Ex-convict in gun case questions cops’ search of his car


Attorney Michael Dotts filed yesterday a motion that questioned the constitutionality of the search conducted by two police officers on a car driven by an ex-convict where they seized handguns and ammunitions.

Dotts, as counsel for Daniel Muña Quitugua, asked the U.S. District Court for the NMI to exclude as evidence the handguns and ammunitions found in the car on May 23, 2014.

Dotts argued that the search was unconstitutional because the police had neither Quitugua’s consent or probable cause to conduct the search. He said the search was not justified under the Fourth Amendment, which ensures “the right of the people to be secure…against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Quitugua is a federal probationer who has been indicted over the alleged illegal guns and ammunitions that he left behind when he ran away from police officers who stopped him for a traffic violation.

The indictment charged Quitugua with one count of felon in possession of a firearm.

According to the indictment, Quitugua was found in possession of one Sig Sauer model P226 9mm pistol; one Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver; 90 rounds of .45 caliber ammunition; 50 rounds of .38 caliber ammunition; and 62 rounds of 9mm ammunition on May 23, 2014.

In Quitugua’s motion to suppress, Dotts said two police officers alleged that they smelled burnt marijuana coming from a car driven by Quitugua when the latter was stopped for speeding.

When one officer asked to be allowed to search the car, Quitugua refused, Dotts said. That officer then reportedly instructed Quitugua and his passenger to step out of the vehicle so the officer could do a search.

Dotts said the search resulted in the discovery of a bag containing guns and ammunitions but did not result in the discovery of evidence on the use of marijuana.

Quitugua was then charged with being a felon in possession of a weapon, he said.

Dotts admitted that his client is a felon and a drug user and that in fact the court knows he has repeatedly tested positive for methamphetamine or “ice” since being released from prison.

Quitugua, however, has never tested positive for marijuana, Dotts said.

The lawyer said the smell of burnt marijuana, plus the fact that Quitugua could not produce a driver’s license, were the only basis for the search that ended up uncovering the guns.

Dotts said the issue before the court is whether the uncorroborated testimony of police officers that they smelled marijuana is enough to establish probable cause to search a vehicle.

The 4th Amendment, he pointed out, generally requires police to secure a warrant before conducting a search.

Here, Dotts noted, the two officers claim they smelled marijuana but the record fails to show that any marijuana was actually collected. With no marijuana collected from the car on either May 23 or June 5, Dotts said there is no evidence to corroborate the human sense of smell.

“As there is no corroborating physical evidence of marijuana, probable cause to search did not exist,” he added.

Quitugua was convicted in federal court in 2005 and sentenced to 120 months in prison for an armed robbery at a poker arcade in 2004. His supervised release began on Jan. 14, 2013.

Police arrested Quitugua for allegedly speeding and running away from police officers, leaving behind a bag that contained three illegal guns and bullets near Northern Marianas College on May 23, 2014.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a senior reporter of Saipan Tribune. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has covered all news beats in the CNMI. He is a recipient of the CNMI Supreme Court Justice Award. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@Saipantribune.com

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