Monday, December 06, 2010

Seizure and Patdown Justified By Association With Apparent Gang Activity

US v. Hernandez-Mendez: Montgomery County (MD) police officers set up surveillance outside a local high school following a gang-related stabbing that had occurred in the area. The high school was noted for gang activity in the past. Hernandez-Mendez was observed with a group of seven young Hispanic men outside the school who appeared to be conducting some sort of meeting. Eventually, Hernandez-Mendez left the group, but remained in the area, and was followed by an officer. When officers approached the seven young men, they split up, with one of them running away. Officers decided to "stop everyone in the group."

Hernandez-Mendez complied when confronted by an officer, gave her name, and handed over her wallet, which included several credit cards in her name but no photo ID. She told the officers that she didn't know any of the three young men, including the one who ran away. An officer asked if she had ID in her purse as he reached towards it, prompting Hernandez-Mendez to pull away and say "no." The officer grabbed the purse and felt an object that he recognized as a firearm. He found a pistol inside. Hernandez-Mendez was charged with being an alien in possession of a firearm and possession of a firearm in a school zone. After the district court denied her motion to suppress the gun, she was convicted on both counts at a stipulated bench trial.

On appeal, Hernandez-Mendez challenged the district court's denial of her motion to suppress. She first argued that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to detain her. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, holding that the officers' experience with Hispanic gangs, previous history of gang incidents at the school, and the surveillance observations provided reasonable suspicion for the stop, namely that some retaliation was being planned with regards to the earlier stabbing. Hernandez-Mendez also argued that even if the stop was warranted, the frisk of her purse was not. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, holding that the facts developed after the seizure, particularly Hernandez-Mendez's "evasiveness" warranted a patdown. Once the officer felt the gun through the purse, it could be seized. Thus, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling and Hernandez-Mendez's convictions.

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