United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division
CARLTON W. REEVES UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Koutsos, James Horrisberger, and Lai Saechao were arrested
and charged with possession of marijuana with intent to
distribute, conspiracy to possess marijuana with intent to
distribute, and interstate transportation in aid of
racketeering. Horrisberger and Saechao now move to suppress
evidence resulting from their detention and
arrest. The Court has reviewed the parties'
arguments and the evidence they presented at a suppression
hearing. For the reasons stated below, the motion is DENIED.
afternoon of June 6, 2017, the U.S. Air Marine Operations
Center (AMOC), which monitors all air traffic in the United
States, contacted the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air
and Marine Operations, New Orleans Air and Marine Branch
(NOAMB) concerning a Piper airplane. The NOAMB agents were
told that the Piper, with registration N454SC, departed
Oroville, California, and began a cross-country flight
eastbound. The aircraft refueled in Los Alamos, New Mexico,
and continued traveling eastward. And “[b]ased on the
type of aircraft, current speed and previous travel, agents
from NOAMB determined that the aircraft was likely to land
somewhere near Hattiesburg, Mississippi to refuel.”
Docket No. 44-1 at 2.
before 6 p.m. central time, Horrisberger landed the Piper at
Copiah County Airport in Mississippi. Fifteen minutes later,
as the Piper was taxiing towards the runway for departure,
Agent Martin Smith of NOAMB hailed the Piper via radio to
conduct a pilot certificate inspection (PCI). Agent Smith, who
was flying in a helicopter with Agent Grant Sibley, landed in
front of the Piper-blocking the only active runway at the
airport. Agent Smith informed Horrisberger that they were
agents with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He
asked Horrisberger to shut down the airplane's engines
and present his documents for inspection.
factors triggered the PCI. The Piper was flying at 15, 500
feet even though this type of plane typically flew above 18,
000 feet on cross-country flights to take advantage of wind
patterns, which would allow the plane to fly faster and more
efficiently. The pilot did not file a flight plan and was not
in communication with air traffic control. The plane
departed from northern California, an area known to produce
large quantities of marijuana. Most significantly, having
obtained the plane's registration number, AMOC prepared
and sent NOAMB a report indicating that the owner of the
Piper was “linked to possible narcotics and currency
smuggler.” Docket No. 60-1 at 1. The owner was a
corporation, and Nikolaos Koutsos was its registered agent.
The AMOC report also stated that Koutsos was linked to two
other planes suspected of aviation smuggling. In March 2016,
officers seized over $52, 000 from Koutsos at the Orlando
International Airport. In December 2012, Koutsos was also the
“subject of [a] bulk currency encounter” in which
$34, 000 was found in his carry-on luggage at Tampa
International Airport. Id.
agents had received all of this information from AMOC by the
time they made contact with Horrisberger and requested the
PCI. According to Agent Smith, Horrisberger complied but said
he was on a tight schedule and would meet the agents outside
of the Piper. Horrisberger turned off the engines, exited the
Piper, closed the door behind him, and walked about 20 feet
away from the Piper toward the agents. He produced the
requested documents. An FAA Inspector then gave the agents
access to the terminal building and allowed them to complete
the inspection inside the terminal.
they entered the building, Agent Smith started taking
pictures of each document. Agent Smith asked Horrisberger if
there was anyone else in the airplane; Horrisberger answered
that there were two passengers. When Agent Smith requested
Horrisberger's consent to look inside the Piper,
Horrisberger answered no. Agent Smith then asked “if
[Horrisberger's] passengers would be more comfortable if
they exited the aircraft for the duration of the
inspection.” Docket No. 44-1 at 3. Horrisberger replied
that the passengers were fine inside the airplane. Agent
Smith again suggested that the passengers exit the plane
since the “ambient air temperature was very hot”
inside the closed Piper. Id. Horrisberger again
rejected this suggestion.
point during the PCI, Horrisberger allegedly became
argumentative and asked how long the inspection would take.
He then commented that the inspection was taking too long and
stated he was going to call his attorney. Horrisberger then
called an individual who he claimed was his attorney. After
he got off the phone, he told the agents that his attorney
said he was free to go.
time, Agent Smith had finished inspecting Horrisberger's
documents. The agents found that Horrisberger had
produced every document required for the PCI. Each was in
agents then told Horrisberger that they were concerned about
the passengers and were going outside to check on them. They
instructed Horrisberger to wait inside the terminal building,
stating that he was not free to leave.
agents walked across the tarmac to the Piper. Agent Smith
testified that he approached the aircraft door on the left
side of the rear fuselage, knocked on the door, and asked if
anyone was inside. He heard no response. The agents tried to
look through the windows but the curtains were closed. Agent
Sibley, who was on the opposite side of the aircraft-the side
without a door-said he then smelled marijuana emanating from
the Piper. Agent Smith walked over to where Agent Sibley was
standing and smelled marijuana as well.
agents returned to the terminal building where Horrisberger
had remained. Horrisberger was talking on his cell phone when
Agent Smith told Horrisberger to put down his phone and turn
around. Agent Smith handcuffed Horrisberger and patted him
down. The search yielded no contraband or weapons.
agents then returned to the Piper. Agent Smith knocked on the
door and ordered all passengers to exit the plane. There was
no response. He testified that he repeated this order several
times and received no response, but heard movement inside the
plane. Agent Smith then opened the door and saw two men
“squatting down in a crouched position in the [a]isle
of the aircraft toward the back near the door.” Docket
No. 44-1 at 3.
Smith ordered the men to put their hands up and exit the
Piper. The men complied. One man was identified as
“Nick, ” the other as “Lai.” Both
were arrested. At this point, Agent Smith did not attempt to
obtain a search warrant. He instead contacted Homeland
Security to request a K-9 search of the plane and conduct
interviews of the three men.
40 to 45 minutes, additional Homeland Security agents arrived
at the airport. Horrisberger's affidavit is the only
evidence that provides a direct account of the K-9 search.
The K-9 walked around the Piper and did not appear to give
any positive indication for the presence of illegal drugs.
The K-9 officer then directed the K-9 to the open door of the
Piper and the K-9 still did not appear to give any positive
indication for the presence of drugs. The K-9 officer then
picked up the K-9 and carried it into the Piper. After that,
the K-9 officer came out of the Piper and stated that the K-9
detected illegal drugs.
Docket No. 37, Ex. 1 at 3-4. The agents found black
vacuumed-sealed, plastic garbage bags in the rear luggage
area of the plane's cabin and along the front passenger
seating area. They contained seven bundles of marijuana
weighing a total of 248.26 pounds.
same day, Koutsos, Horrisberger, and Saechao were charged
with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute,
conspiracy to possess marijuana with intent to distribute,
interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. This motion