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Stanley v. United States

October 21, 2010


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CMD28000-08) (Hon. Anthony Epstein, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nebeker, Senior Judge

Submitted June 8, 2010

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, NEBEKER and KING, Senior Judges.

Following a conditional plea of guilty, under which he reserved the right to appeal the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress evidence, appellant Terrance Stanley was convicted of unlawful possession of a controlled substance (cocaine), in violation of D.C. Code § 48-904.01 (d). Appellant seeks reversal of his conviction on the ground that the pat-down search, which led to police discovery of a baggie of cocaine on his person, violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment. We conclude that the trial court did not err in denying the motion to suppress and, therefore, we affirm the conviction.


On the evening of December 2, 2008, officers from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) executed a search warrant "for illegal drugs or narcotics[-]related paraphernalia or contraband" at 232 Randolph Place, N.E. The affidavit in support of the application for the search warrant established that the affiant, Officer Jonathan Jordan, had probable cause to believe that, in addition to narcotics and narcotics-related paraphernalia, the residence contained "illegal weapons." Appellant's brother, Damien Stanley, resided at the address. Once inside, police saw appellant and his brother along with three other individuals seated on a couch in the living room. Officer Wingate-Robinson (hereinafter Robinson) instructed the individuals in the house to lie on the floor and the officers then handcuffed them. Officer Robinson instructed appellant to stand up, and while appellant was handcuffed, began "to shake him, [to] make sure he didn't have any [] weapons" on him. Officer Robinson testified that while he was patting appellant down he had no reason to believe that appellant had drugs on him because he was not a target of the search. While shaking appellant's belt, a "red zip" containing cocaine fell to the ground. Officer Robinson retrieved the baggie and placed appellant under arrest.

Appellant moved to suppress the cocaine as the fruit of an unlawful search, arguing that additional grounds for the belt shaking were missing for what he believes was an additional intrusion. Officers Jordan and Robinson, who both helped execute the search warrant, testified at the hearing on the motion to suppress. Vanessa Bates, who was present at the residence while police executed the warrant, testified on behalf of the defense. Officer Robinson testified that he "patted the inside of [appellant's] legs and around his waistband and shook his belt to make sure he didn't have anything, any type of weapons or anything around his waistband." The officer explained that "as [he] shook [appellant's] belt a red zip containing [a] white rock-like substance fell down to the ground." The officer testified that he was not looking for drugs when the baggie fell. He stated that it was standard procedure for him to shake the belts of individuals while conducting a frisk for weapons, "because somebody could be hiding a weapon inside their belt . . . in between the belt and the pants." Lastly, the officer testified that he has uncovered guns and knives while conducting protective pat-downs and that, in his experience, a gun can be mistaken for a large belt buckle. Vanessa Bates, appellant's ex-girlfriend, testified that the officers searched appellant several times by patting him and looking inside of his pockets.

The trial court orally denied appellant's motion to suppress and issued a written order denying the motion. The trial court credited the testimony of Officers Robinson and Jordan and, because of her demeanor and relationship with appellant, did not credit the testimony of Vanessa Bates. The trial court found that "[t]he scope of Officer Robinson's frisk was limited to the extent reasonably necessary to discover any weapon on [appellant's] person." It held that the frisk was reasonable because Officer Robinson, based on his experience, "reasonably believed that [appellant] might have a weapon under his belt and that shaking his belt would reveal any such weapon" and because "[h]andcuffing a detainee does not necessarily eliminate all threats." The trial court observed that "multiple detainees were detained in the house, and one detainee could obtain a weapon concealed on the person of another detainee" and that appellant would have been able to recover a weapon once the handcuffs were removed.

In reaching its decision, the trial court relied largely on Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692, 705 (1981), which authorized detainment of occupants of a residence where the officers had no particularized information that the occupants were armed and dangerous or otherwise involved in criminal activity, but where they had a warrant to search the residence for contraband. The trial court applied the reasoning of Summers to the situation where officers not only detain, but also frisk, occupants of a residence subject to a search warrant for narcotics and held that Officer Robinson's frisk of appellant was "a step reasonably necessary to minimize the threat" posed by occupants of a residence where officers had probable cause to believe they would find drugs. The trial court observed that, unlike street encounters, the "connection between drugs and guns . . . supports the reasonableness of Officer Robinson's actions during the execution in a residence of a search warrant for drugs" because "the officers were engaged in 'the kind of transaction that may give rise to sudden violence' and that requires officers 'routinely exercise unquestioned command of the situation.'" The trial court concluded by stating:

[t]he practical difficulty of determining the exact status of each occupant and calibrating the risk each occupant poses during the execution of a residential search warrant for drugs explains why it was reasonable for the officers to frisk all occupants of Mr. Johnson-Stanley's house, whether they lived there or were related to the target.


Appellant contends, as he did at the trial level, that Officer Robinson's pat-down search violated the Fourth Amendment because Officer Robinson lacked particularized information that appellant possessed weapons or drugs and thus exceeded the permissible scope of a Terry protective pat-down when he shook appellant's belt. The question of whether the trial court erred in denying appellant's motion to suppress tangible evidence is subject to de novo review. Germany v. United States, 984 A.2d 1217, 1221 (D.C. 2009). However, we view the facts and all reasonable inferences therefrom in favor of sustaining the trial court's ruling. Id. We review the trial judge's factual findings and resolution of conflicting testimony for clear error only. Id. We affirm.

It is well established that a police officer may briefly detain an individual and conduct a pat-down search for weapons if the officer has "reasonable articulable suspicion" that the individual is armed and dangerous. Germany, 984 A.2d at 1221(citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 27 (1968)). In order to justify a protective pat-down or "frisk" for weapons, "the police officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the intrusion." 392 U.S. at 21. In Terry, the Supreme Court emphasized that the "sole justification" for a frisk "is the protection of the officer and others nearby, and it must therefore be confined in scope to an intrusion reasonably designed to discover guns, knives, clubs, or other hidden instruments for the assault of the police officer." Id. at 29. To determine whether the search in this case was reasonable, we must evaluate the totality of the circumstances and balance the need for the search against the degree of the intrusion it entails. See Germany, 984 A.2d at 1222.

In considering whether Officer Robinson possessed the requisite "individualized suspicion" to frisk appellant for weapons, the trial court acknowledged that Officer Robinson "had no specific information that [appellant] might have drugs or weapons on his person before he frisked him." It determined, however, that the frisk was reasonable because (1) the officers were executing a residential search warrant for narcotics and appellant was present in the residence to be searched; (2) drugs and guns are often found together; (3) there were multiple individuals in the residence, ...

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