Saturday, December 6th, 2008

The Waist Band

United States v. Padilla, No. 07-5359-cr (2d Cir. December 2, 2008) (Raggi, Calabresi, CJJ, Keenan, DJ)

October is the cruellest month. That’s when a New York City detective recovered a gun from Hector Padilla’s waistband. Padilla was sentenced to 120 months’ imprisonment, the statutory maximum. On appeal, his principal challenge was to the stop-and-frisk.

The Terry Stop

The detective, who was on surveillance in a “high-crime” area, became suspicious when he saw Padilla and another person following a “skinny,” “disheveled” white male down a secluded wooded path. The officer thought either that the two men were planning to rob the disheveled man or that the three were going to engage in a drug deal together. The officer drove around the block; when he saw the three again they were on the other side of the path and appeared to be walking as a group. This did not dispel his suspicions. It was still possible a robbery could take place; it was also possible that a drug deal had occurred during the time the three were out of view. Moreover, as he pulled up, he saw Padilla adjust something in the center of his waistband. The object appeared heavy, and Padilla’s motion was “consistent with the adjustment of a gun lodged in one’s waistband.” Accordingly, the detective and his partner drew their guns and ordered all three men to place their hands on the police car. The detective immediately patted down Padilla and, feeling a “hard object shaped like a gun,” recovered a .38 caliber revolver.

The Court’s Ruling

The circuit agreed with the district court that there was reasonable suspicion both for the stop and the frisk. As for the stop, the detective was justified in believing that Padilla and his accomplice might be targeting the disheveled man for a robbery or that a drug deal was about to take place, particularly given the “high-crime nature of the neighborhood.” Moreover, the detective’s explanation of why he continued to be suspicious after the men emerged from the path was “reasonable.” Thus, the officer’s concerns were not based on an “inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch.”

The frisk was also justified. Given his police experience, including prior arrests of armed individuals and the “regular sight of his fellow officers adjusting concealed firearms,” it was reasonable for the detective to suspect that Padilla was carrying a gun. Nor was the court persuaded that Padilla’s gesture was “ambiguous.” The detective testified that the adjustment was not consistent with any of the innocent explanations proposed by defense counsel at the hearing; even if it were, the “distinctive” nature of the waistband adjustment provided the detective with reasonable suspicion that Padilla was armed.

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