582 F.3d 199 (1st Cir. 2009), 08-1063, United States v. Wright

Docket Nº:08-1063.
Citation:582 F.3d 199
Opinion Judge:TORRUELLA, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. Gregory WRIGHT, Defendant, Appellant.
Attorney:Charles W. Rankin, with whom Michelle Menken and Rankin & Sultan, were on brief for appellant. Randall E. Kromm, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Michael J. Sullivan, former United States Attorney, was on brief for appellee.
Judge Panel:Before TORRUELLA, LIPEZ, and HOWARD, Circuit Judges. LIPEZ, Circuit Judge, dissenting.
Case Date:September 23, 2009
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

Page 199

582 F.3d 199 (1st Cir. 2009)

UNITED STATES of America, Appellee,


Gregory WRIGHT, Defendant, Appellant.

No. 08-1063.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit.

September 23, 2009

Heard Oct. 10, 2008.

Page 200

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 201

Charles W. Rankin, with whom Michelle Menken and Rankin & Sultan, were on brief for appellant.

Page 202

Randall E. Kromm, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Michael J. Sullivan, former United States Attorney, was on brief for appellee.

Before TORRUELLA, LIPEZ, and HOWARD, Circuit Judges.

TORRUELLA, Circuit Judge.

This is the second appeal concerning a Terry stop which resulted in the entry of a conditional guilty plea by appellant Gregory Wright for being a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). In the Terry stop at issue, Boston police officers recovered a gun from Wright's sweatshirt pocket after Wright was observed leaning forward from the backseat of a car to identify the officers, quickly exiting and running from the car, clutching at the right side of his sweatshirt while running, and ignoring the officers' order to stop. Below, Wright moved to suppress the gun, but the district court denied the motion, concluding that the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop him. In Wright's first appeal, we ruled that the district court's denial of the suppression motion was tainted with legal error, and remanded for further proceedings. United States v. Wright, 485 F.3d 45, 54 (1st Cir.2007). On remand, the district court again denied the motion, and Wright renewed his appeal. This time, after a careful review of the record, we affirm.

I. Background

A. The Prior Proceedings

The district court first denied Wright's motion to suppress after an evidentiary hearing at which three officers testified about the circumstances leading to his arrest. On appeal, we held that the district court's conclusion that the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop Wright was based on a legal error. The court interpreted Wright's running as " flight," and accepted the police officers' testimony that they saw Wright clutch his sweatshirt, by linking those findings to the subsequent discovery of the gun. Id. at 48.

We further held that the court's self-described " backwards" reasoning fatally tainted its factual findings. See id. at 48, 52 (quoting the district court as stating " Can I reason backwards from the fact that what happened next was that the police officers discovered the weapon on Mr. Wright? I think it is undisputed he was carrying a weapon and I do so reason"). We observed that it was " impossible to discern whether the court would have concluded that Wright knowingly fled from the police if it had not considered the eventual recovery of the gun." Id. at 52. Similarly, we could not evaluate the court's finding on Wright's hand movement because the court had used its " commonsense assumption that the gun was heavy ... [to] ma[k]e a factual finding that Wright grabbed his sweatshirt because he was carrying a heavy gun." Id. at 53. We concluded that the flaw in the underlying factual findings invalidated the court's legal conclusion that the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop Wright, requiring us to vacate the denial of the suppression motion. Id.

In remanding the case for reconsideration, we also addressed the district court's discussion of the area where Wright was stopped. The court had stated that it did not conclude that the area was a " high crime area," a characterization that would have been relevant to the inquiry into whether " the circumstances [were] sufficiently suspicious to warrant further investigation," Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 124, 120 S.Ct. 673, 145 L.Ed.2d 570 (2000); see also id. (" [W]e have previously noted the fact that the stop occurred in a ‘ high crime area’ among the relevant contextual considerations in a [reasonable suspicion] analysis."). Because the district

Page 203

court expressed uncertainty about whether the high crime area finding was a legal question or a mixed question of fact and law, we clarified that the character of a stop's location is a factual issue. Wright, 485 F.3d at 53. We observed that the court might choose to revisit the question upon remand. To assist its possible reevaluation of the issue, we identified a number of relevant factors to be considered. See id. at 53-54.

