Eye on Eagle

People v. Messano


Issue before the Court: Did the police have reasonable suspicion to detain Mr. Messano, or, if
not, was the contraband lawfully seized under the plain view exception to the warrant

Facts relevant to the issue: A detective observed two drivers engage in loud conversation in
traffic, then saw both cars pull into a parking lot where Mr. Messano exited his car and stuck his
head through the other car’s passenger side window while looking around and texting on his
phone. The detective “believed” Mr. Messano had engaged in an hand-to-hand drug transaction
but admittedly did not see one. When a third car arrived whose driver the detective knew had
been arrested for drug possession, other units were summoned and a responding officer
approached Mr. Messano, then sitting in his own car. The officer frisked Mr. Messano when he
exited his car and, though recovering nothing, detained him by the trunk. The officer then saw
what appeared to be cocaine on the driver’s side seat, arrested Mr. Messano, searched his car, and
recovered a gun in the center armrest. Mr. Messano pleaded guilty to CPW2.

Held: Suppression granted, plea vacated, indictment dismissed. The prosecution failed to
establish that the police had reasonable suspicion to detain defendant and failed to meet its
burden of showing that the police observed the contraband in plain view. Mr. Messano’s
observed behavior, viewed in totality, was equivocal and susceptible of an innocent
interpretation, and therefore could not form the basis for reasonable suspicion, even after the
third driver arrived. “Guilt by association . . . has no place in our jurisprudence.” The prosecution
failed to satisfy the “minimum showing necessary to establish” reasonable suspicion. The plain
view exception did not save the search because there was no testimony that the officer was in a
position to view the contraband absent Mr. Messano’s unlawful detention. Had the officers not
unlawfully detained Mr. Messano, he would have re-entered his car and sat on the driver’s seat,
actions that would have blocked the officer’s view of the contraband.

CAL Observes: This 4-3 outcome showcases the split we are most likely to see when a
defendant wins a reversal: Troutman and Halligan joining the liberal wing. The outcome also
continues a welcome trend we’ve been seeing in the Wilson regime - a readiness to circumvent
procedural doctrines that formerly doomed certain issues from the starting gate (such as mixed
question doctrine) to curb clear instances of government overreach. Here, for example, the
majority refused to endorse the dissent’s formula – enough hunch to conjecture, in “totality,”
creates reasonable suspicion – and instead, rigorously applied first principles to find a question of
law under the “minimum showing” requirement. Similarly, the majority refused to divorce the
plain view exception from the unlawful detention, which could have been a convenient but
disingenuous way to salvage the search. This is in contrast to the dissent, which simply
reimagined a scenario where the officer would have seen the drugs anyway. Also notable is that
this signed opinion began as a dissenter leave-grant – a scenario that, in the past, would most
likely have ended with a memorandum decision on SSM review.

Practitioners seeking leave in 4th Amendment cases should take heart. Even an intensely factbased
case might be a cloaked “minimum standard.” Consult this case for guidance on framing.
Of course, this case was helped by a dissent that recognized the errors in the suppression court’s
reasoning, but the outcome in the Court of Appeals indicates you may have a receptive audience
among some of the judges as well.