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

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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.

Chatty Officer May Actually be performing a Consensual Encounter

Meeting a chatty police officer could mean nothing more than they are approachable or talkative; however Utah residents are warned to use caution as a presumably friendly conversation with police could actually be consensual encounter.

Local festivities

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Communities around Utah are joining together for a slew of holiday festivities tomorrow that guarantee to bring in larger crowds than normal. These large crowds necessitate cities to increase the amount of law enforcement on duty. As everyone- both young and old, rich or poor, normal citizen or officer, come together to celebrate a commonality, it is not unusual for Utah residents to strike up conversations with one another. Unfortunately, as law enforcement on duty continues to perform their job while spending time in the community, they will often use simple conversations as consensual encounters.

Consensual encounter

A consensual encounter is a tactic used by law enforcement to obtain information from a person without having reasonable suspicion to do so. If an officer wants to investigate a person but has not identified a viable reason to do so yet, they may do nothing more than visit with the person for a short while.

Consensual Encounter

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A consensual encounter does not violate a citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights as it is nothing more than an encounter that ends in a conversation and at no time is the person detained or otherwise unable to leave. It is considered a consensual encounter as long as the officer kept their questioning short and simple and refrained from:

• Drawing their weapon;
• Placing someone in handcuffs;
• Turning on police lights or sirens;
• Physically detaining a person;
• Blocking someone with a patrol vehicle; or
• Speaking with force or intimidation.

Terry stop vs arrest

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If any of the above points end up taking place during a consensual encounter, it then becomes either an investigatory stop or an arrest. An investigatory stop, otherwise known as a Terry stop takes place if a person is detained briefly by law enforcement. In order to perform a Terry stop officers must have a reasonable suspicion that the person has been or is currently involved in criminal activity. This can include instances such as if illegal contraband is in plain view or if police have a hunch the person is armed and dangerous and wish to do a brief pat-down. Terry stop often consist of traffic stops and are to be no longer than 20 minutes. If the officer either has a warrant or develops probable cause during a Terry stop, then an arrest is made. An arrest is a more formal detainment such as being handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol vehicle and this act should always be preceded by the Miranda Warning.

Questionable stops

All residents are advised to be aware about the possibility of increased consensual encounters during the festivities tomorrow. Anyone who feels they have been unjustly questioned or detained by police during a consensual encounter and are now facing criminal charges, it is encouraged to speak to a defense attorney who will ensure their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searched and seizures are protected.

Pulled Over without Reasonable Suspicion of a Crime

It’s a common misconception that someone will not be pulled over by police unless they give law enforcement reasonable suspicion that a traffic violation or crime is or has been committed.

Traffic stop

Reasonable Suspicion

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According to the Prosecution Manual listed by the State of Utah, “in order to stop a motor vehicle, an officer must have [reasonable suspicion] that a public offense is occurring or has occurred. There are many legitimate reasons for such a stop which include, but are not limited to suspicious activity, traffic violations, and equipment violations.” Some of the most common reasons that a driver in Utah may be pulled over include:

• Speeding;
• Driving too slow;
• Failure to signal lane change;
• Broken headlights, brake lights, or other equipment issues;
• Distracted driving (phone, food, etc);
• Aggressive/hazardous driving;
• Following too close;
• Seat belt violations;
• Expired tags; or
• Suspicious behavior such as visible drug or alcohol use.

Drivers will usually avoid being pulled over as long as they refrain from giving law enforcement one of the above reasons to execute a traffic stop. There are some instances however when law enforcement does not need reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle.

Reasonable suspicion not needed

Section 6.4 of the State of Utah’s Prosecution Manual states that “there are times and situations when reasonable suspicion is not necessary for an officer to approach a vehicle or begin an investigation. ( . . . ).” One of the examples given is:

• If an officer happens upon a vehicle that is already stopped or disabled.

Other possible loopholes around an officer having reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle include:

• During an Amber Alert when police are permitted to pull over all vehicle in the area of the Amber Alert to search for a missing child;
• If the vehicle matches the description of another that was used in a crime or that was involved in an accident; or
• If an officer misunderstands a law but had reasonable suspicion based on their faulty interpretation of said law. (Heien v. North Carolina)

Legal counsel

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Criminal charges not related to traffic violations may result if a driver is pulled over in Utah. These charges can stem from behavior or crimes that may have gone unnoticed had the traffic stop not taken place such as if the driver was in possession of drugs, was driving under the influence, or had warrants out for their arrest. Any drivers in Utah who are facing criminal charges following a questionable traffic stop are encouraged to speak to a qualified defense attorney to ensure that their constitutional rights have not been violated.