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State v. Murray

Supreme Court of Delaware

July 10, 2019

STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below, Appellant,
ANDRE MURRAY, Defendant Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: April 24, 2019

          Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware I.D. No. 1710007866 (N)

         Upon appeal from the Superior Court. REVERSED and REMANDED.

          Martin B. O'Connor, Esquire (argued), Deputy Attorney General, Wilmington, Delaware, for Appellant, State of Delaware.

          Nicole M. Walker, Esquire (argued), Assistant Public Defender, Wilmington, Delaware, for Appellee, Andre Murray.

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA, VAUGHN, SEITZ, and TRAYNOR, Justices, constituting the Court en Banc.



         This is an appeal by the State from a Superior Court order that granted Andre Murray's motion to suppress evidence in a criminal proceeding. In the late evening hours of October 13, 2017, Wilmington Police Officer Matthew Rosaio was on patrol with other officers when he observed two men walking on a nearby sidewalk. One of the men, Murray, was walking with his right arm canted and pinned against the right side of his body, specifically the right front portion of his body. The other man, Lenwood Murray-Stokes, was walking normally. The manner in which Murray was walking made Officer Rosaio suspicious that Murray was carrying a concealed firearm in his waistband on his right side. After watching Murray for about 20 seconds, during which Murray continued to walk in that same manner, Officer Rosaio approached the two men. Murray then began positioning himself behind Murray-Stokes, turning and blading his right side away from the officer. This furthered the officer's suspicion that Murray possessed a firearm. The officer began drawing his weapon and instructed Murray to show his hands. Murray appeared to reach for his waistband area. The officer then pointed his weapon at Murray and instructed him to not reach for his waistband and to get on the ground. Murray complied. The officer then asked Murray whether he had anything in his possession. Murray replied that he had a firearm in his waistband. The officer located the firearm in Murray's waistband on his right side and seized it.

         Murray was charged with Carrying a Concealed Deadly Weapon, Possession of a Firearm by a Person Prohibited, and Possession of Ammunition by a Person Prohibited. He filed a motion to suppress the discovery of the firearm from use as evidence at trial, arguing that the officer did not have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that Murray had committed or was about to engage in any illegal activity to justify detaining him or probable cause to arrest him. The Superior Court agreed and granted the motion to suppress. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the officer performed a legitimate Terry stop[1] and therefore the motion should have been denied.


         The factual record consists of the unrebutted testimony of Officer Rosaio, the sole witness at the suppression hearing. He testified that on October 13, 2017, at approximately 11:00 p.m., he and three other officers were "conducting proactive mobile patrol" in Wilmington.[2] They were traveling northbound on South Franklin Street in an unmarked vehicle when they stopped at a stop sign at the corner of South Franklin and Chestnut Street-a neighborhood described by Officer Rosaio as a "well-known high crime, high drug area," where he has made numerous gun- and drug-related arrests.[3]

         While stopped at the stop sign, Officer Rosaio saw two men, later determined to be Andre Murray and Lenwood Murray-Stokes, walking on the sidewalk along South Franklin towards their vehicle. Officer Rosaio observed Murray swinging his left arm naturally while holding his right arm close to his body, behavior which he explained was consistent with an armed individual. He "noticed right away . . . that Mr. Murray was walking with his right arm canted and pinned against the right side of his body, specifically the right front portion of his body, which is one of the telltale signs of . . . somebody who is armed with a handgun."[4] This is a sign that someone is armed, he explained, because "[s]ubjects will often carry firearms in their waistband unsecured by any type of holster and in a way that they can control that firearm and adjust it, if need be, as they are walking so it doesn't fall down through their pants or so it doesn't reveal itself to the public."[5]

