U.S. v. Brown

Decision Date22 July 2003
Docket NumberNo. 02-3021.,02-3021.
Citation334 F.3d 1161
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. Rocky Lee BROWN, Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 01cr00272-01).

A.J. Kramer, Federal Public Defender, argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellant.

Lisa H. Schertler, Assistant U.S. Attorney, argued the cause for appellee. With her on the brief were Roscoe C. Howard, Jr., U.S. Attorney, and John R. Fisher and Elizabeth Trosman, Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

Before: SENTELLE, ROGERS, and GARLAND, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the court filed by Circuit Judge GARLAND.

Dissenting opinion filed by Circuit Judge ROGERS.

GARLAND, Circuit Judge:

Defendant Rocky Lee Brown submitted a conditional guilty plea to the charge of unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Police found guns and ammunition in a parked car in which Brown was sitting. The defendant now appeals from the district court's denial of his motion to suppress that evidence, contending that the police twice violated his Fourth Amendment rights: first, by opening the car's door; and second, by searching its trunk. We reject Brown's arguments and affirm the judgment of the district court.


At approximately 1:45 a.m. on April 14, 2001, Officers Joshua Branson and Michael Bryant of the Metropolitan Police Department arrived at an apartment building in Washington, D.C., in response to a citizen's call to the police. The citizen, Sharron Peterson, had reported that there had been a fight in the adjacent parking lot, that shots had been fired, and that a bullet had shattered the window of her child's bedroom while the child was sleeping. The officers knew the neighborhood to be the site of "a lot of drug activity" as well as "several shootings and several homicides" that year. Suppression Hr'g Tr., App. at 42.

When the officers arrived at Peterson's building, she pointed out a white Cadillac that was sitting in the parking lot. She told the officers that after hearing the gunshots, her sister — who, unlike Peterson herself, had been in the apartment at the time — opened the blinds and saw the men in the car looking up at her. The officers went to the parking lot, which was partially illuminated by street lights, and asked the two men inside the white car to step outside. They then questioned the men for about half an hour.

While the officers were talking to the occupants of the white Cadillac, they noticed a black Cadillac, which was the only other occupied car in the lot, parked fifteen to twenty feet away. Officer Bryant watched as a man got out of the driver's seat of the black car. The man approached the officers and then stopped for a while, leaning on a fence and "observing [the officers]; like it's a game going on." Id. at 54. Thereafter, he retreated toward the black car, continued watching for some time, and finally walked away down an alley, never to return. Officer Branson later testified that he regarded the man's behavior as "peculiar," id. at 39, noting that he "seemed to be eyeing out my partner and myself," id. at 41, and "sizing us up," id. at 44. Officer Bryant also observed another occupant of the black Cadillac, subsequently identified as defendant Brown, get out of the car and then get back inside. Id. at 66.

After they finished questioning the men in the white car, the officers decided to approach the black car and question its occupants because, the officers believed, they might either have "been involved with" or "observed" the earlier events in the parking lot. Id. at 57. Bryant approached with a lit flashlight. Although his vision of the interior of the car was obscured by the car's darkly tinted windows, Officer Branson could see "images of people." Id. at 41. As Branson approached the car, he saw "two people, one of [whom] got up from the rear seat and jumped over into the front seat." Id. Branson testified that this made him "even more suspicious" and "very cautious." Id.

Upon reaching the car, Officer Branson knocked on the rear passenger-side window, where he could see that one of the two occupants was sitting. When there was no response, Branson "cracked the door open" because he "wanted to make sure that [he and his] partner were safe." Id. at 43-44. Immediately upon opening the door, Branson observed a pistol on the floor of the back seat next to Brown's foot. Brown's hand was "right there ... like it was tickling the handle." Id. Branson immediately pulled Brown out of the car and handcuffed him. The other occupant, a female, was taken from the front passenger seat and handcuffed as well.

After searching the passenger compartment of the car, Officer Branson removed the keys from the ignition. He then opened the car's locked trunk. There, Branson found a shotgun bag containing an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, along with several magazines filled with ammunition.

