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In Re Jaquan M.

July 3, 2012


Matter of Jaquan M.

Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the Official Reports.

Decided on July 3, 2012

Mazzarelli, J.P., Friedman, Catterson, Renwick, Freedman, JJ.

Order of disposition, Family Court, New York County (Susan R. Larabee, J.), entered on or about August 10, 2010, which adjudicated appellant a juvenile delinquent upon his admission that he committed an act that, if committed by an adult, would constitute the crime of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree, and placed him on probation for a period of 15 months, reversed, on the law, without costs, the motion to suppress granted, the order of disposition vacated, and the petition dismissed.

Appellant, who was 14 years old at the time of the incident, was observed by the police at approximately 9:35 p.m. in a drug-prone location, wearing a backpack. When the police first spotted him, they were in a car and he was walking slowly down a sidewalk. Appellant then passed between two parked cars, peering up and down the street, and then passed back between the cars and looked up and down the sidewalk. Appellant stepped back onto the sidewalk, looked around and began pacing in a circle very slowly. He took out his cell phone and used it for about 30 seconds, put it back in his pocket, and then went back between the cars. He repeated the pacing and looking a second time. Appellant then took off his backpack and placed it on the ground between the cars. He kneeled down and removed a white object very slowly and gently from his waistband, placing the object in an outer pocket on the side of the backpack. He used one hand to grip the object and the other to hold the waistband, making it appear to the observing officers that he did not want the object to get caught in his pants and that he was trying to remove the object as quickly, but as carefully, as possible. Appellant placed one hand on the pocket of the backpack and used the other hand to place the object inside the pocket. He zipped up the pocket, put the backpack on his shoulder, and crossed the street. The police thought the object "could" have been a firearm because of the way appellant was handling it and because it was in his waistband, the most common location for carrying a gun. However, by the officers' own admissions, nothing about the appearance of the object which appellant placed in the backpack supported that suspicion.

One of the officers got out of the car and walked side by side with appellant. The officer saw that appellant's backpack seemed to be bottom-heavy. The officer identified himself and told appellant to walk with him across the street. Appellant replied, "[W]hat do you want from me? I am only fourteen." Another officer went to appellant's right, and the one who originally approached him frisked his waistband and patted down his pockets. When asked where he was coming from, appellant replied that he was coming from his uncle's house. When asked where he was going, appellant stated, "I don't know. I am going here," and showed an address written on his forearm which was located in a housing development in the South Bronx, and which the police knew to be a high-crime, drug-prone location. The first officer, upon smelling marijuana, asked appellant if he was in possession of any. Appellant said, "[N]o." The officer asked if appellant had ever been in trouble with the law, and he answered, "No. This is the first time." When the officer asked what was in the backpack, appellant replied, "[N]othing."

The officer took the backpack by the upper strap handle at the top and shook it a little. He asked appellant why the bag was so heavy and what was in it. Appellant again replied that there was nothing in the backpack. The officer believed that appellant was lying because the bag was very heavy and he had previously seen appellant place something inside it. The officer asked for pedigree information, and appellant gave him his date of birth and first name. Appellant stated that papers bearing his name might be found among school papers and a folder in his backpack and stated, "You could check if it's in any of those papers in my bag." The officer told appellant to take off the backpack and hand it to him. Appellant placed the bag on the ground and the officer opened up the larger pocket and looked through the paperwork for something with appellant's name on it, but was unsuccessful. He then opened the outer pocket, which contained no paperwork. However, the officer saw the object that he had seen earlier, a white bag. The officer placed his hand on the bag, which was hard and heavy. He stated that the object "could have been anything," but it felt like a firearm. The officer placed appellant in handcuffs for his safety, and detained him so that he could determine the contents of the bag. Also, he considered appellant a flight risk because appellant was nervous, turning his head and leaning his body from side to side. When the officer opened the bag, he saw a firearm wrapped in bubble wrap, and placed appellant under arrest. Eleven rounds of ammunition were loaded in the magazine, and $963 in currency was also recovered from appellant's jeans pocket.

