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CHRISTOPHER SANCHEZ v. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Case Number: 21-1002
Judge: Paul Brian Matey
Court: UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT
Philadelphia, PA - Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant Christopher Sanchez with UNLAWFUL POSSESSION OR RECEIPT OF A FIREARM OR AMMUNITION BY A PROHIBITED PERSON charge.
While on vehicular patrol, Detective Gaetan Robert MacNamara recognized
Christopher Sanchez behind the wheel of an SUV. MacNamara and Sanchez had history,
eight years of encounters. As a result, MacNamara regularly searched Sanchez’s name in
the Delaware Criminal Justice Information System (DELJIS) database, learning that
Sanchez had a criminal record, but not a Delaware driver’s license. And, two months
earlier, a confidential informant told MacNamara that Sanchez had a black handgun and
drove a grey Mitsubishi SUV.
Spying Sanchez in a vehicle matching the tip, MacNamara decided to stop him on
suspicion of driving without a license. After requesting assistance, MacNamara and his
colleagues pulled him over. Sanchez appeared to comply, stopping his vehicle as
MacNamara pulled up behind. But Sanchez then accelerated forward before a second patrol
car boxed him in. Quickly, MacNamara approached the driver’s side and opened the door.
The stories briefly diverge: MacNamara testified that he immediately viewed a
firearm on the driver’s side floorboard. Sanchez says MacNamara yanked him out of the 3
SUV, searched and handcuffed him, and then, using a flashlight, saw the gun on the driver’s
side floorboard. But both agree a gun sat on the floorboard.
MacNamara took Sanchez into custody, and a grand jury returned an indictment
under 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2). After the District Court denied Sanchez’s
motion to suppress the handgun, Sanchez pleaded guilty and timely appealed.1 And finding
no error in the District Court’s decision, we will affirm.
Sanchez challenges the denial of the motion to suppress on three grounds: first, a
lack of reasonable suspicion to begin the traffic stop; second, that the stop was an arrest
requiring probable cause; and third, that the firearm was not in “plain view.” We consider
each, finding none persuasive.
A. The Stop Was Supported by Reasonable Suspicion
Traffic stops require reasonable suspicion that a criminal violation has occurred.
United States v. Delfin-Colina, 464 F.3d 392, 396 (3d Cir. 2006). Reasonably suspecting a
driver lacks a license is enough, Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 663 (1979), and officers
may reach that suspicion by relying “on probabilities” combined with “database
1 The District Court had jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. § 3231, and we have
jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We review the District Court’s factual findings for
clear error and exercise plenary review over questions of law. United States v. Green, 897
F.3d 173, 178 (3d Cir. 2018). We can affirm on any ground supported by the record. Id.4
information and commonsense judgments[.]” Kansas v. Glover, 140 S. Ct. 1183, 1190
That is what MacNamara did here. MacNamara’s search of the DELJIS database
showed Sanchez lacked a license (a result matching years of searches producing the same
result). See, e.g., United States v. Sandridge, 385 F.3d 1032, 1036 (6th Cir. 2004)
(reasonable suspicion supported traffic stop for unlicensed driving based on 22-day-old
database search). As the District Court correctly concluded, that satisfied the “minimal
level of objective justification” for the traffic stop. (App. at 17, quoting Delfin-Colina, 464
F.3d at 396).
Taking a different route, Sanchez also argues that MacNamara lacked reasonable
suspicion because DELJIS does not show licensure from every state. But reasonable
suspicion does not require “‘rul[ing] out the possibility of innocent conduct.’” United
States v. Henley, 941 F.3d 646, 653 (3d Cir. 2019) (quoting United States v. Arvizu, 534
U.S. 266, 277 (2002)). Sanchez also argues that MacNamara should have confirmed
Sanchez lacked a license before opening the driver’s side door. Not so, because the
interactions during the stop are irrelevant to whether the stop was “justified at its
inception.” Glover, 140 S. Ct. at 1191 (quoting Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial Dist. Court of Nev.,
Humboldt Cty., 542 U.S. 177, 185 (2004)). And as explained below, Sanchez’s conduct
justified MacNamara’s safety concerns.
B. The Traffic Stop Was Not an Arrest
Sanchez argues the traffic stop ripened into an arrest either when the patrol car
hemmed in his vehicle, or when MacNamara opened the driver’s side door with a holstered 5
gun and blocked Sanchez’s movement. We disagree.
2 “[P]olice actions in blocking a
suspect’s vehicle and approaching with weapons ready, and even drawn, does not
constitute an arrest.” United States v. Johnson, 592 F.3d 442, 448 (3d Cir. 2010) (internal
quotation marks and citation omitted). That is because “when police officers make an
investigative stop, they may take such steps as are ‘reasonably necessary to protect their
personal safety and to maintain the status quo during the course of the stop.’” United States
v. Edwards, 53 F.3d 616, 619 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting United States v. Hensley, 469 U.S.
221, 235 (1985)).
Accepting Sanchez’s version of events, the actions at the scene were reasonable.
MacNamara knew about Sanchez’s prior conviction, history of resisting arrest, and the tip
that Sanchez might be armed. And Sanchez does not contest that his vehicle drove several
feet forward after initially stopping. To “protect their personal safety,” id., it was
reasonable for police to hem in Sanchez’s vehicle to prevent escape, and then “take
necessary measures to determine whether [Sanchez was] in fact carrying a weapon and to
neutralize the threat of physical harm.” Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 24 (1968). Under the
circumstances, removing and handcuffing Sanchez was a reasonable, necessary measure.
Johnson, 592 F.3d at 448 (“placing a suspect in handcuffs while securing a location or
2 And though we need not address whether MacNamara had probable cause,
Sanchez’s attempted escape may have justified a warrantless arrest. See 21 Del. Ch. §
4103(b) (a driver signaled to stop a vehicle who “increases speed or extinguishes the
vehicle’s lights and attempts to flee or elude the police officer shall be guilty of a class G
felony”); 21 Del. C. § 701(a)(1) (authorizing warrantless arrests for traffic law violations
committed in officer’s presence).6
conducting an investigation” does not “automatically transform an otherwise-valid Terry
stop into a full-blown arrest”).
C. The Gun Sat in Plain View
Evidence may be seized without a warrant if 1) the officer did not violate the Fourth
Amendment in arriving at the place from which the evidence could be plainly viewed, 2)
the item’s incriminating character was immediately apparent, and 3) the officer had a
lawful right to physically access the object itself. Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 136–
37 (1990); United States v. Menon, 24 F.3d 550, 559 (3d Cir. 1994).
Sanchez argues that the first step is not satisfied3 because the police lacked
reasonable suspicion (and thus probable cause) to stop him. But we see reasonable
suspicion for the reasons above, so this derivative argument fails.4
Outcome: We will affirm the District Court’s denial of Sanchez’s motion to suppress