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California Court of Appeal Affirms Grant of Suppression Motion Where Officer’s Pat Search of Defendant Based on High Crime Area, Baggy Clothes, Criminal Record, and Suspect in Separate Case

by Douglas Ankney

The Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, affirmed the Solano County Superior Court’s order granting Juan Pantoja’s motion to suppress evidence because Vacaville Police Officer Chris Hill did not have articulable facts to support a reasonable suspicion to pat search Pantoja. The Court also affirmed the superior court’s order dismissing the complaint against Pantoja.

Pantoja was charged with one count of possession of a firearm by a felon. Pen. Code § 29800(a)(1). At the hearing on Pantoja’s motion to suppress the evidence, Hill – the only witness who testified – stated that he initiated a traffic stop because Pantoja’s license plate light and brake light were not working. The stop occurred in the parking lot of an apartment complex and was considered a “high crime area.”

As Hill approached the vehicle, he smelled no odor of marijuana. He observed that Pantoja was the sole occupant of the vehicle and Pantoja had rolled down his driver’s side window. When Pantoja told Hill his name, Hill vaguely recognized the name and remembered Pantoja “had a history of violence and firearm possession, and he was at the time an investigative lead in a homicide.”

Pantoja was cooperative at all times during the traffic stop, he did not appear to be intoxicated, his driver’s license was valid, he answered Hill’s questions, he made no furtive or sudden movements, and Hill did not describe any other behavior by Pantoja that suggested he was armed and dangerous.

Hill asked if there was weed in the car, and Pantoja replied that he did not smoke weed. Then Hill asked Pantoja if he could search inside Pantoja’s car, and Pantoja declined. Hill then asked Pantoja to get out of his car and to place his hands behind his head because Hill was going to issue him a citation for the vehicle lighting infractions.

When the prosecutor asked Hill if he believed Pantoja “was armed or dangerous at that moment,” Hill responded, “He was wearing baggy clothing. He had a hoodie and jeans on. The hoodie naturally has bulges in it, so based upon defendant’s history of weapons, I elected to remove him from the vehicle and pat him down so I can complete the citation.” Asked again if he believed Pantoja was armed and dangerous, Hill answered, “There’s a good possibility or chance, yes.”

Hill patted Pantoja’s front waist area and felt a handle to a handgun. Hill lifted the front of Pantoja’s hoodie, saw a revolver, and arrested Pantoja.

On cross-examination, Hill admitted it had been years since he had seen Pantoja arrested. Hill also admitted he did not mention in his police report any bulges in Pantoja’s clothes and did not describe Pantoja’s sweatshirt as baggy. Hill acknowledged that it was cold outside at the time of the traffic stop, that he usually took only five minutes to write a traffic citation, and there was no arrest warrant for Pantoja in the homicide case in which he was allegedly “an investigative lead.”

The trial court granted Pantoja’s motion to suppress, explaining Hill “didn’t have any specific or articulable facts to believe that this individual was presently armed or dangerous,” just speculation that he may have been armed. Without the gun, there wasn’t any evidence, so the trial court dismissed the case. The People appealed.

The Court of Appeal observed that in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), the U.S. Supreme Court held that there’s “a narrowly drawn authority to permit a reasonable search for weapons for the protection of the police officer, where he has reason to believe that he is dealing with an armed and dangerous individual, regardless of whether he has probable cause to arrest the individual for a crime.” Quoting King v. State, Cal. App. 4th 265 (2015).

The officer need not be absolutely certain that the person is armed; the standard is whether a “reasonably prudent man in the circumstances would be warranted in the belief that his safety or that of others was in danger.” Id. To meet this standard, the officer is required “to point to specific and articulable facts together with rational inferences therefrom which reasonably support a suspicion that the suspect is armed and dangerous.” People v. Dickey, 21 Cal. App. 4th 952 (1994). A hunch or “unparticularized suspicion” is insufficient to satisfy the standard. In re Jeremiah S., 41 Cal. App. 5th 299 (2019). 

Turning to the present case, the Court stated that the trial court could have reasonably discounted Hill’s testimony about Pantoja’s clothing as contributing to reasonable suspicion because he made no mention of it in his police report, and he acknowledged that the alleged bulges were natural and that the clothing was appropriate for the weather. See People v. Rios, 193 Cal. App. 4th 584 (2011).

The Court next addressed the issue of “defendant’s history of weapons” and determined that it was insufficient to constitute reasonable suspicion. A criminal record alone is insufficient to support reasonable suspicion for a detention or search. See United States v. Foster, 634 F.3d 243 (4th Cir. 2011); United States v. Mathurin, 561 F.3d 170 (3d Cir. 2009); United States v. Davis, 94 F.3d 1465 (10th Cir. 1996). For example, in Davis, the court held that the fact defendant was in a high crime area, he walked away from the police, dropped eye contact, kept his hands in his pockets, and the officer knew the defendant had a criminal record did not support a reasonable suspicion that the defendant was unlawfully carrying a firearm.

The People cited People v. Bush, 88 Cal. App. 4th 1048 (2001), for the proposition that history of weapons possession alone is sufficient for reasonable suspicion. However, the Court determined that case is distinguishable from the present case. In Bush, the officer was advised by dispatch that the driver “had a history of violence, possession of weapons and was reported to be a kick-boxer.” Concerned for his safety, the officer instructed the driver to exit the vehicle and searched it. The Bush Court upheld the search on appeal, reasoning that the information provided by dispatch constituted “specific and articulable facts” that the driver was dangerous and could obtain immediate access to weapons.

In contrast, the Court in the current case reasoned Hill didn’t have personal knowledge nor was advised by dispatch that Pantoja was “very violent” like the defendant in Bush. In fact, Hill never testified at all that Pantoja was reported to be violent, and Hill only knew that Pantoja had been arrested many years ago for possession of a weapon. Consequently, the Court determined that Bush is distinguishable from the facts of this case. See United States v. Sandoval, 29 F.3d 537 (10th Cir. 1994) (“knowledge of a person’s prior criminal involvement (to say nothing of a mere arrest) is alone insufficient to give rise to the requisite reasonable suspicion”).

Finally, the Court summarily rejected the People’s argument that there was reasonable suspicion based on the fact the traffic stop occurred in a high crime area and Pantoja was allegedly an investigative lead in another case. The Court stated that “mere presence in a high crime area, by itself, does not justify a patdown search.” People v. Medina, 110 Cal. App. 4th 171 (2003). That’s especially true in this case because Pantoja was pulled over in his own apartment complex, the Court observed. Similarly, merely being under investigation is insufficient to support reasonable suspicion, according to the Court. Foster (“a person’s Fourth Amendment rights cannot be lessened simply because he or she is ‘under investigation’ by the police”).  

Thus, viewing the totality of the evidence, the Court ruled that Hill’s patsearch of Pantoja was not supported by reasonable suspicion and was thus unconstitutional.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the orders granting Pantoja’s motion to suppress and dismissing the complaint. See: People v. Pantoja, 77 Cal. App. 5th 483 (2022). 

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