626 F.3d 203 (4th Cir. 2010), 09-4511, United States v. Hernandez-Mendez

Docket Nº:09-4511.
Citation:626 F.3d 203
Opinion Judge:DAVIS, Circuit Judge:
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Edith HERNANDEZ-MENDEZ, Defendant-Appellant.
Attorney:Joanna Beth Silver, Office of the Federal Public Defender, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant. Adam Kenneth Ake, Office of the United States Attorney, Greenbelt, Maryland, for Appellee. James Wyda, Federal Public Defender, Baltimore, Maryland, Lauren E. Case, Staff Attorney, Rebecca Haciski, Offi...
Judge Panel:Before WILKINSON, AGEE, and DAVIS, Circuit Judges. Judge DAVIS wrote the opinion, in which Judge WILKINSON and Judge AGEE joined.
Case Date:November 29, 2010
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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626 F.3d 203 (4th Cir. 2010)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

Edith HERNANDEZ-MENDEZ, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 09-4511.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.

November 29, 2010

Argued: Sept. 24, 2010.

Page 204

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 205

ARGUED:

Joanna Beth Silver, Office of the Federal Public Defender, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant.

Adam Kenneth Ake, Office of the United States Attorney, Greenbelt, Maryland, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

James Wyda, Federal Public Defender, Baltimore, Maryland, Lauren E. Case, Staff Attorney, Rebecca Haciski, Office of the Federal Public Defender, Greenbelt, Maryland, for Appellant.

Rod J. Rosenstein, United States Attorney, Baltimore, Maryland, Stuart A. Berman, Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney, Greenbelt, Maryland, for Appellee.

Before WILKINSON, AGEE, and DAVIS, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published opinion.

Judge DAVIS wrote the opinion, in which Judge WILKINSON and Judge AGEE joined.

OPINION

DAVIS, Circuit Judge:

Edith Hernandez-Mendez was indicted for possession of a firearm by an alien in violation of 18 U.S. C. § 922(g)(5)(A) and possession of a firearm in a school zone in violation of 18 U.S. C. § 922(q). Following the district court's denial of her motions to suppress, Hernandez-Mendez submitted to a bench trial on stipulated facts in order to preserve for appellate review the constitutional issues raised in her suppression motions. After finding Hernandez-Mendez guilty on both counts, the district court

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imposed a sentence of time served. On appeal, Hernandez-Mendez contends that the district court erred in (1) finding that police officers had reasonable suspicion to detain her and (2) failing to suppress the fruits of the police search of her purse given the officer's intent to search for identification documents. We reject Hernandez-Mendez's contentions and affirm.

I

This court reviews the legal conclusions of a district court's ruling on a motion to suppress de novo and the underlying findings of fact for clear error. United States v. Banks, 482 F.3d 733, 738 (4th Cir.2007); United States v. Sprinkle, 106 F.3d 613, 616-17 (4th Cir.1997). Where the district court denied defendant's motion to suppress, we construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the Government, the prevailing party below. United States v. Branch, 537 F.3d 328, 337 (4th Cir.2008).

On September 18, 2008, members of the Montgomery County Police Department (" MCPD" ) gang unit, including Officer Richard Webster and Officer Casey Doherty, set up surveillance of the area around Montgomery Blair High School (" BHS" ) on University Boulevard in Silver Spring, Maryland. The gang unit chose to deploy near the school in response to a stabbing incident that had taken place the previous day in a Giant Food parking lot located approximately two miles from the high school. Officer Webster knew that the stabbing victim was a member of the Vatos Locos, a Latino gang. Additionally, witnesses told police that members of other Latino gangs, including the Little Vatos Locos (" LVL" ) and the Latin Locos, had been present at the altercation. One witness to the incident came to the police station and reported that she had seen a leader of the Latin Locos waving a gun around. Because BHS had a history of gang-related incidents and because some LVL and Latin Locos members were students at BHS, the MCPD gang unit decided to set up surveillance in the school's vicinity the following day in the hope of forestalling any attempt at retaliation for the stabbing.

While stationed outside the school, the officers observed four Hispanic youths standing under a tree across the street from the school. Another group of three Hispanic males and one Hispanic female, later identified as Hernandez-Mendez, soon joined the group under the tree, arriving from the direction of the Woodmoor neighborhood north of the high school. Police observed that the males stood in a group around a young male with a red shirt and pony tail, who appeared to be conducting a discussion or meeting. Occasionally, one of the males would turn to look toward the front of the school.

Though Hernandez-Mendez stood somewhat apart from the rest of the group, one of the males soon went over and spoke to her, after which Hernandez-Mendez began walking back toward the Woodmoor neighborhood from where she had recently come. Officer Casey Doherty was directed to locate her and keep her in view. Doherty located Hernandez-Mendez sitting under a tree, out of sight of the males.

Just before the school day ended, Officer Webster called for uniformed officers in marked cars to make contact with the group of males. When the marked car arrived, the males split up, three walking toward BHS and three walking north toward Woodmoor. The male in the red shirt took off " at a dead sprint." J.A. 89. Consequently, Officer Webster decided to stop everyone in the group. The males were detained, frisked for weapons, and told to sit on the curb.

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Officer Webster requested that Officer Doherty detain Hernandez-Mendez; Doherty approached her, showed his badge, and requested that she sit on the curb. She complied. Officer Doherty then escorted Hernandez-Mendez back to where the other officers had detained the males, advising Officer Webster that he had checked neither Hernandez-Mendez's person nor her purse.

Officer Webster asked Hernandez-Mendez for her name, which she provided. In response to Officer Webster's asking whether she knew the male in the red shirt who had run off, Hernandez-Mendez replied that she did not know " anybody." J.A. 95. Officer Webster then asked Hernandez-Mendez for identification. In addition to her purse, Hernandez-Mendez was holding a wallet in her hand, from which she removed a credit card in the name of Hernandez. Officer Webster requested further identification and asked to look in the wallet. Hernandez-Mendez handed Officer Webster the wallet, in which he found several other credit cards in the same name and a checkbook, but no photo identification.

Officer Webster then asked Hernandez-Mendez if she had photo identification in her purse. As he asked the question, he reached out to take possession of the purse; Hernandez-Mendez simultaneously said " no" and pulled away. Immediately upon touching the exterior of the purse, Officer Webster felt a solid, heavy object that he recognized to be the barrel of a semiautomatic pistol. At this point, Officer Webster retrieved and opened the purse and found a Smith & Wesson 9mm semiautomatic pistol with unchambered ammunition. He then handcuffed and arrested Hernandez-Mendez and performed a full search of the purse, recovering her Montgomery County public school photo ID and her passport.

In a careful and thorough memorandum opinion issued after the evidentiary hearing (followed by further briefing), the district court found that the police officers had reasonable suspicion to stop and frisk Hernandez-Mendez and denied her motion to suppress the weapon seized from her purse. Following a bench trial, the district court found Hernandez-Mendez guilty of possession of a firearm by an alien in violation of 18 U.S. C. § 922(g)(5)(A) and guilty of possession of a firearm in a school zone in violation of 18 U.S. C. § 922(q). This timely appeal followed.

II

For more than forty years, the law has sanctioned a brief, investigatory stop of a person " where a police officer observes unusual conduct which leads him reasonably to conclude in light of his experience that criminal activity may be afoot." Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889...

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