The court denied appellant's motion to suppress the gun. The court found that the search was justified by appellant's presence at night in a high-crime neighborhood, his furtive actions such as peering up and down the street and sidewalk, and his removal of a white object from his waistband, which, in the officers' experience, is where weapons are frequently concealed. The court noted appellant's inability to tell the officers where he was going without first looking at an address written on his arm, and that the officers knew that address to be in a high-crime area. The court further observed that appellant did not have identification, did not give his full name, and suggested that the officer look for some papers in the backpack. The court also relied on the fact that the officer who searched the backpack testified that it was much heavier than it would have been had it contained only papers.

Upon the denial of his suppression motion, appellant admitted that he had committed an act which, if committed by an adult, would constitute the crime of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree. He was adjudicated a juvenile delinquent, and placed on enhanced supervision probation for a period of 15 months. He was also directed to obey his parents, attend school regularly, refrain from the use of drugs or alcohol, complete 60 hours of community service and have no gang affiliation or further difficulties at home or in the community.

In determining whether the encounter between the police and appellant ultimately justified the seizure of the weapon and appellant's arrest, we rely on the four-tiered methodology enunciated by the Court of Appeals in People v De Bour (40 NY2d 210 [1976]). In De Bour, the Court delineated the various steps of justifiable intrusion: (1) an approach to request information based on some objective credible reason, not necessarily indicative of criminality; (2) the common-law right to inquire (short of forcible seizure), based on a founded suspicion that criminal activity is afoot; (3) a forcible stop and detention (and limited pat-down/frisk), based on a reasonable suspicion that a particular person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime; and (4) an arrest, based on probable cause to believe the person committed a crime (id. at 223).

Clearly, the police in this case were justified in taking the first two steps. Appellant's seemingly furtive behavior at night and in a high-crime neighborhood provided a reasonable basis for the police to form a founded suspicion that appellant was engaged in criminal activity. This gave the officers the right to approach appellant and to make inquiries of him. However, the presentment agency argues that the police were justified in seizing appellant and then searching his bag because, based on the totality of the circumstances, the officers formed a reasonable suspicion that he was in possession of a weapon. These circumstances included appellant's apparently furtive movements, his removal of an object from his waistband, the heavy appearance of his backpack after he placed the object inside it, and his denial that there was anything at all in the backpack.

" [R]easonable suspicion' [to justify a seizure] has been aptly defined as the quantum of knowledge sufficient to induce an ordinarily prudent and cautious man under the circumstances to believe that criminal activity is at hand. The requisite knowledge must be more than subjective; it should have at least some demonstrable roots. Mere hunch' or gut reaction' will not do" (People v Sobotker, 43 NY2d 559, 564 [1978] [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]). This Court has specifically held that the mere fact that an officer sees a person holding something near his waistband is not enough to form a reasonable suspicion, "absent any indication of a weapon, such as the visible outline of a gun" (People v Fernandez, 87 AD3d 474, 476 [2011]; see People v Manuel, 220 AD2d 263 [1995] [observation of large bulge under the defendant's shirt above the waistband did not provide a reasonable basis to believe that the defendant was armed]; People v Barreto, 161 AD2d 305 [1990] [same], lv denied 76 NY2d 852 [1990]; see also People v Crawford, 89 AD3d 422, 423 [2011] ["Defendant's flight, when accompanied by nothing more than the presence of an object in his pocket that was unidentifiable even at close range, did not raise a reasonable suspicion that he had a gun or otherwise was involved in a crime"]).

We reject the dissent's implication that an officer's suspicion that an unidentified object in, as opposed to near, a person's waistband, is a gun, is always reasonable. This Court did not go that far in People v Alozo (180 AD2d 584 [1992]), which the dissent cites in support of that position. It is noted that in People v Alozo, this Court found that one of the factors justifying the frisk of the defendant was that "[t]he officer believed the item to be a gun because of its appearance (id. at 586)." Here, by contrast, the officers conceded that nothing about the appearance of the object which appellant pulled from his waistband revealed what it was. It is further noted that People v Benjamin (51 NY2d 267 [1980]), which, as the dissent points out, was cited by this Court in People v Alozo, found that a frisk was justified because the defendant there reached for his waistband and "[i]t would, indeed, be absurd to suggest ...

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