Updated: 01-07-16
Firearm Laws
Search & Seizure

People v. Mendoza, 846 N.E. 2d 169 (2d Dist App. Ct., March 2006)

Facts: Two Aurora police officers in a patrol car spotted the defendant driving a vehicle with a tinted rear window and tinted rear license plate cover. Approaching defendant’s vehicle, the officers also saw a red bandana hanging from his rear view mirror that appeared to obstruct the driver’s vision, also arousing a suspicion that the defendant was a member of a known street gang. The defendant was pulled over.
Pursuant to the stop, the defendant produced his license and proof of insurance and was told by one of the officers that no traffic citation would be issued . However, the same officer then asked for permission to search the vehicle, and the defendant declined. That officer then advised defendant that he could leave, but before he drove away the second officer had circled the vehicle and shined his flashlight from the passenger side and saw a gun butt protruding from under the car seat. The defendant drove away before the second officer could signal his partner. The officers then chased down the vehicle, searched it and found a handgun.
Trial & Appellate Court decisions:
The trial court granted defendant’s motion to suppress, finding that Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S. Ct. 1868, as enunciated in People v. Gonzalez, 204 Ill. 2d 220, 789 N.E. 2d 260 (2003) were controlling, and as applied by this appellate court ( 2d District) in People v. Para, 352 Ill. App. 3d 584 ( See Para with commentary at Archives).
The 2d District appellate court affirmed, noting that “although the trial court’s ultimate conclusion was correct, the trial court’s analysis was not.” The appellate tribunal found that the trial court had made two erroneous factual findings that were contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence--but that these factual mistakes were not material--and the officers had a constitutional justification for stopping the defendant because of the tinted rear license plate cover. However, notwithstanding that justification, and a “heightened need for safety” that the officers felt based on their viewing of the supposed red bandana as a gang symbol, “they had no legal justification for searching defendant’s car for a gun or anything else.”
The appellate court noted that the trial court found the second tier of Terry principles not satisfied because the officer’s questioning was not related to the reason for the initial stop, and concluded that the continued questioning both impermissibly prolonged the traffic stop and changed its fundamental nature (Gonzalez), thus finding a Fourth Amendment violation had occurred.
Applying its analysis, the appellate tribunal put aside both Gonzalez and Terry and held that the officer’s continued questioning of the defendant, after he returned his license and insurance information, constituted a second seizure, the “traffic stop seizure” having ended when the officer returned the defendant’s credentials and stated that no citation would issue. The Court, therefore, concluded: “. . .[B]ecause a reasonable person in Mendoza’s [defendant’s] position would not have felt free to leave when investigator Weber continued questioning him after the conclusion of the traffic stop, Mendoza was seized. That seizure was not supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. And that seizure led directly to the discovery of the evidence against Mendoza. Thus, the trial court did not err in granting Mendoza’s motion to suppress. . . . Affirmed “

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