All About Pretext Stops, Unduly Long Detentions and Weapons Pat Downs: What’s Legal, from a New Ruling
Pretextual traffic stops are legal. When in an area that opposing violent street gangs both claim as their territory, and after a gun has already been found on one gang member, patting down a second gang member for weapons is lawful.
Absent the discovery of other criminal activity, prolonging a traffic stop beyond the time it would reasonably take to complete the mission of the traffic stop is an “unlawfully prolonged” detention and in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
An officer taking the time to ensure officers’ safety during a traffic stop does not illegally prolong the traffic stop.
San Diego Police Department officers Arreola and Vina were working with detectives from the department’s street gang unit early one September evening when they were directed by Detective Patrick from the gang unit to pull over a vehicle that was in violation of Vehicle Code § 26708(a), illegally tinted windows. Although the vehicle’s windows were in fact illegally tinted, the detective’s true interest was to investigate the vehicle’s occupants for any possible gang affiliation.
The detective’s motives were prompted by the fact that they were in an area known by the detective to be contested gang territory claimed by both the City Heights Juniors and Eastside San Diego, both known to be criminal street gangs with a history of violence. Doing as directed, Arreola flashed his lights and activated his siren, signaling to the driver that he was to pull over and stop. The driver complied, pulling into an alleyway where he stopped and rolled down his window.
Arreola got out of the police vehicle but held back behind a wooden utility pole as he asked the other occupants to roll down all the vehicle’s (tinted) windows, front and back. The occupants did as requested, revealing four people in the car: defendant Christopher Esparza, driving; Eduardo Yescas, in the right front passenger seat; Delfino Osnaya, in the left back seat behind the defendant; and Lorena Davila, in the right back seat behind Yescas.
Arreola approached Esparza and stood back behind him, immediately adjacent to Osnaya in the left rear passenger seat, from where he had an unobstructed view of most of the car’s interior. Noting four people inside, Arreola called for backup as Officer Vina approached the passenger side of the car. Arreola asked Osnaya for identification while telling Esparza to turn off the engine and produce his driver’s license.
As Esparza was looking for his license, Arreola questioned Osnaya, who apparently didn’t have any ID, and wrote his identifying information on a notepad. Osnaya admitted to having been arrested in Nevada for possession of a controlled substance. As this was going on, the first cover unit, apparently containing a gang unit detective, arrived at the scene. Arreola gave the detective Esparza’s license and the notepad containing Osnaya’s information, asking him to run a warrant check on both of them.
Moments later, Detective Hansel from the gang unit arrived. Hansel had been monitoring several local gangs, including the City Heights Juniors, identifying new members, locating social media accounts and staying up to date on each individual’s parole and probation status. As the detective walked up to the car, he immediately recognized Osnaya, commenting on the fact that he was “always strapped.” (This term is not defined in the court ruling. I'm guessing it means Osnaya was always armed, thus the need for a pat down.) Hansel told Arreola that they needed to pat down Osnaya for weapons.
Hansel also recognized the defendant, referring to him as “Christian Esparza,” which defendant immediately corrected to “Christopher.” The detective also recognized Yescas as a gangster, although he couldn’t remember his name. Hansel told the other officers that the male occupants of the vehicle were members of the City Heights gang. (Davila, the sole female in the car, was pretty much ignored.)
As more backup units arrived, Osnaya was asked to step out of the car and was patted down for weapons. A loaded “ghost gun,” one without a serial number, was recovered from his waistband. This led to the pat down of everyone else in the car. When Esparza was patted down, he was found to be in possession of another loaded pistol. Osnaya and Esparza were arrested. The total time between when officers Arreola and Vina initially approached the car and Esparza’s arrest was about seven minutes, as recorded by the officers’ bodycams.
Esparza and Osnaya were charged together in state court with various weapons-related offenses. The defendants’ joint motion to suppress the respective firearms discoveries at the preliminary examination (pursuant to P.C. § 1538.5) and at the subsequent motion to dismiss in the trial court (per P.C. § 995) were both denied. Esparza appealed.