El-Amin v. Com.

Decision Date14 January 2005
Docket NumberRecord No. 040143.
Citation607 S.E.2d 115,269 Va. 15
PartiesRajaee EL-AMIN v. COMMONWEALTH of Virginia.
CourtVirginia Supreme Court

Jennifer M. Newman (Carolyn V. Grady, Richmond, on brief), for appellant.

Robert H. Anderson, III, Senior Assistant Attorney General (Jerry W. Kilgore, Attorney General, on brief), for appellee.

Present: HASSELL, C.J., LACY, KEENAN, KOONTZ, LEMONS, and AGEE, JJ., and CARRICO, S.J.

LACY, Justice.

A police officer conducted a pat down search of Rajaee El-Amin because a gun was discovered on the person of El-Amin's companion. El-Amin asserts that the officer had no reason to suspect that El-Amin was armed and dangerous and, therefore, that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. Based on the totality of the circumstances, we conclude that the search was reasonable and did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Facts

On the evening of August 4, 2000, the Richmond police received an anonymous tip that six young black males were at the corner of Front Street and Fifth Avenue smoking marijuana. Officers Steven M. Kuzniewski and James H. Baldwin responded to the dispatcher's call relaying this information. Although observing no signs of drug or other criminal activity, the officers approached four young black males walking one-half block from the identified corner and asked to speak with them. Two of the young men walked over to the police officers, while El-Amin and another of the group (the fourth individual) stayed further back but separate from each other. Moments later, Officers David C. Williams and Mark Zilliox also arrived in response to the call, and Williams immediately observed the fourth individual turn away and shove his hands into his waistband. Officer Williams drew his gun and asked the young man to "stop, turn around, and face [him]." When the fourth individual did not comply, Officer Williams tried to conduct a pat-down search of his person. The young man reached for his waistband, and Officer Baldwin had to secure his left arm so that Officer Williams could continue the pat-down search. Officer Williams felt what he believed to be a gun, yelled "gun," and found a pellet gun in the fourth individual's waistband.

Upon hearing his fellow officer yell "gun," Officer Kuzniewski determined that, because the four individuals were traveling in a "pack," for "safety reasons" he should pat down the other members of the group. He told the other three members of the group to approach and place their hands on the nearest police cruiser for a pat-down search. Although he had no particularized safety concerns as to El-Amin prior to learning that the fourth individual had a gun, Officer Kuzniewski conducted a pat-down search of El-Amin and found a .38-caliber revolver. He arrested El-Amin for illegal possession of a handgun as a juvenile. After the arrest, Officer Zilliox searched El-Amin and discovered cocaine and marijuana in his pockets. El-Amin was subsequently charged with violations of Code § 18.2-248, possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute, and Code § 18.2-308.4, possession of a firearm while in possession of a controlled substance.

Proceedings

Prior to his trial, El-Amin filed a motion to suppress the evidence claiming a violation of his rights under the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The trial court denied the motion. El-Amin was convicted of the charges and sentenced to a total of ten years imprisonment, with five years suspended.1

On appeal, a panel of the Court of Appeals reversed the convictions holding that the trial court's denial of El-Amin's motion to suppress was error.2 The Court of Appeals granted the Commonwealth's motion for a rehearing en banc and vacated the panel's opinion and order. The rehearing resulted in an evenly divided vote which thereby affirmed the trial court's judgment. El-Amin filed a timely appeal to this Court asserting that the evidence obtained by the police from the pat-down search of his person was obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights and Article 1, Section 10 of the Constitution of Virginia.3

In the courts below, El-Amin argued that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated initially when approached by Officers Kuzniewski and Baldwin because the information provided by the unidentified informant was insufficient to justify a stop of the four young men. See Florida v. J.L., 529 U.S. 266, 120 S.Ct. 1375, 146 L.Ed.2d 254 (2000). At oral argument in this Court, El-Amin abandoned that position and no longer contests the proposition that his initial encounter with the police officers was consensual.

El-Amin maintains, however, that he was unconstitutionally seized and searched at the time Officer Kuzniewski directed him to lean on the police car and conducted a pat-down search. El-Amin contends that under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968), this search and seizure required, at a minimum, that Officer Kuzniewski have a reasonable articulable suspicion that El-Amin was engaged in criminal activity and that he was a danger to the officer. El-Amin contends that no such particularized suspicion existed here, and, therefore, the search and seizure, based solely on El-Amin's association or physical proximity to the other three youths, was unconstitutional.