         Officer Rosaio continued to watch him for "about 20 seconds" as the two men continued walking toward the officers' vehicle.[6] As they got closer, Murray appeared to notice the officers and took a "stutter step, where he kind of stopped in his tracks."[7] Continuing to walk forward at a slower pace, "he looked forward and then scanned and looked back."[8] Then Officer Rosaio, who was wearing a vest with "[p]olice" marked across it "in large white bold letters, "[9] exited the vehicle, "at which point Mr. Murray stopped and began positioning himself behind Lenwood Murray-Stokes."[10] At the same time, Murray began "turning and blading" the right side of his body, the side that he had his arm pinned against, away from Officer Rosaio.[11] Officer Rosaio testified that, from his training and experience, the "turning and blading" movement is a characteristic of someone "who's placing the side that the gun [is] on in a position where the police or the public can't see it."[12]It was an "unnatural movement" according to Officer Rosaio.[13]

         By then confident that Murray had a handgun on his right side, Officer Rosaio began drawing his service firearm and ordered him to stop and show his hands. At that point, Murray "began reaching for the lower . . . waistband area." [14] In response, Officer Rosaio raised his service revolver, pointed it in Murray's direction, and said, "[d]on't reach for your waistband. Get on the ground."[15] Murray complied and got on the ground. When asked if he had anything on him, Murray replied, saying "I have a handgun in my waistband."[16] Officer Rosaio then rolled him to his left side, revealing that a handgun was located on the "front right portion of his waistband."[17] Officer Rosaio secured the handgun and placed Murray under arrest.

         Officer Rosaio also testified that he has received training on characteristics of armed gunmen at the Wilmington Police Academy and at sessions hosted by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Department of Justice. These characteristics include "things that people display when they are attempting to conceal firearms from the police and from the public."[18] He also explained that for about the last four years he has taught elements of characteristics of armed gunmen in police academies.

         Following the hearing, the Superior Court granted the motion in a written opinion, which noted several reasons for its decision. First, the court found that although at some point the encounter was a Terry stop, once Officer Rosaio drew his firearm "an arrest was effectuated," thus requiring there to have been probable cause to believe that Murray was committing a crime.[19] Notwithstanding this finding, and perhaps given the way the parties' presented their arguments, the court's analysis was not clearly tied to either the reasonable, articulable suspicion standard for a Terry stop or the probable cause standard for an arrest.[20]

         The court then discussed, and dismissed, the State's argument that the court should give deference to the officer's training and experience to determine whether the objective facts, paired with the officer's subjective interpretation of those facts, justified the intrusion. According to the court, the Stated relied "almost exclusively on two objective facts: 1) the defendant's swinging of one arm while holding the other close to his side and 2) his 'blading' or moving his body sideways when he and his walking partner stopped."[21] Although the court noted the other factors referenced by Officer Rosaio-"the high crime neighborhood, the apparent 'stutter step' and his 'looking around' as the officer was getting out of the car"-it dismissed these as "essentially chaff, thrown off by the essential facts that the officer advises his training and experience teach that the defendant was carrying a concealed weapon."[22] In support of its rejection of Officer Rosaio's testimony, the court cited a number of hypothetical innocent explanations for why someone might walk with one arm held close to the body.

         In addition, while the court noted that the rules of evidence do not apply to preliminary questions of fact governing admissibility, it determined that "the 'armed gunman' testimony in which we are asked to have faith is certainly not a 'lay opinion' under D.R.E. 701 as it is professed to be based on 'scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge' and therefore, it is within the scope of D.R.E. 702."[23]"In order to qualify for admissibility under Rule 702," the court continued, "such testimony would necessarily be 'based on sufficient facts or data' and 'the product of reliable principles and methods' that have been 'reliably applied' to the facts."[24]Concluding that "[n]one of these criteria have been met here," the court explained that although "the officer had some sort of 'training,' it cannot be said to have qualified as 'science'-junk or otherwise. On this record, the Court cannot assign it the weight it was obviously accorded by the officer on the night in question."[25]

