Even without a search warrant, Jefferson Parish deputies were within their rights this year when they scoured a suspicious van that appeared to have been outfitted for a sniper, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon refused to throw out several seemingly ominous pieces of evidence in the case of Dominick Gullo and Joseph F. Gagliano, including a loaded .22-caliber rifle with a scope and silencer and an 8-foot piece of cannon fuse.
The evidence was seized from the van after a deputy, alerted to the vehicle’s stolen license plate by an automatic plate reader, pulled Gullo over in Old Metairie and discovered he was driving without proof of insurance.
Gullo, 72, and Gagliano, 55, have been charged in federal court with possession of an unregistered silencer, a violation of the National Firearms Act. Gagliano, a convicted racketeer with reputed ties to organized crime, also was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Both men were released on bail last month and are scheduled for trial Nov. 3.
Although deputies didn’t obtain a search warrant for the van until the day after the May 7 traffic stop, Fallon held that investigators did not violate Gullo’s rights because they were obligated to conduct an inventory of the van before towing it.
“Louisiana law demands that a police officer impound a vehicle if the operator is unable to provide proof of insurance,” Fallon wrote in a 13-page ruling.
Inventory searches, he added, are among the few exceptions to the Fourth Amendment in which investigators aren’t required to receive a judge’s approval before conducting a search. But he noted that officers “cannot use inventory searches as a pretext to fulfill their investigative needs.”
“If the JPSO deputies initiated a lawful inventory search, whose purpose changed once deputies discovered the alarming nature of the vehicle, the search still qualifies as a lawful search,” Fallon wrote.
Gullo’s defense attorney, Patrick Hand Jr., had claimed that the contents of the Ford van should be deemed inadmissible under the “fruit of the poisonous tree” legal doctrine, a metaphor for evidence that becomes tainted because it is obtained illegally. He argued that deputies had failed “to do even a rudimentary (written) inventory of the van’s contents, much less have Mr. Gullo acknowledge this so-called inventory search.”
“If this is the standard policy by which the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office conducts its inventory searches,” Hand wrote in a court filing, “then there is no policy.”
Gullo was pulled over about 11 p.m. May 7 after driving past a license plate-reading camera near Orpheum Avenue and Metairie Road. He failed to produce any paperwork for the vehicle, telling authorities he had bought the van earlier that day for $300 from a woman who came into a coffee shop seeking to sell the vehicle.
The vehicle appeared to be furnished for an assassin, authorities have said, with custom “gun ports” built into its side panels and sawed-off dining room chairs mounted in its interior. Authorities found the rifle stashed under a carpet and the silencer secreted in a side compartment. The cannon fuse — a wire capable of detonating an explosive device — had been tucked under a sandbag behind the driver’s seat.
Gagliano spent time in federal prison in the 1990s after pleading guilty to a racketeering conspiracy involving video poker machines, an operation that prosecutors said used companies that were Mafia fronts. Gagliano’s father, Frank Gagliano Sr., was believed to be an underboss of the Marcello crime family before his 2006 death.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.