Suspected thief turns out to be felon in possession, but gun turns out to be inadmissible

Sometimes a federal gun possession crime results from an investigation specifically directed at the gun offense.  Sometimes, however, gun crimes result from investigations that have nothing to do with guns.  Just ask Phillip David Hernandez, who had an encounter with police as he walked next to a construction site that was located in a high-crime area and that was known for being the target of thieves interested in the construction materials there.  Did the police encounter turn up any stolen construction materials?  Nope.  It turned up a gun – which, as a convicted felon, Hernandez was not permitted to possess.  His case raises the question: was he “seized” for purposes of the Fourth Amendment when police questioned him from their patrol vehicle as he walked near the construction site?  If not, then the gun is admissible against him because the encounter is a “consensual” one, and does not implicate the Fourth Amendment.  But if it was a seizure, then the police have to demonstrate reasonable suspicion for the stop.  Can they?

According to the Tenth Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Hernandez, in October 2014, Denver police spotted Hernandez walking next to the construction site.  He wore all black clothing and carried two backpacks.  The site had been the subject of recent thefts of various materials, including sheet metal and copper piping.  Police suspected Hernandez might be serving as a lookout for thieves, though there was no one else around.  The officers also found it odd that Hernandez did not use the sidewalk on the other side of the street, but instead walked next to the construction area, essentially in the street.

When the officers pulled alongside him, Hernandez kept walking, and the officers followed along in a moving vehicle.  They did not display weapons nor raise their voices.  When asked where he was going and where he had been, Hernandez said he was at his grandmother’s and was headed home.  He then said, upon being asked, that he could not remember his grandmother’s address.  When asked if he would stop walking and talk to the officers, Hernandez complied.  When asked, he gave his real name but a false birthdate.  The officers pulled up his information on their computer, and it showed Hernandez’s mug shot and that he had violated parole, for which there was an active warrant.  He was informed of the warrant and approached by the officers on foot, and he began to walk away.  He reached for his waistband and an officer asked if he had a gun.  He said “yes,” the officer grabbed his arm, and a revolver fell to the ground.

Hernandez was indicted for being a felon-in-possession, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(1), and filed a motion to suppress, which the district court granted.  The Government appealed.  The Tenth Circuit affirmed the suppression of the gun.

Was Hernandez seized?  Yes, this was a seizure that required reasonable suspicion, according to the court.  While this began, as do many police encounters on the street, as a consensual encounter that required no justification, it became a seizure when the officers asked Hernandez to stop walking and talk to them.  This was the point at which a reasonable person would not have felt free to terminate the encounter and continue on his way – considering that that it was dark, there were no other people around, and the request to stop was made by two uniformed officers who had been following him.  As the court put it, “a reasonable person would have believed that compliance with the ‘request’ was not optional.”

Now that we know he was seized, was there reasonable suspicion that would have justified the seizure?  No, the court said.  The police stop of Hernandez was, rather, based on “inchoate suspicions and unparticularized hunches,” the court wrote.  They had no evidence specific to Hernandez that he had committed any crime, and the mere fact that he was walking next to a location that had been the subject of previous criminal activity is not enough to make their suspicion of him reasonable.  Neither was the fact that he was in a “high-crime” area, or that he wore all black and had two backpacks, or that he chose not to use the sidewalk.

What about the fact that he could not recall his grandmother’s address?  The court found that the Government had not relied upon this argument previously, and should not be able to rely upon it now on appeal.  Still, that fact would not be entitled to much weight, the court said.  When each officer testified, neither relied upon this fact to establish their suspicions about Hernandez, “which,” the court said, “is understandable because ordinary experience tells us that a grandchild who knows the familiar way to his grandmother’s house may well not know her exact street address.”

A final aspect of this case is notable.  Could the Government have argued that the finding of the gun was sufficiently attenuated from the initial unlawful stop, given the existence of the active warrant for Hernandez, a la Utah v. Strieff?  Recall that in Strieff, the Court applied the attenuation doctrine to hold that the discovery of an untainted warrant breaks the link to an unlawful Terry stop.  As it happens, Strieff was decided after briefing and argument in Hernandez.  But the Government never relied on attenuation in the district court, and so had waived that argument on appeal.  Before Strieff had been decided, the Tenth Circuit noted, two other circuits followed the same rule that was ultimately recognized by the Supreme Court in Strieff.  So the attenuation argument was available to the Government, but the Government did not pursue it.

Query whether, had the attenuation argument been properly before the Tenth Circuit, Strieff would make the gun admissible.  Applying the Brown factors, as did Strieff, the Government would have had a persuasive argument that the discovery of the warrant here was an intervening circumstance that makes the gun admissible.

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