         Following the court's grant of Murray's motion to suppress, the State moved for reargument, requesting that the court reconsider its ruling. In denying the State's motion, the court expanded on its earlier remarks, but its ultimate conclusion remained unchanged.[26] Although the court reiterated that the seizure of Murray was an arrest governed by the probable cause standard, [27] its analysis included references to both the probable cause standard and the lesser reasonable articulable suspicion standard required for an investigatory stop.[28]

         The State argues on appeal that the Superior Court erred by finding that Murray's arrest without probable cause occurred when Officer Rosaio drew his firearm, before he located the firearm in Murray's waistband. Under the State's theory, Murray's detention was a Terry stop that did not become an arrest until after the firearm was found. The State also argues that under a Terry-stop analysis, the officer had a reasonable articulable suspicion that Murray was carrying a concealed deadly weapon. Murray opposes both arguments and argues that the Superior Court's reasoning and result were correct.


         "We review the grant or denial of a motion to suppress for an abuse of discretion."[29] Although "this Court will defer to the factual findings of a Superior Court judge unless those findings are clearly erroneous, "[30] "[e]mbedded legal conclusions are reviewed 'de novo for errors in formulating or applying legal precepts.'" [31] Accordingly, we review de novo whether the police possessed reasonable, articulable suspicion to stop a person.[32]

         We will first address the State's argument that the Superior Court erred by finding that an arrest lacking probable cause occurred before Murray's firearm was found in his waistband. Second, we will address whether the stop was justified under the appropriate standard.


         There is a difference between an arrest and a Terry stop. "An arrest occurs when a reasonable person in the suspect's position would have understood the situation to constitute a restraint on freedom of movement of the degree which the law associates with formal arrest."[33] By contrast, a Terry stop or seizure occurs when "under all of the circumstances surrounding the encounter, the police conduct would have communicated to a reasonable person that he/she was not free to terminate the encounter with the officers."[34] For example, the United States Supreme Court has found that the line between a Terry stop and an arrest is crossed when the police "forcibly remove a person from his home or other place in which he is entitled to be and transport him to the police station, where he is detained, although briefly, for investigative purposes."[35]

         The Superior Court's ruling on arrest versus Terry stop is as follows:

To be sure, there was perhaps a moment, as the officer was exiting his vehicle and before he drew his service revolver, where this was a "Terry" stop, requiring reasonable articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot and the subject is armed and dangerous. But upon seeing the defendant turn his body, and before any "real" contact was made, the officer candidly testified that he was convinced the defendant was indeed armed and may be reaching for his pistol and thus, an arrest was effectuated which, as we all know, must be preceded by probable cause to believe a crime is being committed and the suspect committed it.[36]

         Our view is that an arrest did not occur until after the officer found the weapon in Murray's waistband. The officer testified that after Murray bladed his body, he was confident that Murray possessed a firearm, but that confidence remained a suspicion until Murray admitted he had a firearm, after which the officer immediately found the firearm on his person. It was only then that Officer Rosaio placed Murray into custody and an arrest occurred, at which point there was clear probable cause to believe that a crime was being committed-carrying a concealed deadly weapon.

         In addition, Officer Rosaio's actions in drawing his weapon and forcing Murray to the ground at gunpoint did not convert the encounter into an arrest. Although "[a]n unreasonably intrusive stop may constitute a de facto arrest requiring probable cause," a "Terry stop does not turn into a full arrest merely because the officers use handcuffs and force the suspect to lie down to prevent flight, so long as the police conduct is reasonable."[37] "During a Terry stop, officers may take measures that are reasonably necessary to protect themselves and maintain the status quo."[38] Specifically, an officer is empowered "to take necessary measures to determine whether [an individual] is in fact carrying a weapon and to neutralize the threat of physical harm" when the officer "is justified in believing that the individual whose suspicious behavior he is investigating at close range is armed and presently dangerous."[39]

         Although Officer Rosario began drawing his weapon after Murray engaged in a blading movement, he testified that it was only after he saw what appeared to be Murray reaching for his waistband that he pointed his weapon at Murray and told him to get on the ground. These were reasonable defensive measures that the officer took for his own safety under the circumstances.[40]

