Judge to consider suppressing evidence against defendants in Tapia drug trafficking case
Published: October 24, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - With a trial date of Nov. 12 approaching, defense attorneys for six men indicted along with Roberto Tapia for drug trafficking are waiting to see whether Chief District Judge Curtis Gomez will grant a motion to suppress virtually all the prosecution's evidence.
The motion to suppress was filed by Tapia's public defender, Gabriel Villegas, prior to Tapia's pleading guilty on Sept. 24.
Other defendants in the case remain joined in the motion, and Gomez will hear arguments about the motion at a Nov. 4 hearing.
Hector Alcenio, Raymond Brown and Edwin Monsanto were arrested months after the sting that netted Tapia and two fishermen from Puerto Rico: Eddie Lopez-Lopez and Stephen Torres. V.I. Police Sgt. Angelo Hill also was arrested in connection with the case.
In court Wednesday, District Magistrate Judge Ruth Miller granted a motion to allow Lopez-Lopez to accompany his girlfriend and third party custodian from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday to sell fish to restaurants and to attend church services on Sunday morning. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim Lindquist objected on the grounds that allowing Lopez-Lopez such license is dangerous and that it would be difficult for probation officers to monitor his movements and activities.
One of the conditions of Lopez-Lopez's release is that he not contact anyone who might be a witness or who might have anything to do with the case.
Lindquist said he could not imagine how probation could reasonably enforce this condition once the defendant is allowed to travel anywhere within a 40-minute radius of his home "under the guise of selling fish."
Lopez-Lopez's attorney, George Hodge, said his defendant has a right to earn a living while court proceedings are pending, and he has not been convicted of any crime.
Federal agents boarded a vessel in the open waters of St. Thomas on May 18 and took Torres and Lopez-Lopez into custody. Authorities said the men were waiting for Tapia to meet them, so he could pass off 7.72 kilograms of cocaine he had purchased from Hill on May 17. Instead, agents caught Tapia carrying the cocaine and took him into custody.
Tapia has since pleaded guilty to one count of a 34-count indictment that outlines racketeering and drug crimes he committed while he was director of Enforcement for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources. The indictment portrays Tapia and Hill as significant and high-ranking members of a smuggling ring that supplied cocaine to a buyer in Puerto Rico and in violation of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, with DPNR named as the "enterprise" that facilitated the defendants' individual crimes.
Tapia has apparently been the subject of investigation since 2008, according to court documents, and most of the charges are based on information collected through six wire taps and surveillance dating from May 25, 2012, to June 1, 2013.
The Drug Enforcement Administration justified the wire taps using information collected from multiple confidential sources, according to the defense's motion to suppress.
The motion says that the wire taps were obtained without probable cause because confidential sources came forward in 2008, and by May 2012, the information was "stale." The motion also attacks the credibility of the first of eight confidential sources on the grounds that he is a convicted felon.
If the wire taps are unlawful, the motion contends, then all evidence collected after their issuance must be discarded by legal doctrine that would classify the evidence as "the fruit of the poisonous tree."
The government has countered the motion with a statement citing the court orders for the wire taps and stating that they did meet probable cause standards for wire tap authorizations, which are the same standards as those for search warrants.
DEA agent Shawn Querrard will testify as to the contents of intercepted phone calls, many of which authorities believe were coded conversations setting up drug buys and payments, according to the government's opposition.
On Wednesday, Miller asked whether the court could expect any of the defendants to "resolve" their cases before their Nov. 12 trial date.
Referring to negotiations with defense attorneys who might be interested in securing plea agreements, Lindquist said, "My door is always open."
Defense attorney Joseph DiRuzzo, who represents Torres, told Miller that his client and other defendants were awaiting the outcome of the Nov. 4 hearing on the motion to suppress.
"My door won't be quite as open after Nov. 4," Lindquist said.
- Contact Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email email@example.com.