Is Possession of a Photo of Mexican Folk Saint Jesus Malverde Reasonable Suspicion of Drug Activity in Utah?

Jesus Malverde, a Mexican folk saint known as the “Narco-saint” is celebrated by many individuals including those involved in drug trafficking; for this reason, any memorial item of him may be add to an officer’s reasonable suspicion of drug activity.

Jesus Malverde, the good bandit

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Jesus Malverde is a folk saint believed by some to have lived in Mexico in the late 19th century. Although he is known by most Roman Catholics throughout Mexico, he is not officially recognized as a saint by the church. Malverde was said to have been a “good bandit”, who through his short life was responsible for regularly stealing from the rich to give back to his deprived fellow countrymen. Following his death, many who memorialize Malverde as a saint credit their ability to heal from injuries and sickness or find lost items to his spiritual influence.

Twisted folklore

Just as any folklore, the story of Jesus Malverde has slowly become distorted, with some using his image and name for immoral purposes. Over the years, drug traffickers began to claim Malverde had regularly protected drug lords such as El Chapo as well as the Mexican drug cartel from being arrested or killed. A shrine to honor Jesus Malverde was erected in his birthplace of Sinaloa, Mexico and was funded almost entirely by the drug cartel. Memorabilia including photos, statues, jewelry, candles, and even soap has been created with Malverde’s name or photo for worshipers to purchase. Unfortunately, because the drug cartel has usurped Malverde’s name, being in possession of any of those collectibles could give authorities reasonable suspicion that someone is involved in drug activity.

Targeted for religious icon

Photo by: Drew Stephens

Since Jesus Malverde’s name was tainted by drug cartel, anyone sporting souvenirs with Malverde’s image or name could be watched more closely by law enforcement. There have been several drug cases in which Jesus Malverde memorabilia helped convince law enforcement of possible drug activity. Two that took place in Utah included:

• U.S. V. Lopez-Gutierrez. Lopez was pulled over in Cedar City, Utah for a traffic violation when police “observed one picture of Jesus Malverde affixed to the dashboard and another hanging from Lopez’s necklace. The officer recognized the images of Jesus Malverde, who is considered a patron saint by some drug traffickers.” The officer observed other suspicious items such as an air freshener, rose, and three cell phones; thus proceeding to further question Lopez. After a K9 alerted on the car, a search of the vehicle turned up distribution amounts of methamphetamine.

• State of Utah V. Alverez. Alverez was seen stopping at an apartment complex, only to return moments later. Police became suspicious and waited for Alverez to return the next day. After he returned and reentered the complex, an officer “observed a facsimile of Jesus Malverde” and that “ through interviews he had conducted, Jesus Malverde was the patron saint of drug dealing.” When Alverez returned to the vehicle, officer discussed his lack of vehicle insurance, questioned him about drug use, and then forcefully made Alverez open his mouth where he was hiding 15 rubber balloons filled with illegal drugs.

Reasonable suspicion

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Utah Code 77-7-15 states, “a peace officer may stop any person in a public place when he has a reasonable suspicion to believe he has committed or is in the act of committing or is attempting to commit a public offense and may demand his name, address and an explanation of his actions.” Reasonable suspicion differs from probable cause in that with reasonable suspicion, there doesn’t need to be evidence of a crime, only a hunch by a trained law enforcement officer. If an officer sees drugs in a car through a window or a door, that officer would have probable cause to search the vehicle. If the same officer instead saw an item such as a picture of Jesus Malverde in the vehicle who is known to be worshipped by many, including drug traffickers, the officer could question the suspect under the claim that the photo added to his reasonable suspicion of possible drug activity.

Religious persecution

The First Amendment to the Constitution reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ( . . . )”. Unless a religion give a valid cause for alarm such as a direct threat to the safety of the public, the separation of church and state should prohibit the government from determining what religion (or saint) citizens are allowed to worship without being accused of wrong-doing. By claiming souvenirs of Saint Jesus Malverde point to an increased chance of drug trafficking, the question of religious prosecution arises. Just because some who worship a religion or saint have criminal histories, not all who practice that religion or worship should be implicated as well. Just as not all Muslims are potential terrorists and not all white Christians are supremacists, it is unfair and unconstitutional to determine a person’s character or likelihood to commit a crime based on their choice of a religious icon.

Religious Rights of Inmates in Utah

Inmates in Utah lose many of their freedoms temporarily while they serve their time behind bars, yet many religious rights of inmates continue to be upheld throughout their incarceration.

Freedom of religion

Religious Rights

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The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ( . . . ).” It is the right of every person on American soil to practice the religion of their choosing. Although being incarcerated means the temporary loss of many rights, inmates are still given their religious freedom as long as the practice of their religion does not put others in danger.

