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United States of America v. I.E.V.

November 28, 2012


Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Arizona David C. Bury, District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 4:11-cr-00929-DCB-JJM-1

The opinion of the court was delivered by: N.R. Smith, Circuit Judge:



Argued and Submitted April 18, 2012--San Francisco, California

Before: Alex Kozinski, Chief Judge, N. Randy Smith, and Morgan Christen, Circuit Judges.

Opinion by Judge N.R. Smith; Dissent by Chief Judge Kozinski


Criminal Law

Reversing the district court's denial of a motion to suppress evidence obtained through a frisk after a vehicle stop, the panel held that the Terry frisk was not justified at its inception and exceeded the scope of an appropriate Terry frisk.

Dissenting, Chief Judge Kozinski wrote that the majority opinion is wrong and dangerous.


Where an officer reasonably believes that "the persons with whom he is dealing may be armed and presently dangerous," the officer may conduct a frisk or "pat-down" search of that person. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30 (1968). For a frisk to be valid, under this exception to the general rule requiring probable cause, the frisk must be both (1) "justified at its inception," and (2) "confined in scope" to a "carefully limited search of the outer clothing . . . in an attempt to discover weapons which might be used to assault" an officer. Id. at 20, 29-30. However, a frisk is not valid if it is a general exploratory search motivated out of a desire "to prevent the disappearance or destruction of evidence of crime." Id. at 29.

The Terry frisk here failed on both counts and amounted to nothing more than a prohibited fishing expedition for evidence. The police officers had no particularized suspicions directed at the unthreatening Defendant to justify the frisk at its inception. In addition, the searching officer exceeded the lawful scope of the frisk by lifting the Defendant's shirt to retrieve an object, because there is no evidence that the searching officer immediately recognized the object as a weapon or an unlawful item; the searching officer did not testify. Therefore, we REVERSE the district court's decision and REMAND with instructions to grant the Defendant's motion to suppress. Because we reverse on this issue, we do not address the other issues raised by the Defendant.


I.E.V., a juvenile male ("the Defendant"), appeals the district court's denial of his motion to suppress evidence gained through a frisk after a vehicle stop. The Defendant was a passenger in a vehicle driven by his brother, Joseph Mendez, when they entered the United States Border Patrol Checkpoint near Whetstone, Arizona, about 100 miles from the Arizona/Mexico border. There is no evidence that Mendez and the Defendant crossed the border on the day in question. As the vehicle entered the primary inspection area of the checkpoint, a police dog displayed alert behavior that indicated the presence of a controlled substance or concealed humans in the vehicle. Because of this alert, the vehicle was sent to secondary inspection where Mendez and the Defendant were asked to exit the vehicle by Officer Cooper. After exiting, the canine did not alert on the Defendant or Mendez. Upon request by Officer DeBusk, Mendez consented to a search of the vehicle. Officer DeBusk asked the Defendant and Mendez a few questions and then performed a canine inspection of the vehicle, but no marijuana or other contraband was discovered in that inspection.

Neither Officer DeBusk nor Officer Cooper testified that they found the Defendant or Mendez to be threatening or likely to flee the scene. Indeed, the district court noted that "Officer D[e]Busk did not find the passengers of the vehicle threatening nor did he observe any weapons." Similarly, the district court noted that Officer Cooper "did not observe Mendez to be threatening or to attempt to flee."

The only specific evidence the Government offered to justify this frisk was that, once the Defendant and Mendez had complied with the officers' requests, Officer Cooper testified that Mendez "seemed very nervous and continually touched his abdomen area," and the Defendant "displayed similar behavior." However, the district court did not credit Officer Cooper's testimony that the Defendant was also fidgeting and touching his abdomen, because the court noted that "Officer Cooper's arrest report made at the scene did not include any information on Defendant . . . acting nervous or fidgety as he had observed with Mendez."*fn2

Officer Cooper also testified that, from his training, he knew that "narcotics and firearms go together." Based on that training and his observations of Mendez, Officer Cooper decided to perform a pat-down search of both Mendez and the Defendant. He and another officer performed the searches simultaneously. Officer San Ramon, the officer who frisked the Defendant, did not testify during the evidentiary hearing. Officer Cooper frisked Mendez. Officer Cooper found nothing on Mendez during this first search. However, during his search of the Defendant, Officer San Ramon asked the Defendant about an object he felt under his shirt. Then, without permission, Officer San Ramon lifted the Defendant's shirt to find a brick-shaped object taped on the Defendant's abdomen. After this first "brick" was found on the Defendant, Officer Cooper searched Mendez again and a similar brick-shaped object was found taped to his abdomen as well. The district court noted that the bundle found beneath the clothing was identified "only after the shirt was lifted" and the officers performed a "visual inspection of the bundle." Prior to that visual identification, Officer Cooper provided conflicting testimony explaining that, when he felt the "bulky object" on Mendez during his second pat-down, he believed it "could potentially be a weapon," but he also thought it was "a brick, potentially carrying marijuana."

After the marijuana was seized, both Mendez and the Defendant were placed under arrest. The Defendant filed a Motion to Suppress. The district court denied the motion after an evidentiary hearing. The district court determined that a frisk of both occupants of the vehicle for weapons was warranted based on the "totality of the circumstances": including "the proximity to the border, the canine alert to contraband, the nervous behavior and gestures of Mendez observed by Officer Cooper, and the experience of Officer Cooper that often individuals transporting contraband also carry firearms."

The case proceeded to a bench trial, where the Defendant was convicted. The Defendant timely appealed the district court's denial of the motion to suppress.


We review de novo a district court's legal conclusions regarding the denial of a motion to suppress. United States v. Brooks, 610 F.3d 1186, 1193 (9th Cir. 2010). We review the district court's factual findings for clear error. United States v. Davis, 530 F.3d 1069, 1077 (9th Cir. 2008).


In Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court created a limited exception to the general requirement that officers must have probable cause before conducting a search. 392 U.S. 1, 30 (1968). The Court held that officers may conduct an investigatory stop consistent with the Fourth Amendment "where a police officer observes unusual conduct which leads him reasonably to conclude in light of his experience that criminal activity may be afoot . . . ." Id. In addition, an officer may conduct a brief pat-down (or frisk) of an individual when the officer reasonably believes that "the persons with whom he is dealing may be armed and presently dangerous." Id. "[T]he ...

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