600 F.3d 56 (1st Cir. 2010), 09-1058, United States v. Fernandez

Docket Nº:09-1058.
Citation:600 F.3d 56
Opinion Judge:LIPEZ, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. Lamont FERNANDEZ, Defendant, Appellant.
Attorney:Thomas J. Iovieno, for appellant. Cynthia A. Young, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Michael K. Loucks, Acting United States Attorney, was on brief, for appellee.
Judge Panel:Before BOUDIN, STAHL and LIPEZ, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:April 01, 2010
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
 
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600 F.3d 56 (1st Cir. 2010)

UNITED STATES of America, Appellee,

v.

Lamont FERNANDEZ, Defendant, Appellant.

No. 09-1058.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit.

April 1, 2010

Heard Oct. 5, 2009.

Thomas J. Iovieno, for appellant.

Page 57

Cynthia A. Young, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Michael K. Loucks, Acting United States Attorney, was on brief, for appellee.

Before BOUDIN, STAHL and LIPEZ, Circuit Judges.

LIPEZ, Circuit Judge.

This case raises an important question of Fourth Amendment law that is unresolved in this circuit: whether a police officer may request identifying information from passengers in a vehicle stopped for a traffic violation without particularized suspicion that the passengers pose a safety risk or are violating the law. Appellant Lamont Fernandez conditionally pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm after the district court refused to suppress a gun recovered from him following a traffic stop of a car in which he was a passenger. The handgun was discovered after a police officer asked Fernandez for identification, ostensibly to issue a citation under a state seat belt law, and a computer check revealed an active warrant for his arrest. On appeal, Fernandez argues that the district court erred in failing to find that the inquiry into his identity violated both state law and his Fourth Amendment rights. Concluding that the questioning was lawful, we affirm.

I.

We draw the underlying facts from the findings made by the district court, see United States v. Fernandez, 578 F.Supp.2d 243, 244-46 (D.Mass.2008), and the testimony presented at the suppression hearing. At about 4:30 p.m. on October 20, 2007, Officer Anthony Pistolese was sitting in a parked cruiser across the street from a liquor store in Taunton, Massachusetts, when he observed a red Dodge Magnum pull into the store's parking lot just before three men, two on bicycles and one on foot, arrived there. The man on foot got into the car and the others pedaled away.

The Dodge then pulled out of the parking lot onto Bay Street, cutting off a blue pickup truck that was driving in the same direction. Officer Pistolese testified that the truck's driver was forced to apply the brakes and swerve to avoid a collision. The officer immediately activated his siren and overhead emergency lights, and pulled the car over. Once the red car stopped, the officer remained in his cruiser for " [l]ess than two minutes" to initiate a computer check on the license plate number, and then approached the vehicle.

Pistolese asked the driver to roll down the windows, which were tinted, and he could then see that three men were inside and that none of them was wearing a seat belt. Appellant Fernandez was in the front passenger seat. The officer asked the driver for his license and registration, and asked the two passengers for their names and dates of birth. Pistolese testified that he wanted the passengers' identification information so that he could cite all three men for seat belt violations, pursuant to Mass. Gen. L. ch. 90, § 13A, in addition to citing the driver for a moving violation.

Pistolese returned to his cruiser to check for active warrants and received the information from dispatch that there was a warrant for Fernandez, but not for the other two men. Officer Jeffrey Arruda had arrived at the scene while Pistolese was calling in the identification information, and he offered to provide back-up assistance. He pulled his cruiser behind Pistolese's vehicle, which was parked about 20 to 25 feet behind the Dodge. A third officer, Sean Smith, arrived on the scene and parked his cruiser in front of the Dodge. All three officers approached the

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car.1 At Smith's request, Fernandez got out of the vehicle, and Arruda noticed " a large weighted object" on the right side of his shorts. Arruda removed the object, a loaded handgun, from Fernandez's waistband. A further search of Fernandez, the other two men, and the car itself turned up a bag of marijuana, two small bags of cocaine, and another firearm. The three men were charged with firearms and narcotics violations in Massachusetts state court and issued citations for failure to wear seat belts. The driver, Thomas Young, also was issued a citation for failure to yield to oncoming traffic.

Fernandez was subsequently indicted in federal court on a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), and the state charges were dismissed. He moved to suppress the firearm on the ground that he was unlawfully stopped and questioned. He contended, inter alia, that both the initial stop of the car and the request for his identity were improper under Massachusetts and federal law. In denying the motion after a hearing, the district court observed that recent Massachusetts cases indicate that officers may issue citations for seat belt violations even if they have not seen the passengers with unfastened seat belts while the vehicle was moving. The court thus held that " [i]t was not improper for Officer Pistolese to ask Fernandez for his name and date of birth." Fernandez, 578 F.Supp.2d at 248.

Fernandez subsequently entered a conditional guilty plea, reserving his right to appeal the suppression issue. The district court imposed a fifty-seven-month term of imprisonment and a three-year term of supervised release. This appeal followed.

II.

Fernandez no longer challenges the propriety of Officer Pistolese's initial stop of the car, focusing instead on the officer's request that Fernandez provide his name and date of birth. He argues that, as a matter of Massachusetts law, the officer had no right to question him in connection with a suspected seat belt violation, and he contends that there was no other justification for the inquiry into his identity. Thus, he argues, the request for identification violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

When reviewing a district court's suppression ruling, we examine its findings of fact for clear error and its conclusions of law de novo. United States v. Scott, 566...

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