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Pridgen v. United States

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

April 7, 2016


         Argued January 13, 2016.

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CF2-98-14). (Hon. Ronna Lee Beck, Trial Judge).

         Mindy Daniels for appellant.

         Peter S. Smith, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Vincent H. Cohen, Jr., Acting United States Attorney at the time the brief was filed, and Elizabeth Trosman and Karen Seifert, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief, for appellee.

         Before BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY and THOMPSON, Associate Judges, and FERREN, Senior Judge. Opinion by Associate Judge Phyllis D. Thompson.


         Phyllis D. Thompson, Associate Judge:

         A jury convicted appellant Cian Pridgen of carrying a pistol without a license, possession of an unregistered firearm, and unlawful possession of ammunition, and (with appellant having waived a jury trial on the charge) the court thereafter found him guilty of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He seeks reversal of his convictions on the ground that the trial court erroneously denied his motion to suppress the tangible evidence against him, which he contends was the fruit of an unlawful seizure. We affirm.


         At the hearing on appellant's motion to suppress, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Officer Jordan Katz testified that on the evening of December 31, 2013, he and two other MPD officers were on patrol near 3311 10th Place, S.E., an area that Katz patrolled daily.[1] The three officers, dressed in plain clothes but with tactical vests that had " Police" across the chest,[2] were driving through the area in an unmarked Ford Explorer with Florida tags with its windows down,[3] " looking for people with guns." A few minutes before midnight, Officer Katz spotted a man -- appellant -- who was about thirty yards away and who was walking quickly on a footpath near an apartment building, following a path that would ultimately cross in front of the officers. At one point, Officer Katz testified, appellant " stared right at" the officers and then continued at his " quick[]" pace toward the door" of the nearby apartment building.[4] Officer Katz testified that he then shined his flashlight on appellant, leaned out of his vehicle window, and " loud[ly] shout[ed]," " [H]ey, do you got a gun[?] [D]o you got a gun[?]" Appellant took a couple of steps and then began to run to the door of the apartment building. As he ran, he was moving his right hand, but he kept the palm of his left hand pressed against his jacket on his left side.

         The officers exited their vehicle and followed appellant to the apartment building. Right after appellant got inside the building, the officers saw him drop a cell phone, which he did not stop to retrieve, even after the building door locked behind him. Instead, appellant ran up the stairs to the door of an apartment unit, continuing to hold his left side. The apartment building had a glass front, and the officers could see appellant with his body pressed against an apartment door but with his left hand " moving all around that left jacket pocket" as he was " struggl[ing]" to get inside the apartment unit. The officers entered the building after " a little kid" let them in. They drew their guns and were " screaming" at appellant to " stop, get on the ground," but appellant did not respond to their demands.[5] Officer Katz thought at that point that appellant " has probably got a gun." [6] The third officer grabbed appellant, and the officers together forced him to the ground, face down, and eventually handcuffed him, after pulling his hands away from his waistband.[7]

         Officer Katz testified that as he then reached under appellant's left side, which appellant was keeping " pinned against the ground[,]" he could feel the handle of a gun. In addition, appellant's jacket " had flipped over" as the officers struggled to handcuff him, and Officer Katz saw a " green weed substance[]" through appellant's right, mesh pocket and a handgun in the left, mesh pocket.

         The defense did not put on any witnesses. The trial court (the Honorable Ronna Beck) found that Officer Katz was " very credible" and credited his testimony " in every respect." Judge Beck then addressed whether the officers " had specific and articulable facts which taken together with rational inferences from those facts reasonably warranted the officers to believe the defendant was armed." [8] Judge Beck reasoned that a variety of relevant factors were present, including the " high[-]gun area," the " high[-]gun night" (i.e., New Year's Eve, the " most fruitful night" for recovering guns, according to Officer Katz), and the fact that appellant " was walking fast and then ran[.]" As to the last of those factors, Judge Beck recognized that the pertinent question was whether it was reasonable for the officers to assume that appellant's " flight was indicative of consciousness of guilt as a result of police presence." [9] Citing Smith v. United States, 558 A.2d 312 (D.C. 1989),[10] Judge Beck reasoned that the fact that other people in the neighborhood recognized the officers' vehicle as a police vehicle was not enough to establish that appellant was aware of a police presence. She observed, however, that " there was more here." Specifically, she focused on the evidence that the police vests " were potentially visible through open windows[,]" on Officer Katz's testimony that appellant looked in the direction of the vehicle and subsequently ran, and on Officer Katz's having leaned out of the vehicle window and yelled " do you have a gun[,]" all of which the court found " support[] the reasonable conclusion that the defendant's . . . flight was consistent with consciousness of guilt in response to the police presence." Judge Beck also relied on the evidence that appellant " acted in a particularly desperate effort to get away[,]" not stopping to retrieve his dropped cell phone even though he " now . . . ha[d] a locked door . . . safeguarding him." At that point, Judge Beck found, the officers' police vests would have been " very visible" to appellant. Judge Beck determined that these additional facts made it reasonable for the officers to believe that appellant's " response was to a police presence."

         Judge Beck next focused on what she called the " additional critical fact in evaluating whether [the officers had a basis for] reasonable articulable suspicion that [appellant] was armed" : the fact that " when [appellant] ran, he put his hand up to his left side at the same time that his right arm was swinging normally for running motion, which was consistent with the officer's knowledge of how people act when holding a gun in their waistband or pocket." Judge Beck also cited the evidence that appellant was " continuing his movements on his left side [" which he had been holding when running[]" ] . . . while frantically trying to get in[to] th[e] apartment[.]"

         Judge Beck found that " in combination," the foregoing facts provided the police with reasonable articulable suspicion that appellant was armed. In that circumstance, the judge concluded, it was reasonable for the officers to draw their guns and to order appellant to the ground, and it also was reasonable for them to believe appellant knew they were police officers. Judge Beck further concluded that when appellant did not comply with the officers' orders, it was reasonable for the officers, who faced a " very dangerous situation," to restrain appellant " until they could investigate the situation further" and ascertain whether their suspicion that he was armed was accurate. Judge Beck therefore denied the motion to suppress, reasoning that the officers lawfully seized appellant, and lawfully arrested him upon probable cause after they found a gun and drugs in the course of trying to restrain him.

         Appellant now urges us to reverse his convictions, contending that the tangible evidence that provided the foundation for the charges against him was unlawfully obtained. Specifically, he argues the facts known to the police officers were insufficient to give them a reasonable articulable basis for seizing him. For the reasons that follow, we disagree.


          The Fourth Amendment guarantees the " right of the people to be secure in their persons . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures[.]" U.S. Const. amend. IV. It is well-established, however, that, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, an officer may conduct a brief stop (a seizure) " for investigatory purposes" when he has " reasonable suspicion supported by specific and articulable facts that the individual is involved in criminal activity[.]" Robinson v. United States, 76 A.3d 329, 335-36 (D.C. 2013) (internal quotation omitted). If, during the investigatory seizure, the officer " has reasonable, articulable suspicion that the person detained is armed and dangerous, an officer may also conduct a protective frisk for weapons[,]" id. at 336 (internal ...

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