State v. Taveras, 2009–102–C.A.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
Writing for the CourtJustice GOLDBERG
Citation39 A.3d 638
PartiesSTATE v. Isabel TAVERAS.
Docket NumberNo. 2009–102–C.A.,2009–102–C.A.
Decision Date22 March 2012

39 A.3d 638


No. 2009–102–C.A.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island.

March 22, 2012.

[39 A.3d 640]

Christopher R. Bush, Department of Attorney General, for State.

Thomas F. Connors, Esq., Providence, for Defendant.

Justice GOLDBERG, for the Court.

This case came before the Supreme Court on November 30, 2011, on appeal by the defendant, Isabel Taveras (defendant or Taveras), from a judgment of conviction on one count of possession of an enumerated quantity of cocaine, for which she received a ten-year suspended sentence, with probation. On appeal, the defendant challenges the denial of her motion to suppress. The defendant alleges that the arresting police officers violated her Fourth Amendment rights when they detained her unlawfully at a traffic stop and conducted a pat-down search without a reasonable articulable suspicion that she might be armed and dangerous. The defendant also alleges that the motion to suppress should have been granted because the officers exceeded the scope of a permissible pat-down search by directing her to unzip and open her jacket. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the denial of the defendant's motion to suppress and the judgment of conviction.

Facts and Travel

On January 10, 2007, at approximately 10:30 p.m., two Providence police officers, Patrolman David Allen (Ptlm. Allen) and Patrolman Louis Gianfrancesco (Ptlm. Gianfrancesco), while on patrol on Laban Street in Providence, observed a conversion van 1 without license plates, with its engine running and its lights on; there was no driver visible to the officers. As the officers drove up to the van with the cruiser's take-down lights 2 illuminated, they observed defendant—who was situated in the front passenger's seat—bend down toward the floor and then stuff something into the left side of her jacket. The officers also confirmed that there was no driver, but they observed that a passenger was seated in the rear of the van. The record discloses that the officers exited the cruiser and approached defendant to inquire why defendant was in the area, what

[39 A.3d 641]

defendant's name was, who owned the vehicle, and where the driver was. Patrolman Allen asked defendant to exit the van. Once a visibly nervous defendant was outside the vehicle, Ptlm. Allen asked her to open her jacket. When she did so, a clear plastic bag, containing a significant amount of what appeared to be crack cocaine, fell to the ground. At that point, the officers seized the plastic bag and placed Taveras in handcuffs.

On May 8, 2007, a criminal information was filed against defendant and Efrain Colon.3 The defendant was charged with one count of possession of between one ounce and one kilogram of cocaine, and one count of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, cocaine. The defendant filed a motion to suppress tangible evidence on the grounds that the search and subsequent seizure were made “without prior judicial approval, without a warrant, without consent, or authority, and without probable cause or articulable suspicion,” in violation of article 1, section 6, of the Rhode Island Constitution and the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. A Superior Court suppression hearing commenced on November 3, 2008. The state presented the testimony of Patrolmen Allen and Gianfrancesco, and Providence Police Officer Andrew Lawton (Officer Lawton); Taveras also testified.

Patrolman Allen testified that on January 10, 2007, at around 10:30 p.m., he was on patrol with Ptlm. Gianfrancesco on Laban Street, in the Olneyville section of Providence. Patrolman Allen commented that the area surrounding Laban Street was known as a high-crime area of the city. While on patrol that evening, Ptlm. Allen observed an older Dodge conversion van parked along the street; the vehicle was running, with its lights on. Patrolman Allen first noticed that the van did not have any plates on the front or rear bumpers.4 The officers proceeded to drive around the block in order to take a second look; they approached from the front and illuminated the police cruiser's take-down lights to confirm that the license plates were, in fact, missing.

With the benefit of the cruiser's lights, Ptlm. Allen testified, he noticed there was no driver present, a female was in the passenger's seat, and there was another individual in the rear seat. The officer testified that the female passenger appeared startled when the spotlights illuminated the van; he added that she immediately “kind of ducked down in her seat and appeared to be reaching towards the floor of the passenger area.” Patrolman Allen stated that once she reappeared, he “saw her with her right hand, it appeared she was stuffing something into her [winter] jacket * * * towards her chest, maybe her left arm, and it was on the left side of the jacket.” At that point, the officers exited the cruiser and approached the passenger side of the van.