UDC Handbook

The Utah Department of Corrections Inmate Orientation Handbook states: “Inmates in the Utah State Prison will be allowed access to religious services, except when the inmate’s behavior poses a safety threat to the religious counselor or others attending the religious service.” The handbook also explains that depending on the inmate’s security level, they “may attend scheduled religious services in the chapel” and “inmates will also have access to religious writings unless such writings advocate actions that could present a clear and present danger to the security of the institution.”

Outward expressions of devotion

With the vast range of religions out there, there are many that require outward expressions of devotion beyond weekly services and reading material. Sometimes, these outward expressions conflict with what is typically permissible in prison. Most inmates are required to dress a certain way, have set schedules, and are given the same diet as the rest of the prison population. Fortunately, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) protects many inmates from boundaries that would violate their religious rights.

Religious allowances for inmates

Some of the religious allowances for inmates include:

• Necklaces and jewelry- Many prison systems do not allow jewelry of any kind and even limit what visitors are allowed to wear into the facilities. Regarding religious jewelry for inmates, the UDC notes “medallions or ornaments may be worn based on the inmate’s classification and housing assignments. Inmates may obtain an item by requesting it through one of the chaplains.”

• Religious food restrictions- Some religions have food restrictions that prohibit practicing members from partaking of certain items. Jewish inmates and those practicing Islam are forbidden from eating foods that are not kosher such as pork. Hindu inmates don’t eat beef products as the cow is worshipped in their religion. Utah Department of Corrections offers meals to inmates that coincide with their religious food restrictions.

• Rugs and clothing- Although inmates are required to wear prison approved clothing and use only approved bedding, items such as Prayer Rugs or Kippahs and Yakamas are often available for purchase through prison commissary.
• Long hair- Inmates in the prison system are expected to keep their grooming and appearance clean which in some states involves male inmates having short haircuts. Utah prisons do not have a history of enforcing length restrictions on hair and offer added reassurance for those such as Native Americans, whose long locks are of religious value. Utah Code 64-13-40 (6) states “The department may not require a native American inmate to cut the inmate’s hair if it conflicts with the inmate’s traditional native American religious beliefs.

• Beards- in 2015, a Muslim inmate by the name of Gregory Holt, or Abdul Muhammad, went before the Supreme Court to fight an Arkansas prison law preventing him and others practicing Islam the right of growing a half inch beard in accordance with their religion. The Arkansas facility argued that a half inch beard could allow an inmate to transport contraband into or around the prison. According to the United States Department of Justice, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Holt and “refused to accept that the beard ban was necessary to prevent smuggling of contraband, in light of the fact that hiding places such as hair longer than ¼ inch, moustaches, and clothing were already available.”

Know your religious rights

Inmates are encouraged to discuss their religious rights as soon as possible after incarceration to avoid the unnecessary limits of their freedom of religious practice. For more information, contact the Utah Department of Corrections.

Is the Exterior of a Vehicle Protected from Searches by Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

A growing number of Utah residents are now realizing they have rights regarding unreasonable searches of their vehicle, but does the exterior of a vehicle have the same reasonable expectation of privacy?

Interior searches on vehicles

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An officer does not have permission to search the interior of a person’s vehicle unless they have permission, a warrant, or probable cause to do so. If the driver does not make the common mistake of trying to be overly agreeable by allowing an officer to perform an unreasonable search on a car, then the officer has to have a probable cause to search the car. Probable cause can include drugs in plain view or if the driver was going to be arrested anyway for a DUI, warrant, or other crime. If there is no probable cause for a search, it is okay to politely decline an unreasonable search.

Exterior searches of vehicles

Law enforcement are permitted to do a visible search of the exterior of a vehicle and this type of search should be expected during a traffic stops. If something illegal on the exterior of a vehicle is visible to the police officer, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Some exterior searches can go too far however. If an officer brings out a forensic kit, then the search could be headed towards a Fourth Amendment rights violation against a person’s belongings or property.

Fourth Amendment violation

Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

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An owner of a vehicle has possession of the entire car, not just the interior. Fingerprints, DNA, or other possible microscopic evidence on the vehicle that is not visible to the naked eye should be protected. If a driver leaves their car temporarily unattended in a public place, this does not give law enforcement permission to then swoop in to perform forensic searches of the car. Even when not occupied, the vehicle is still considered to be in their possession of the owner. Otherwise, they would not be liable for anything related to the car in their absence, such as parking tickets.

Possible rights violation? Ask an attorney prior to court date

If a search has been made of the interior or exterior of a vehicle and the proper channels were not followed to conduct those searches, anything found could be thrown out in court. It is important to discuss whether or not there is an option to dismiss evidence from unreasonable search and seizures. A qualified criminal defense attorney can help defendants fully understand their rights regarding searches and seizures and whether or not they had a reasonable expectation of privacy during a police search.