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In re A.S.


June 26, 2003


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (No. J-1522-01) (Hon. Odessa F. Vincent, Trial Judge)

Before Wagner, Chief Judge, and Terry and Steadman, Associate Judges.

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

Argued December 11, 2002

Before us is a pretrial government appeal from a juvenile proceeding in which the trial court suppressed evidence of drugs found on A.S. when he was stopped and searched by a police officer. The trial court held that the stop and frisk of A.S. was unlawful under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968) and the Fourth Amendment. We affirm.

In reviewing a trial court ruling on a suppression motion, the facts and all reasonable inferences therefrom must be viewed in favor of sustaining the trial court ruling. Peay v. United States, 597 A.2d 1318, 1320 (D.C. 1991) (en banc). Thus, as a key to this appeal, here "we present the facts, which in some respects are not entirely clear,*fn1 in the light most favorable to sustaining the ruling of the trial court" to suppress the evidence. District of Columbia v. Mancuso, 778 A.2d 270, 271 n.1 (D.C. 2001). The only witness for the government was Officer Matthew H. Adcock. Shortly before midnight, he and several other officers (all in civilian clothes except for a Metropolitan Police jacket) were on routine patrol in an unmarked vehicle in a high drug area.*fn2 A.S. was standing on a corner conversing with another unidentified individual. Officer Adcock made eye contact with A.S., who had a wide-eyed "shocking" expression on his face. As the vehicle stopped and Officer Adcock alighted, A.S. walked from the area*fn3 "briskly" but not running; as he did so, he "made a stuffing motion with his right hand into the waistband area."*fn4 Based on past experience,*fn5 Officer Adcock suspected that A.S. was trying to conceal a weapon. A.S. stopped in response to a call by Officer Adcock,*fn6 who as soon as he reached A.S. "immediately" placed his hand on the waistband area of the stuffing motion. Moving his hand further toward the front, Officer Adcock noticed and felt a bulge, a soft object that he believed to be narcotics and in fact on retrieval turned out to be two bags of drugs.

On this record, the trial court "found that the fact of respondent's presence in a high crime area, at 11:40 p.m., and furtive gesture, the stuffing motion, were insufficient to justify the seizure of the respondent." We think the trial court fairly summarized the key operative facts and correctly concluded that under our case law they did not reach "reasonable articulable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot."*fn7

The determinative case, controlling on this panel, is Duhart v. United States, 589 A.2d 895 (D.C. 1991). In that case, a police officer in full uniform observed appellant displaying "something" to another man. The area had been the subject of numerous complaints of illegal narcotics and on the basis of his extensive experience of eighteen years, the officer believed that a narcotics transaction was taking place. The two men looked up at the officer, the appellant put "whatever he was showing" into his pocket, and the two men started walking in opposite directions. Appellant stopped at the officer's request. The officer asked appellant to take his hand out of his pocket and, when he reluctantly complied, the officer seized his wrist. We held that a seizure occurred at that point and reversed the ruling of the trial court that a valid Terry stop had occurred.*fn8 With respect to the two people examining something and the appellant showing the item into his pocket upon spotting the police officer, we concluded that "if the behavior of a suspect is capable of too many innocent explanations, then the intrusion cannot be justified," and that there was "no indication that the object that appellant put into his pocket resembled illicit narcotics." Id. at 900.

In the case before us, the officer did not even see any object in A.S.'s hand, and the "stuffing motion," as A.S's brief puts it, could be the person's "tucking in his shirt, scratching his side, pulling up his pants, arranging his underwear, pager, cell phone, or walkman, etc." Indeed, while in Duhart, the appellant was acting in response to the presence of a known police officer, in our case even that fact is not clearly established and we are sustaining, not reversing, a trial court ruling with its axiomatic presumption of correctness. See, e.g., Stockard v. Moss, 706 A.2d 561, 567 (D.C. 1997). We cannot say that the trial court erred in concluding in effect, as we did in Duhart, that the officer's seizure was "not based upon particularized facts but an 'inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch.'" Id. at 901 (quoting Terry, 392 U.S. at 27).*fn9


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