B. The Remand Proceedings

On remand, the district court solicited supplemental briefing and heard oral argument from the parties, but took no additional evidence. In its ruling from the bench, the court expressly adopted the description of the stop set out in our prior decision, with some modifications:

On the evening of November 8, 2004, a caravan of four unmarked police cars was patrolling in Dorchester, Massachusetts. The cars were Crown Victorias, a model widely associated with police departments. The plainclothes officers in the caravan were members of the Boston Police Department Youth Violence Task Force.

At about 7:45 p.m., the caravan was driving north on Blue Hill Avenue and slowed down as the lead car passed a vehicle that had just pulled over in front of a mini-mart at 1216 Blue Hill Avenue. The parked car was partially blocking one of two driveway entrances to the mini-mart parking lot. Officer Brown, who was seated in the lead car's front passenger seat, looked to his right as they passed the parked vehicle and observed three people, one of whom he recognized as Omar Edwards, a neighborhood resident. He did not recognize the driver or the passenger seated in the back seat of the parked car.

Immediately after passing this parked vehicle, Officer Brown's car pulled over to the right parking lane, in front of the parked car. The rest of the caravan came to a stop in the right travel lane to the rear of the parked car. The front passenger of the second police car, Officer Bordley, then observed the back seat passenger of the parked car, later identified as appellant, lean forward as though he was looking at the Crown Victoria that had just pulled over in front of his car. Wright then exited his car, on the passenger side, and began to run southward down Blue Hill Avenue. As he ran, Wright " grabbed toward the front of his sweatshirt in the vicinity of his waist." 1

Officer Brown quickly exited his car, as did a number of the other officers in the caravan. The police ordered Wright to stop running, but he did not obey this directive. Within a matter of seconds, the officers caught up to Wright, who resisted the officers' attempts to frisk him.2 The police patted Wright down and recovered a silver pistol from his sweatshirt pocket. He was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).

See id.

Based on these facts, Wright argued that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion

Page 204

to stop him. He noted that the officers' testimony suggested no suspicious motive either for Wright's leaning forward in the car or for grabbing at his sweatshirt. Instead, Wright argued that the officers' testimony indicated that they had stopped Wright only because he had run from the car. Wright asserted that running in those circumstances, without more, was insufficient to justify the stop.

The government countered that the totality of the circumstances demonstrated that the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop Wright. The government argued that Wright's running from the car, which it considered " flight," along with his " clutching at either the waist or the side of the sweatshirt" were sufficient to justify the stop. The government further contended that a finding that the area in which the stop occurred was a " high crime area" under Wardlow was not necessary. However, the government argued that the district court could take into account " the officers' testimony regarding what ... their particular knowledge of that area was at that time."

After hearing argument from both sides, and after setting forth its findings of fact, the district court ruled as follows:

So, there must be an adequate constitutional basis to chase after [Wright] and seize him under the Fourth Amendment, and it is to that issue the Court now turns.

These are mixed issues of law and fact. I conclude that the officers had no right to seize Mr. Wright at the point when their, the vehicles, both the one in front, the police cars in front, and the two police cars behind, came to park in front and back. They had no right to seize him under the Fourth Amendment simply because Officer Bordley saw him lean forward. I do think that it is a reasonable inference from Officer Bordley's testimony that Officer Bordley thought, though he did not expressly so testify, that Mr. Wright had made [i.e., recognized] the unmarked police car that had parked in front.

I infer from the testimony that, though things happened in split second intervals, Mr. Wright had started to run, I do not at this point say flee, he had started to run before the officers had started to run after him. The Court infers, and again the testimony is what it is, it's not explicit, I infer that the officers ascribed some significance as they are competent and experienced police officers in that area of Boston to the fact that Mr. Wright grabbed his side, clutched at something in his sweatshirt. The Court infers that the officers did in that split second draw the inference that he might well possess a weapon.

Having drawn that inference, that is sufficient under all the circumstances to order Mr. Wright to stop, and when he did not stop, t[o] chase after him and seize him, the actual seizure is when the officers came in contact with Mr. Wright.

The court also revisited whether the Terry stop occurred in a high crime area:

It's necessary I think to go a little further in honor, out of respect to the reasoning of the Court of Appeals, because I...

To continue reading