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Name: People v. Esparza (2023) 95 Cal.App.5th 1084
Case #: D080703
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 4 DCA
Division: 1
Opinion Date: 08/28/2023
Subsequent History: Ordered published 9/26/2023

The totality of the circumstances of defendant’s traffic stop, including finding a loaded ghost gun on a fellow gang member in the car, demonstrate that a patdown search of defendant for weapons was reasonable. Defendant was pulled over for a Vehicle Code violation, and a detective from the Street Gang Unit recognized defendant and two of his passengers as members of a local gang. The detective stated that one of the passengers was “always strapped” and told the officers to search that passenger for weapons. A patdown of the passenger yielded a loaded ghost gun. Officers then searched defendant and found another loaded weapon. The trial court denied defendant’s motion to suppress evidence from the patdown. He appealed. Held: Affirmed. A patdown search for weapons is constitutionally permissible when a police officer has reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and that a person may be armed. The court looked to the totality of the circumstances, not merely the facts specific to the defendant. A trained officer can consider the modes or patterns of operation of certain kinds of lawbreakers, and draw inferences and make deductions. Defendant was identified as an established gang member, driving with two other gang members through contested territory, and a firearm had been found on one of his passengers. This was enough to reasonably infer that defendant may have been armed. To say otherwise would undermine investigators’ specialized knowledge about gang operations and would impermissibly shrink the Terry stop analysis to an artificially confined scope.

Defendant’s seven-minute detention during the traffic stop, which was partly due to justifiable safety concerns, was not unduly prolonged even though a passenger was investigated during the interim. When defendant was pulled over, the first officer requested backup. While waiting for backup, the officer requested defendant’s license, and questioned a passenger. All told, the time between the officer initially approaching the car and defendant’s arrest was about seven minutes. Defendant argued the detention was unduly prolonged because it went beyond the officer’s only necessary tasks: to run defendant’s license and issue him a citation. The Court of Appeal disagreed. A pretextual stop only ripens into an unlawful detention if it deviates too far from the proper legal justification. This does not mean that each action an officer takes during a traffic stop must be directly related to the mission of the stop. The court conducted a thorough review of how the traffic stop proceeded and concluded the officers acted within the bounds of the law at each juncture. Any delay that resulted from the officer’s decision to wait for backup was reasonable in light of the officer’s justifiable safety concerns. As a result, the brief investigation of a passenger in the interim did not prolong the detention.