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Soto-Cintron v. United States

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

August 20, 2018

EDUARDO SOTO-CINTRON, on his own behalf and on behalf of his minor son A.S.M.; A.S.M., Minor, Plaintiffs, Appellants,
UNITED STATES, Defendant, Appellee. WINDY MARRERO-COLON, solely on behalf of her minor son A.S.M., Plaintiff,


          Jorge Martínez-Luciano, with whom Emil Rodríguez-Escudero was on brief, for appellants.

          Mainon A. Schwartz, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, United States Attorney, and Thomas F. Klumper, Assistant United States Attorney, Acting Chief, Appellate Division, were on brief, for appellee.

          Before Howard, Chief Judge, Lipez and Thompson, Circuit Judges.


         Plaintiff Eduardo Soto-Cintrón and his 17-year-old son went to a post office in Coto Laurel, Puerto Rico to pick up some mail. While Soto-Cintrón waited in his red Ford F-150 truck, his son retrieved some envelopes from the post office and returned to his father's vehicle. As the two pulled out of the parking lot, they were stopped by a number of federal law enforcement agents with guns drawn. Soto-Cintrón was removed from his vehicle and handcuffed, and he and his son were detained for up to twenty minutes.

         The agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ("ATF") had stopped the wrong people. Once they realized their mistake, the agents arrested the person who had received the illegal shipment of firearms, and released Soto-Cintrón and his son. Soto-Cintrón later filed a claim against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA") for false imprisonment. The district court granted summary judgment to the government, and Soto-Cintrón appealed. Though our analysis of Soto-Cintrón's FTCA claim differs from the district court's, we ultimately reach the same conclusion, and affirm.


         In May 2013, the United States Postal Inspection Service ("USPIS") intercepted a package sent from Orlando, Florida to Puerto Rico. Suspecting that the package contained six illegal Glock semi-automatic pistols, USPIS personnel requested the assistance of the ATF to set up a controlled delivery. The agencies devised a plan to leave a notice at the addressee's residence informing him that he could claim the package at the U.S. Post Office in Coto Laurel. Pursuant to the plan, USPIS personnel would assume the primary surveillance positions inside the post office and in the parking lot, while ATF agents would be posted around the perimeter of the parking lot. Whoever showed up to collect the package would be arrested, as would anyone else linked to the receipt of the package.

         During the operation, a USPIS inspector used radio communication to announce the separate arrival of two vehicles to the post office parking lot. First, the inspector identified a red Ford F-150 which turned out to be Soto-Cintrón's. The inspector stated that the occupants of the vehicle remained seated for some amount of time before the younger occupant went into the post office. Second, the inspector announced the arrival of a white Ford F-150 which, as it turned out, was driven by the suspect.

         While both vehicles were still in the parking lot, the USPIS inspector broadcasted that the package had been delivered to the suspect. Then, without identifying which vehicle the suspect placed the package in, the radio operator stated that the red Ford F-150 -- belonging to Soto-Cintrón -- was leaving the parking lot.

         One of the ATF agents on the receiving end of these radio communications was Special Agent Vladimir González. He was stationed on an access road at the perimeter of the parking lot in a vehicle driven by ATF Task Force Officer Jose Fajardo, and also occupied by Special Agent Raul Peña-López. When Special Agent González heard the radio transmissions he could not discern which truck contained the suspicious package. After unsuccessfully attempting to obtain clarification from a USPIS inspector, he made the decision to stop the red truck driven by Soto-Cintrón before it could leave the parking lot. Special Agent González instructed Officer Fajardo to block the parking lot exit with his vehicle, and the three agents approached Soto-Cintrón's truck with guns drawn, identifying themselves as police and ordering Soto-Cintrón and his son to put their hands up.

         Soto-Cintrón and his son had the windows rolled up and the air conditioning and radio turned on, so they could not hear the agents' commands. One of the officers pulled Soto-Cintrón out of his vehicle, handcuffed him, and placed him face down on the pavement. His son was also handcuffed and placed next to him, but was soon uncuffed and allowed to sit on the ground away from the vehicle. The agents questioned Soto-Cintrón about the package and performed a visual inspection of his truck. Soto-Cintrón, of course, denied any knowledge of the illegal firearms, and the agents' visual inspection did not reveal the suspicious package.

         At some point during Soto-Cintrón's detention, the agents learned that the actual suspect -- the person in the white truck -- had been apprehended, and that Soto-Cintrón and his son were not involved in the illegal firearms delivery. The agents accordingly released ...

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