Brown was charged by a grand jury with one count of unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), and one count of unlawful possession of a semi-automatic assault weapon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(v)(1). He filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in the car as the fruit of an unlawful search and seizure. Following an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied the motion. Brown then entered a conditional guilty plea to the first count of the indictment, reserving his right to appeal the suppression ruling. See FED.R.CRIM.P. 11(a)(2). The government dropped the second count after concluding that the AR-15 did not meet the statutory definition of an assault weapon. The defendant now appeals the denial of his motion to suppress.


Brown contends that Officer Branson violated the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures when he opened the car door, thereby rendering the subsequent seizure of the pistol unlawful. He further contends that, even if the opening of the door was legitimate, the police acted unconstitutionally when they searched the car's trunk and seized the rifle and ammunition they found inside. Accordingly, he argues that both guns, as well as the ammunition, should have been excluded from use as evidence at trial.

In response, the government maintains that the opening of the door was lawful under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968), which permits officers to undertake an investigatory stop if they have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and to conduct a protective search for weapons if they have a reasonable fear for their safety. The government further argues that the search of the trunk was lawful under United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 102 S.Ct. 2157, 72 L.Ed.2d 572 (1982), because discovery of the pistol in the passenger compartment provided probable cause to believe that there were additional weapons, ammunition, and/or other contraband in the trunk.

We decide de novo whether the police had reasonable suspicion, reasonable fear, and probable cause. See Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 699, 116 S.Ct. 1657, 1663, 134 L.Ed.2d 911 (1996); United States v. Christian, 187 F.3d 663, 666 (D.C.Cir.1999). However, we review the district court's "findings of historical fact only for clear error," and give "due weight to inferences drawn from those facts" and to the court's determinations of witness credibility. Ornelas, 517 U.S. at 699-700, 116 S.Ct. at 1663-64; see Christian, 187 F.3d at 666. Our analysis of the police conduct in question is objective: "[t]he principal components of a determination of reasonable suspicion or probable cause will be the events which occurred leading up to the stop or search, and then the decision whether these historical facts, viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer, amount to reasonable suspicion or to probable cause." Ornelas, 517 U.S. at 696, 116 S.Ct. at 1661-62; see Terry, 392 U.S. at 21-22, 88 S.Ct. at 1879-81.

In Parts II.A and II.B, we consider the lawfulness of the door-opening and the trunk search, respectively.


In Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court held that a police officer needs neither probable cause nor a warrant to conduct a brief investigatory stop of an individual if he has a reasonable suspicion that "criminal activity may be afoot." 392 U.S. at 30, 88 S.Ct. at 1884; see United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273, 122 S.Ct. 744, 750, 151 L.Ed.2d 740 (2002); United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7, 109 S.Ct. 1581, 1585, 104 L.Ed.2d 1 (1989). The Court also held that, during such a stop, an officer may conduct a protective search of the outer layers of the suspect's clothing if he has a "reasonable fear" that the suspect is armed and dangerous. Terry, 392 U.S. at 30, 88 S.Ct. at 1884; see Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1034, 103 S.Ct. 3469, 3473, 77 L.Ed.2d 1201 (1983). In order to justify such a stop and/or search, the officer must be "able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from these facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion." Terry, 392 U.S. at 21, 88 S.Ct. at 1880. In Michigan v. Long, the Court extended the scope of a Terry search beyond the person of the suspect to the area "within his immediate control," including the passenger compartment of an automobile. 463 U.S. at 1049, 103 S.Ct. at 3480-81; see Christian, 187 F.3d at 668.

The parties appear to assume that the opening of the car door constituted both a stop and a search for Terry purposes, and we do so as well. Because the stop and the search were thus coincident, both the reasonable suspicion and reasonable fear elements of the Terry standard must be satisfied. See Christian, 187 F.3d at 668. In assessing those issues, we examine the totality of the circumstances, not any one factor...

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