         Because Officer Rosaio was engaged in a Terry stop at the time he discovered the gun, the gun was lawfully seized provided the stop was supported by a reasonable, articulable suspicion that Murray was engaged in criminal activity, specifically, carrying a concealed deadly weapon.[41]


         The police may "'restrain an individual for a short period of time' to investigate where officers have 'reasonable articulable suspicion that the suspect has committed or is about to commit a crime.'"[42] Although reasonable, articulable suspicion requires less than probable cause and "considerably less than preponderance of the evidence, "[43] the officer "must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion." [44] "[A] vague hunch or feeling that the defendant 'looked suspicious' will not do."[45] "A determination that reasonable suspicion exists, however, need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct."[46] To determine whether reasonable suspicion exists, courts "must examine the totality of the circumstances surrounding the situation 'as viewed through the eyes of a reasonable, trained police officer in the same or similar circumstances, combining objective facts with such an officer's subjective interpretation of those facts.'"[47] "In determining whether there was reasonable suspicion to justify a detention, the court defers to the experience and training of law enforcement officers."[48]

         Officer Rosaio was able to point to specific and articulable facts giving rise to his suspicion that Murray was carrying a concealed deadly weapon. These facts included the high crime area, stutter-stepping, the unnatural canting and blading that the officer described as well as Murray scanning the area and looking back upon seeing the officer. A fair reading of the officer's testimony creates an inference that the occurrence of unusual canting and blading movements has risen to such a level that these movements are discussed in officer training as being indicators that a person is carrying a concealed weapon. The officer reasonably explained the process by which he combined the objective facts he observed with his subjective interpretation of those facts, based upon his training and experience, to arrive at a reasonable and articulable suspicion that Murray was carrying a concealed deadly weapon. Indeed, the fact that Officer Rosaio honed in on Murray and not his companion-who was, by Officer Rosaio's account, walking normally at the same time of night in the same high crime area-lends further support to Officer Rosaio's reasonable suspicion that Murray had a weapon. In other words, Officer Rosaio did not simply stop two people walking late at night in a high crime area indiscriminately; instead, he focused his attention specifically on one of them who engaged in behavior that was indicative of the possession of a deadly weapon.

         We think the Superior Court failed to give due deference to the training and experience of the police officer. The court described the officer's suspicion as a hunch and "bereft of any scientific support." [49] It also asked a number of unanswered questions:

What percentage of armed gunmen walk swinging one arm but not the other? What percentage of citizens who walk swinging one arm but not the other are armed gunmen? How, if at all, do these percentages change based upon the time of day or the fact that it is a high crime neighborhood? Similarly, in a police encounter with a citizen, what percentage of the citizens turn their bodies away from the policeman? And of those that do, what percentage are hiding something? And of those that are hiding something, what percentage of them are hiding firearms?[50]

         In addition, the court stated, or at least suggested, that the officer's testimony was not admissible under Delaware Rule of Evidence 702 because it was not "based on sufficient facts or data" or "the product of reliable principles and methods."[51]When an officer testifies about something he has learned through his police training or through his police experience, however, a court cannot expect the testimony to be supported by a statistical analysis or a scientific study where there is no evidence that such an analysis or study exists.[52] "[T]he determination of reasonable suspicion must be based on commonsense judgments and inferences about human behavior,"[53] and such a determination "need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct."[54]

         Our good friend in dissent contends that an officer who sees someone engaging in furtive, odd behavior indicative of carrying a weapon cannot make a stop unless the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person does not have a license to carry. But, of course, if a person has a legal right to carry a concealed weapon, that person has no need to act like someone in possession of illegal contraband. If police officers are to help protect the public from gun violence, they must be able to make reasonable inferences from unusual, awkward behavior uncharacteristic of people who have a legal right to possess a gun.[55]


         For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the Superior Court is reversed, and the case is remanded to the Superior Court for ...

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