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United States v. Huertas

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

July 24, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Appellee,
v.
BRANDEN HUERTAS, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued: December 15, 2016

         Branden Huertas appeals the order of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Arterton, J.), denying his motion to suppress physical evidence. Huertas contends that he was seized (after a show of police authority) when he stood still to answer questions and ran when the police opened the door of the police-car. Affirmed.

          JENNIFER MELLON, for Terence S. Ward, Federal Defender, District of Connecticut, New Haven, CT, for Defendant-Appellant.

          ALINA P. REYNOLDS (with Marc H. Silverman, on the brief), for Deirdre M. Daly, United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut, New Haven, CT, for Appellee.

          Before: WINTER, JACOBS, and POOLER, Circuit Judges.

          JACOBS, Circuit Judge

         Defendant Branden Huertas appeals the denial of his motion to suppress a firearm that, he contends, was found as a result of an illegal seizure. After the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Arterton, J.) denied his motion to suppress, Huertas conditionally pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a weapon. He contends he was seized when a police officer in a squad car, who had been alerted to a man lurking with a gun, shined a spotlight on Huertas and asked questions to which Huertas responded. We conclude that because Huertas never submitted to police authority, he was never seized. We therefore affirm.

         I

         In May 2014, a woman pulled her car alongside a police cruiser in Bridgeport, Connecticut to ask about the process for amending a police report.[1] After Officer Thomas Lattanzio responded, the woman drove away for a few feet, then reversed toward the police car and told Officer Lattanzio that a man named Branden was nearby with a gun. She pointed down the street, but Officer Lattanzio did not see anyone. Without giving her name, the woman drove away.

         Officer Lattanzio then drove in the direction the woman pointed, searching for an armed man. He soon saw Huertas standing on a street corner holding a black bag. Officer Lattanzio drove toward Huertas, going the wrong way on the one-way street. As the cruiser approached, Officer Lattanzio turned on the cruiser's spotlight and illuminated Huertas. Through the car's window, Officer Lattanzio asked Huertas a few questions, such as "What's going on?" and "What happened with the girl?" During Officer Lattanzio's approach and questioning, Huertas stayed in a fixed position and began answering the questions. The encounter lasted between thirty seconds and one minute. As soon as Officer Lattanzio got out of the cruiser, Huertas ran away.

         Other police officers later found and arrested Huertas. A search of Huertas's route turned up a bag similar to the one Huertas had been holding. The bag contained a firearm.

         II

         The only question on appeal is whether Huertas was seized. Whether a seizure would have been in violation of the Fourth Amendment is an issue not reached by the district court, and is not before us. Because Huertas is appealing a suppression ruling, "we review factual findings for clear error and we review questions of law de novo." United States v. Faux, 828 F.3d 130, 134 (2d Cir. 2016).

         "A seizure . . . requires 'either physical force . . . or, where that is absent, submission to the assertion of [police] authority.'" United States v. Swindle, 407 F.3d 562, 572 (2d Cir. 2005) (emphasis in original) (quoting California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621, 626 (1991)). It is undisputed that Officer Lattanzio used no physical force. Therefore, Huertas was seized only if he (1) "submitted" (2) to an "assertion of authority." We conclude that Huertas never "submitted" to Officer Lattanzio and was therefore never "seized" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. In light of this disposition, we need not consider whether the spotlighting of Huertas by a police car going the wrong way down a dark street constituted an "assertion of authority."

         "Whether conduct constitutes submission to police authority will depend . . . on 'the totality of the circumstances--the whole picture.'" United States v. Baldwin, 496 F.3d 215, 219 (2d Cir. 2007) (quoting United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417 (1981)). Of particular relevance here, conduct that "amount[s] to evasion of police authority" is "not submission." Id. at 219.

         III

         Huertas argues that he "submitted" to police authority by standing still as Officer Lattanzio's police cruiser approached and by answering Officer Lattanzio's questions.[2] However, we conclude that Huertas's behavior was akin to the evasive actions in Baldwin, which did not constitute submission. The defendant in Baldwin pulled his car to the side of the road in response to a police cruiser's siren and flashing lights. 496 F.3d at 217. Both police officers walked toward Baldwin's car and ordered Baldwin to show his hands. Id. When he refused and just stared at them, the officers drew their weapons ...


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