Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Circuit reinstates criminal case following vehicle search which produced an illegal gun

It is unusual to see a federal court grant a motion to suppress on Fourth Amendment grounds. There are many exceptions to the general rule that warrantless searches are illegal. In this case the district court held a police search had unlawfully uncovered an illegal handgun, and the indictment was dismissed. The Court of Appeals disagrees and the case returns to the criminal docket.

The case is United States v. Patterson, issued on February 4. After the police in Northern Westchester got a 911 call that two black men in a black Camaro had menaced a woman and displayed a handgun in the ShopRite parking lot, the police headed to the neighborhood and began following a black Camaro leaving the ShopRite parking lot and turning onto Route 6. The officers stopped the vehicle at a gas station, blocked the Route 6 entrance point, pointed their firearms at the driver and occupant of the car, told them to exit the vehicle, and saw the driver (Patterson) reaching around the car's interior as if he were trying to hide something. Patterson then ran away and jumped over a fence to hide in the woods. The police eventually got Patterson and the passenger and found a gun in the glove compartment. That gun is the basis for the criminal prosecution.

The district court granted the motion to suppress the gun because the officers lacked probable cause to detain the motorists. The fact that the police saw a black Camaro within 10 minutes of dispatch was not enough to believe the occupants had committed a crime. Since that unlawful stop ultimately led to the gun seizure, the seizure was illegal, the district court said. The trial court, Judge Seibel, "did not 'discourage'" the government from taking up this appeal, which it did.

The Court of Appeals (Raggi, Lynch and Park) says the whole thing was legal under the Fourth Amendment because the police were allowed to make an investigatory stop upon seeing the black Camaro under the less stringent "reasonable suspicion" standard. Under the totality of the circumstances, it was simply too coincidental to think the black Camaro had nothing to do with the gun menacing, in part because cars like this are rarely seen on area roads (if this were Long Island in the 1980s, it might be a different story, as these cars were issued upon high school graduation), and the guys were in the same neighborhood as the 911 call. The Camaro had two black men inside, just as the 911 call had stated. The police could at least stop and ask questions.

Moreover, the force used to conduct the stop was reasonable under the circumstances and not excessive as the stop was short in duration, used the least intrusive means as the police thought the occupants might be armed and dangerous in light of the 911 call. And let's face it, Patterson did not help his case by running away when the officers tried to handcuff him. As for the search of the Camaro, that was legal also, as the police by now had probable cause to think they would find evidence of criminal activity.

The district court thought this was a close case, which is why it suggested an appeal might not be a bad idea. The scholarship in this case shows us how complicated Fourth Amendment jurisprudence really is.  What it means for Patterson is he must return to federal court to answer for these charges, three years after the arrest.

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