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Whitfield v. United States

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

September 18, 2014


Argued December 18, 2013.

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Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CF2-3007-10). (Hon. Anthony C. Epstein, Motion to Suppress Judge). (Hon. Robert E. Morin, Motion to Dismiss Judge).

Christine A. Monta, Public Defender Service, with whom James W. Klein and Alice Wang, Public Defender Service, were on the brief, for appellant.

Stephen Rickard, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Ronald C. Machen Jr., United States Attorney, and Elizabeth Trosman, Chrisellen R. Kolb, Jeff T. Cook, and Angela G. Schmidt, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief, for appellee.

Before GLICKMAN and BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judges, and NEBEKER, Senior Judge.


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BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Senior Judge Associate Judge:

Appellant Roosevelt Whitfield, an off-duty bank security guard and member of the United States Air Force at the time of his arrest,[1] was stopped by the police after the officers observed that the lower portion of the Texas license plate located on his vehicle was obstructed by the portion of the Texas license plate located on his vehicle was obstructed by the license plate frame, thereby concealing the state nickname -- " Lone Star State" -- which the officers believed violated District of Columbia traffic laws.[2] During the ensuing traffic stop, a handgun and ammunition were discovered and appellant was arrested. Following a suppression hearing, he conditionally pleaded guilty to attempted carrying a pistol without a license (" CPWL" ), possession of an unregistered firearm (" UF" ), and unlawful possession of ammunition (" UA" ).[3] On appeal, appellant makes two principal arguments. First, the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress because the police did not have reasonable, articulable suspicion to make the traffic stop because the partially obstructed license plate did not violate District of Columbia law. Second, and alternatively, the CPWL, UF, and UA statutes are unconstitutional as applied to him under the Second Amendment because these laws effectuate a complete ban on the ability of law-abiding nonresident citizens to carry a handgun outside of the home for purposes of legitimate self-defense in the District of Columbia.

Based on our reading of the municipal regulation on which the police relied in effectuating this seizure, we decide this case on appellant's first argument and conclude that the traffic regulation is ambiguous as to what portion of the license plate or " identification tag" can or cannot be covered, and that the regulation is vague as to whether the drafters intended to effectuate a near-complete ban on the use of ubiquitous license plate frames in the District of Columbia, where the identification information on the plate is otherwise legible and unobstructed. As a result, we apply the rule of lenity and resolve the ambiguity within the law in favor of appellant, and thus hold that there is no traffic violation if the attached license plate frame does not obscure any part of the license plate's identifying information, which does not include the state motto or nickname located at the bottom of the plate. Consequently, the police did not have a legal basis to stop appellant's vehicle and his motion to suppress should have been granted. Therefore, we reverse appellant's convictions, and remand this case for proceedings not inconsistent with this holding.

I. Factual Background

During the early-morning hours of February 18, 2010, at around 2:30 a.m., Officer Brandon Joseph and his partner Officer Pugh of the Metropolitan Police Department (" MPD" ) observed a green " Monte Carlo" traveling eastbound on the 1200 block of W Street, Northwest, Washington, D.C., with an obstructed rear license plate issued by the State of Texas. Specifically, the border of the license plate frame obscured the Texas state nickname -- " Lone Star State" -- engraved at the bottom of the license plate. There is no dispute that

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the issuing jurisdiction and identification numbers and letters on the plate were legible.[4] Believing this to constitute a traffic infraction, the officers activated their emergency equipment and pulled over the vehicle. There were two individuals inside; appellant was the driver, while another person was sitting on the passenger side.

During the course of the traffic stop, Officer Joseph observed, in plain view, a black holster for a firearm inside the vehicle, at which point appellant turned and " kind of covered it up with something, and stated [that] he worked security for a bank." The officer asked appellant if he had his firearm on him and, in response, appellant started to behave suspiciously; he became " nervous," " broke eye contact," began to " shake," and was " kind of stuttering." When the officer asked appellant again if he had a firearm, appellant said " no." Officer Joseph then asked to search the vehicle, to which appellant granted permission, and for appellant to step outside for a protective pat down, during which time the officer noticed that appellant was wearing a bulletproof vest. Officer Pugh asked appellant a third time whether he had any weapons in the vehicle, and this time appellant answered: " [Y]es, I have a .38 in the car next to the holster." The officers thereupon discovered a fully loaded Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver with the " silver barrel sticking up" behind the driver's side and two additional " speed loaders and ammunition" inside the vehicle, and arrested appellant.

Appellant filed motions to suppress the handgun and ammunition and to dismiss the indictment under the Second Amendment. With regard to the motion to suppress, appellant argued that the license plate or " identification tag" fully complied with the requirements of the relevant regulation, see 18 DCMR § 422, thereby making the traffic stop unlawful. As to the motion to dismiss, appellant claimed, inter alia, that because at the time of his arrest he was not otherwise disqualified from owning a handgun -- appellant was in the military, did not have a criminal record, and had registered the same handgun in Virginia, his then-place of residence -- and because it was legally impossible to obtain a license to carry a pistol outside of the home in the District of Columbia, or for a nonresident to register a handgun, the charges were unconstitutional as applied to him.[5] The government filed oppositions thereto, arguing that the obstructed plate clearly violated the District of Columbia's traffic laws, and that there was no constitutional violation because the District of Columbia allows for an individual, including a nonresident, to possess a lawfully registered firearm outside the home in certain, limited situations.[6]

Judge Robert E. Morin denied the motion to dismiss, finding " nothing unique about [the] motion." Judge Anthony C.

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Epstein presided over the suppression hearing. At the hearing, Officer Joseph testified as to his basis for the traffic stop and what was subsequently recovered from the vehicle. The officer made clear that the sole reason for the traffic stop was the obstructed license plate.[7] At the end of the hearing, the trial court denied the motion to suppress, concluding that the police " ...

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