Shawn Querrard filed affidavits outlining suspicions against Tapia.
The motion also states that the initial target, "AF", was never charged with a crime and that the first confidential source is unreliable because he has a history of felony convictions. Other confidential sources failed to qualify as reliable because they could not get the investigation's primary target to complete a buy and did not have history of supplying accurate information to the DEA, the motion states.
"No effort was ever made by confidential sources or law enforcement to engage Defendant Tapia. The government believed that once a wire tap was in place, Defendant Tapia would ultimately be caught committing some kind of crime, which would fall in line with agents' initial hunches and suspicions," the motion states.
Further, in seeking the wire taps, Querrard "duped" the court into believing that all intercepted conversations between Tapia and other, Spanish-speaking co-conspirators were coded communications about the sale or transport of drugs by mistranslating the Spanish or misrepresenting the conversations as having taken place in English, according to the motion.
- Contact Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.