Patrolman Allen testified that he asked Taveras to exit the vehicle because he was

[39 A.3d 642]

concerned for his safety based on defendant's suspicious movements, and because her hands were not continuously visible to him. In response to his brief questioning, defendant told the officer that she was on a first date with a fellow named Ricardo and that the van belonged to him. Unfortunately, she could not provide the officers with the name of the man in the back seat—who was dirty and disheveled—or the last name of her date for the evening. The defendant also did not know where the driver was, other than that he had gone into one of the nearby houses. The officer testified that when defendant was answering these questions she appeared very nervous, avoided eye contact with him, and visibly was shaking.

Patrolman Allen testified that he “was concerned for safety reasons because her story didn't seem to add up.” He noted that “[t]he gentleman in the back seat was very dirty. He looked like he had been doing manual labor for some time and he just didn't seem to fit the picture of a first date at ten thirty at night.” The combination of defendant's story, her nervous demeanor, the fact that it was at night, in a high-crime area, and the fact that Ptlm. Allen saw defendant stuff something into her jacket,5 prompted him to conduct a Terry-type search 6 for weapons. Based on his earlier observation of defendant stuffing something into the left side of her jacket, Ptlm. Allen testified that rather than perform a traditional pat-down search, which would have required him to touch defendant's chest area—where he saw her stuff something—he asked defendant to unzip her winter jacket. The defendant initially unzipped her jacket but attempted to keep it closed. Patrolman Allen then asked her to pull the jacket back so he could see her left side. When she did so, the officer saw something in a clear plastic bag, which then fell to the ground. The plastic bag appeared to contain a large quantity of crack cocaine. At this point, Ptlm. Allen seized the bag and arrested defendant. He also contacted a female officer to come to the scene to conduct a more thorough search of defendant's person.

Patrolman Gianfrancesco's testimony substantially corroborated that of Ptlm. Allen. He similarly observed defendant make a reaching motion toward the floor of the passenger area and then stuff something into the left side of her jacket. While Ptlm. Allen was questioning defendant, Ptlm. Gianfrancesco focused his attention on the rear-seat passenger, but he nonetheless was able to observe Ptlm. Allen's interaction with defendant. Based on the circumstances at the scene and his observations, Ptlm. Gianfrancesco stated that he suspected defendant might have a weapon under her coat. Patrolman Gianfrancesco also confirmed Ptlm. Allen's account of how the Terry search was conducted.

Officer Lawton also testified at the suppression hearing. Officer Lawton testified that he conducted a field test of the suspected crack cocaine; the field test revealed

[39 A.3d 643]

that the substance tested positive for cocaine and, when weighed at the Providence Police Department, had a net weight of 50.7 grams and a gross weight of 54.2 grams.

The defendant testified at the suppression hearing—but not at trial. She testified that she knew the driver of the van from around the neighborhood and that she would bump into him a number of times throughout the year. The two arranged to go on a date. The defendant stated that, when her date arrived to pick her up, it was “fairly late; it was probably eleven, twelve o'clock” and that his uncle was in the back seat. The two had planned on going to a movie, and they stopped at a liquor store on the way. Her date brought alcohol back to the car, and he poured her a drink.

According to defendant, the van's next stop was Laban Street, purportedly to pick up a movie (from an unknown person) to watch in the back of the van in case they did not make it to the movie theater on time. The defendant testified that the driver left the vehicle running with the headlights on while he went into a nearby, but unidentified, house to retrieve a movie. As she was waiting for the driver to return, defendant stated that she made small talk with the man in the back seat. While they were chatting, defendant saw a police cruiser drive by slowly. Taveras stated that, after she saw the police cruiser, she “took drugs that were on the console and [she] put them in [her] possession.” The defendant admitted that she “felt the best thing to do was take them out of plain view in case [the police] decided to come back” and that she “put them in [her] jacket and * * * zipped it up.” She also said that she placed the plastic bag “under [her] left armpit” and not in a coat pocket.

The defendant saw the police cruiser approach the van again, this time head-on, with its headlights illuminated. When the...

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