Discussion

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause ... and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

U.S. Const. amend. IV. "The basic purpose of this Amendment, as recognized in countless decisions of [the United States Supreme] Court, is to safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions by governmental officials." Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523, 528, 87 S.Ct. 1727, 18 L.Ed.2d 930 (1967). The standard for a constitutional search or seizure is reasonableness. Elkins v. United States, 364 U.S. 206, 221, 80 S.Ct. 1437, 4 L.Ed.2d 1669 (1960). The United States Supreme Court has identified various circumstances in which a search and seizure complies with the reasonableness requirement.

The Court has held that searches and seizures conducted pursuant to a particularized warrant based on probable cause as adjudged by a magistrate are reasonable. See Massachusetts v. Sheppard, 468 U.S. 981, 987-91, 104 S.Ct. 3424, 82 L.Ed.2d 737 (1984); McDonald v. United States, 335 U.S. 451, 455, 69 S.Ct. 191, 93 L.Ed. 153 (1948). Recognizing that law enforcement will not always be in a position to secure a warrant prior to detaining or searching persons suspected of criminal activity, the Court has held that searches and seizures based on probable cause that the individual is engaged in criminal activity are reasonable for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 819, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (1996); United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411, 423-24, 96 S.Ct. 820, 46 L.Ed.2d 598 (1976). The Court has also concluded that a more limited stop and search of a person, where based on a reasonable articulable suspicion that he or she is, has, or is about to engage in criminal activity and may be armed and dangerous, is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Adams v. Williams, 407 U.S. 143, 146, 92 S.Ct. 1921, 32 L.Ed.2d 612 (1972); Terry, 392 U.S. at 24, 88 S.Ct. 1868. Furthermore, the Court has held that the limited detention involved in requiring a driver or passengers to step out of a vehicle stopped for a traffic violation is reasonable for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408, 414-15, 117 S.Ct. 882, 137 L.Ed.2d 41 (1997); Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 109-11, 98 S.Ct. 330, 54 L.Ed.2d 331 (1977).

In reaching the conclusion that these searches and seizures did not violate the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court has employed a balancing test, weighing the "personal security" interests of the individual against the public purpose served by the search or seizure. Wilson, 519 U.S. at 411,117 S.Ct. 882; Mimms, 434 U.S. at 109,98 S.Ct. 330; Terry, 392 U.S. at 19-21,88 S.Ct. 1868. In doing so, the Court identified law enforcement's responsibility for criminal investigation and the need to provide for the safety of the officers involved in such investigations as a public purpose. Wilson, 519 U.S. at 413,117 S.Ct. 882; Mimms, 434 U.S. at 110-11,98 S.Ct. 330; Terry, 392 U.S. at 22-24,88 S.Ct. 1868. Balancing these public purposes and the individual's interest in personal privacy, the Court concluded that the intrusions were reasonable. Wilson, 519 U.S. at 414-15,117 S.Ct. 882; Mimms, 434 U.S. at 111,98 S.Ct. 330; Terry, 392 U.S. at 31,88 S.Ct. 1868.

The Commonwealth suggests that in this case, Officer Kuzniewski's legitimate concern for his safety and that of the other police officers was sufficient to justify the pat down search at issue and under these circumstances there is no need for the requirement of particularized suspicion initially addressed in Terry. See also Maryland v. Buie, 494 U.S. 325, 334, 110 S.Ct. 1093, 108 L.Ed.2d 276 (1990) ("Terry requires reasonable individualized suspicion before a frisk for weapons can be conducted."); Ybarra v. Illinois, 444 U.S. 85, 94, 100 S.Ct. 338, 62 L.Ed.2d 238 (1979) ("The `narrow scope' of the Terry exception does not permit a frisk for weapons on less than reasonable belief or suspicion directed at the person to be frisked.") In support of its position, the Commonwealth points to a handful of cases from the federal courts of appeal that the Commonwealth suggests have adopted a "companion rule." United States v. Simmons, 567 F.2d 314 (7th Cir.1977); United States v. Poms, 484 F.2d 919 (4th Cir.1973) (per curiam); United States v. Berryhill, 445 F.2d 1189 (9th...

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