“Does police observation that a person is in possession of a concealed weapon create “reasonable suspicion” justifying a stop and frisk for a potential violation of the state’s concealed carry law?”

December 30th, 2011

Orin Kerr blogs about a District of New Mexico opinion that held that carrying a concealed weapon in a state that permits concealed carry does create reasonable suspicion?

When the officers arrived at the convenience store, through their own observations, they saw the gun concealed under Rodriguez’ shirt and tucked into his waistband. While it is true, as Rodriguez has argued, that he may have been able to possess the handgun under N.M.S.A.1978, § 30–7–2(A)(1), the Tenth Circuit and the Supreme Court have recognized that, even when conduct may have been legal under state law, such possibility does not automatically preclude reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop. See United States v. King, 990 F.2d at 1556 (“[W]holly lawful conduct might justify the suspicion that criminal activity was afoot.” (alteration in original)(quoting Reid v. Georgia, 448 U.S. at 442)). More specifically, the Tenth Circuit has recognized this principle in the context of New Mexico laws on carrying concealed weapons. See United States v. King, 990 F.2d at 1556.

The officers could have concluded, based on their observations, that Rodriguez would require a license to lawfully carry a concealed firearm. See N.M.S.A.1978, § 30–7–2(A)(5) (providing as an exception to the law that “carrying of a deadly weapon” is an offense when the person is “in possession of a valid concealed handgun license issued to him by the department of public safety pursuant to the provisions of the Concealed Handgun Carry Act”). Additionally, New Mexico law expressly permits officers to inquire of persons carrying a concealed handgun whether they have a license to do so. See N.M.Code R. § (“A licensee carrying a concealed handgun on or about his person in public shall, upon demand by a peace officer, display his license to carry a concealed handgun.”). The officers observed Rodriguez’ concealed firearm before interacting with him or communicating with him. . . . Other facts that support the existence of reasonable suspicion are that Munoz was aware that the convenience store was in a high crime area in town, and he had been to this particular gas station in the past numerous times to investigate reports of criminal conduct. See United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266 (2002)(recognizing that officers are “entitled to make an assessment of the situation in light of his specialized training and familiarity with the customs of the area’s inhabitants.”); Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 699 (1996)(“[A] police officer views the facts through the lens of his police experience and expertise. The background facts provide a context for the historical facts, and when seen together yield inferences that deserve deference.”). Under these facts, the most important fact being the officers’ firsthand observation of the firearm, the officers had reasonable suspicion that Rodriguez was carrying a firearm in violation of New Mexico law.

These facts make this case similar to the Fourth Circuit’s United States v. Black decision. The Fourth Circuit in that case found that reasonable suspicion existed to detain a defendant for carrying a concealed firearm in violation of state law based on the following facts: (i) the officer knew that the area was a high crime area in which the officer had made numerous arrests; (ii) while the officers were talking to the defendant, he had his “right hand awkwardly inserted halfway in his right-hand pocket, ‘cupped’ as if ‘grasping an object’ “; (iii) the defendant hesitated to remove his hand from his pocket when requested to do so; (iv) after the defendant removed his hand, the officer observed a bulge in the defendant’s pocket; (v) the defendant lied about what was in his pocket, saying he had nothing in there other than his money and his identification; and (vi) after the defendant realized that the officers thought he was lying, he put his hand back in his pocket. See United States v. Black, 525 F.3d at 361–62. Notably, the officers in United States v. Black had reasonable suspicion even though they never observed the firearm before the investigatory detention began. In this case, the officers observed Rodriguez’ firearm tucked into his waistband. . . .

Rodriguez may object that the practical end result of the Court’s decision is that, in New Mexico, a police officer’s observation of a concealed handgun automatically creates reasonable suspicion. The Court acknowledges that this may be a possibility. One might object that, under the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution and state law, carrying a weapon is legal, and giving police authority to make an investigatory stop anytime they see lawful conduct is impermissible. Given that guns raise particular problems for law enforcement, making the wrong decision might not be reversible for the officer. The law tolerates some intrusion on lawful activity that presents police with ambiguous acts that could also be unlawful. In a free society, there must be a balance between legitimate police goals, public safety, and individual freedom. The Court believes that to hold that officers may not investigate this conduct under the facts of this case would unduly restrict legitimate police conduct that was reasonable under the circumstances.

Orin doesn’t agree with the court’s opinion.

The court’s analysis seems wrong to me. The officers saw a guy with a gun. A crime would be afoot only if the man lacked a proper permit. But the officers had no idea if the man had a permit to carry the gun at the time they made the stop: They didn’t inquire, and instead initiated the stop only upon seeing the gun. Obviously, if the officers had asked Rodriguez if he had a license before the stop, and he had said no, the officers would have had both reasonable suspicion and even probable cause to make the arrest. But I think they have to ask first and get evidence of the crime before the stop, not stop first and then get evidence to justify it. And the fact that this occurred in a high-crime neighborhood doesn’t make a difference: The suspect was an employee of a convenience store who was working in the store at the time, so it’s not like the nature of the neighborhood suggests he was more likely to be involved in crime himself.

But due to inevitable discovery, the gun would be inadmissible regardless.

I would think the best argument for reasonable suspicion would be based on the fact that the gun was just tucked in the waistband of the guy’s pants rather than safely holstered, but the court does not address this possibility; I’ll leave to others whether the argument has any merit. Finally, I should note that even if the court’s analysis is wrong, which I think it is, that doesn’t mean the motion to suppress should have been granted. The court did not reach the government’s argument that the “inevitable discovery” exception to the exclusionary rule applied, and it sounds like it would fit neatly here: If the officers had not conducted a Terry stop, they would have asked the same questions and presumably received the same answers.

How can evidence of lawful activity create reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot? That troubles me. Oh no! Those people are reading books! Maybe they’re planning a revolution, let’s stop and frisk!