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Umanzor v. United States

July 25, 2002


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (F-5448-96) (Hon. Henry Greene, Motions Judge) (Hon. Harold Cushenberry, Trial Judge)

Before Steadman, Schwelb, and Washington, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Associate Judge

Argued October 31, 2001

Appellant Juan Ramon Umanzor was charged with one count of First-Degree Murder While Armed (Premeditated), D.C. Code §§ 22-2401, -3202 (1996 Repl.), and one count of Carrying a Dangerous Weapon (CDW), D.C. Code § 22-3204 (a) (1996 Repl.) in the stabbing death of Herman Blanco. His first trial on these charges, which took place in March 1998, ended in a hung jury with respect to the murder count. Appellant's second trial took place in December 1998, and the jury returned guilty verdicts on both counts. He was subsequently sentenced to thirty years to life on the murder count and one to three years on the CDW count, to be served consecutively. He appeals his convictions, arguing that (1) his motion to suppress physical evidence was improperly denied because his vehicle was illegally stopped; (2) the police lacked probable cause to arrest him and to seize physical evidence from his vehicle; and (3) the trial court improperly granted the government's motion in limine, which prevented him from arguing to the jury that the unidentified DNA on the murder weapon, the knife blade, belonged to Jose Andrade, who appellant contends was the actual murderer. We affirm.


During the early morning hours of June 23, 1996, appellant and Herman Blanco were involved in an altercation which culminated in the stabbing death of Blanco. Jose Alberto Garcia, decedent's friend, and Jose Vanagas, decedent's cousin, were eyewitnesses to the events leading to Blanco's death. Both testified that they, another man, and Blanco left the Don Juan Restaurant, located on the corner of Mount Pleasant and Lamont Streets, between 2:20 a.m. and 2:30 a.m., and headed in the direction of Garcia's truck, which was parked around the corner from Lamont Street. As they crossed Lamont Street, they saw appellant and two other men, one of whom was Jose Andrade, outside of the restaurant.

Garcia testified that appellant and his two companions were outside on the corner of Seventeenth and Lamont Streets drinking and "looking for problems." Appellant made a provocative statement, and Garcia responded that they were "not looking for problems." Garcia then saw appellant take a swing at Blanco. Blanco defended himself by punching appellant in his mouth, which began to bleed. Appellant then ran to his car and retrieved a knife from underneath the driver's seat. Both Vanagas and Garcia then saw appellant removing the knife from its packaging and running towards Blanco, who was in the process of entering Garcia's vehicle. Garcia and Vanagas warned Blanco, who then ran towards the side door of the restaurant. He was unable to enter because that particular door had been locked, and was subsequently stabbed in the chest by appellant. Blanco then ran to the front entrance of the restaurant and fell inside.

Immediately after the stabbing, Garcia heard appellant tell his companions in Spanish, "Let's go because I already killed him," and Vanagas heard a comparable statement. *fn2 Garcia then saw appellant run towards his car and jump over the hood into the driver's seat, and his companions joined him. Garcia also testified that he "stayed there [after appellant fled] asking for help so that they could be caught." Both Garcia and Vanagas identified appellant in photo arrays the next morning, as well as in-court identifications, and both testified that appellant had long black hair, a bloody lip and was wearing a white sleeveless T-shirt and blue jeans.

Garcia also testified as to the description of the suspect's vehicle that he communicated to police officers following the incident. In response to questioning by defense counsel, he testified that he initially thought the dark blue Honda was gray:

Q. Now sir, after the stabbing you saw the person who did the stabbing going to a blue car, right?

A. Yes.

Q. And that is this blue car in Government's Exhibit Number Twelve, correct?

A. Yes.

Q. Now that night you described that car as a gray car, right sir?

A. Yes.

In addition to Garcia and Vanagas, Officer Emiliana Rodriguez and Officer Ruben Vargas, two off-duty police officers, also testified to witnessing the stabbing incident. While Officer Rodriguez was speaking to Officer Vargas outside of a nearby restaurant, she heard glass breaking and what sounded like arguing in Spanish. When she looked in that direction, she saw a Hispanic man crossing the street, and two to three other Hispanic males chasing him. The man being chased was overtaken at the side door of the restaurant by a Hispanic male with long black hair wearing a sleeveless white T-shirt. The two then began to struggle. Officer Rodriguez then saw the individual in the sleeveless white T-shirt make an arm movement. His two companions then approached him and all three spoke before crossing the street. She then saw the man wearing the sleeveless white T-shirt jump over the hood of a car into the driver's side. *fn3 She attempted to make a U-turn in order to see the vehicle's tag number, but it passed too quickly before proceeding in an eastbound direction on Lamont Street. Soon after the stabbing and while still at the crime scene, she was approached by Vanagas, who recognized her as an officer who worked in the area. He informed her that appellant had offended Blanco, and that Blanco had punched appellant in the mouth in self-defense.

Officer Vargas testified that he heard what he thought was arguing coming from the direction of the corner of Seventeenth and Lamont Streets. He then saw someone running from the corner into the restaurant. At first, the individual attempted to enter the restaurant through the side door, was unable to do so, but eventually entered through the front door. Believing there had been an argument, the officer followed this individual into the restaurant and, upon entering, saw Blanco lying on the floor just inside. Initially, because it was dark inside the restaurant, Vargas thought Blanco had been punched. In the process of helping to move him outside for air, Vargas saw blood coming from Blanco's chest area, thought he might have been stabbed, and asked a friend to call for assistance. As people were coming out of the restaurant, someone kicked an object that emitted a metallic sound. When Vargas looked over, he saw that the object looked like a knife blade.

During the defense case, both appellant and a witness testified that it was Jose Andrade, not appellant, who was responsible for the stabbing. Appellant called Edwin Ramone Flores, a lifelong friend, who testified that Blanco walked up to appellant while he was entering his car and hit him. Andrade, who was wearing a white sleeveless T-shirt and blue jeans similar to that worn by appellant and apparently seeking revenge on appellant's behalf, then followed Blanco and stabbed him on the sidewalk on Lamont Street. *fn4 Flores then saw Blanco walk towards the restaurant and fall by the entrance. By the time that Andrade stabbed Blanco, appellant was already at his car. Andrade then walked to appellant's car, and entered the back seat of the two-door vehicle from the driver's side. Flores also testified that he never saw any blood on Andrade's clothing or face.

Appellant testified that on the night of the stabbing he arrived at the Don Juan Restaurant at approximately 12:20 a.m. with four friends, including Jose Andrade. At approximately 2:20 a.m., he left the restaurant with Andrade and two other friends in order to take Andrade home. Upon reaching his blue Honda Prelude, he saw Blanco asking Andrade for a cigarette. When Andrade refused to give him one, Blanco approached him and grabbed a cigarette out of his hands. After appellant told Blanco not to "look for trouble," Blanco approached appellant and hit him on the lip, which began to bleed. Appellant testified to being stunned by the punch, but denied responding in any way. He then saw Andrade jump over the hood of the Honda, open the driver's side car door, retrieve appellant's knife, follow Blanco, and stab him at the kitchen entrance of the restaurant. Andrade then ran back to the vehicle, jumped over the hood, and entered by the back seat. Appellant testified that during the stabbing, Andrade was wearing a sleeveless white T-shirt like his own and blue jeans but, unlike appellant, had long curly hair rather than long straight hair. Appellant indicated that he had purchased the knife used in the stabbing, which he kept underneath the passenger seat, in order to cut a portion of carpet that had become unglued in his car, and was certain that Andrade had become aware of the knife's presence there from sitting in the back seat. Appellant then drove towards Maryland in order to drop off Andrade, and was subsequently stopped by police. By that point appellant had taken off his T-shirt to put over his bleeding lip. Appellant testified that he did not see any blood or injuries on Andrade on the night of the stabbing.

At the hearing on the motion to suppress the physical evidence and at trial, Officer Steven Reid, an officer on the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) for seven years, testified that at approximately 2:45 a.m. he received a lookout broadcast for "a two door old Honda, gray in color, occupied one or two times, in reference to a homicide stabbing." *fn5 "Two seconds" later, while he and his partner were on the 200 block of Missouri Avenue, N.W., he saw a car he thought "kind of matched the lookout" about one block from the Maryland state line at a time when there "wasn't a lot of traffic." He immediately turned his police cruiser around in order to stop the vehicle and investigate. The officer indicated that initially he thought the Honda was gray, but upon positioning his police cruiser behind it, he realized it was blue.

Officer Reid testified extensively as to the circumstances which led him to stop a blue two-door Honda carrying three individuals despite the lookout for a gray two-door Honda containing one or two individuals. He testified that at the same time that he recognized the color discrepancy, he also noticed a large dark T-shirt on the trunk of the vehicle and that the vehicle was driving "real slow" or "cautiously":

Q. Now, the lookout broadcast-you got a general lookout for a gray two-door Honda, nothing additional other than occupied once or twice; last seen in the area of Mt. Pleasant and Lamont ...

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