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People v. Delacruz

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

December 5, 2016

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellant
Randiray D. Delacruz. Defendant-Appellee

         Interlocutory Appeal from the District Court Denver County District Court Case No. 15CR1907 Honorable Kandace C. Gerdes, Judge

          Attorneys for Plaintiff-Appellant: Mitchell R. Morrissey, District Attorney, Second Judicial District Katherine A. Hansen, Deputy District Attorney Denver, Colorado

          Attorneys for Defendant-Appellee: McDermott Stuart, & Ward, LLP Martin A. Stuart Denver, Colorado JUSTICE MÁRQUEZ delivered the Opinion of the Court.



         ¶1 The People filed this interlocutory appeal under section 16-12-102(2), C.R.S. (2016), and C.A.R. 4.1, [1] seeking our review of a district court's order suppressing a firearm that Denver Police seized from a car in which Randiray D. Delacruz was a passenger. We conclude that the firearm was discovered during a valid protective search of the vehicle in light of the circumstances confronting the officer at the time of the search. See Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983). We therefore reverse the district court's order and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶2 Defendant Randiray D. Delacruz was charged in Denver District Court with three counts of menacing and one count of possession of a weapon by a previous offender for placing three individuals in fear of imminent serious bodily injury by use of a firearm. Delacruz moved to suppress a TEC-9 handgun discovered during a search of the vehicle in which he was a passenger.

         ¶3 Evidence presented at the suppression hearings[2] showed that on April 7, 2015, Denver Police Officer Scott Armstrong was on patrol in northeast Denver when he entered a Quality Inn parking lot known to law enforcement for frequent drug activity. To search for stolen vehicles and other vehicles of interest, Officer Armstrong was running checks on the license plates of parked vehicles. As he was preparing to leave the parking lot, Officer Armstrong observed a black SUV turn left into the parking lot without using a turn signal. Officer Armstrong observed that the SUV had a male driver, who was later identified as Delacruz, and a female passenger, who was later identified as Rachel Yerebeck. After the SUV turned into the parking lot, Officer Armstrong lost sight of the vehicle. Officer Armstrong ran a check of the vehicle's license plate number and learned that the SUV belonged to Yerebeck.

         ¶4 To try to locate the SUV, Officer Armstrong stopped his car nearby to see if the SUV would pass again. Within approximately five to ten minutes, Officer Armstrong observed the SUV return. This time, Delacruz was in the passenger seat, and Yerebeck was driving.

         ¶5 Officer Armstrong pulled behind the vehicle and conducted a traffic stop for the turn signal violation that occurred when Delacruz had been driving. Officer Armstrong approached the driver's side of the SUV and explained the reason for the stop to Yerebeck. Yerebeck handed her driver's license to Officer Armstrong. Officer Armstrong asked Delacruz for identification as well. Delacruz responded that his name was "Rae Lacruz, " but stated that he did not have an identification card.

         ¶6 Officer Armstrong returned to his patrol car to search for the names "Rachel Yerebeck" and "Rae Lacruz" in the National Crime Information Center ("NCIC") database. The NCIC database indicated that Yerebeck had no outstanding warrants. The database returned no record of an individual named "Rae Lacruz." At that point, Officer Armstrong became suspicious that Delacruz had provided a false name, and Officer Armstrong called a backup officer to the scene.

         ¶7 Officer Armstrong then approached the vehicle again, this time from the passenger's side. Officer Armstrong asked Delacruz to step out of the vehicle, intending to ask about his identity outside of Yerebeck's presence. Delacruz agreed to get out of the vehicle, and as he did so, Officer Armstrong heard a metallic "thump." Officer Armstrong looked towards the front passenger's-side floorboard and saw a large, fixed-blade knife. Neither Yerebeck nor Delacruz had told Officer Armstrong that there was a weapon in the car. Officer Armstrong handcuffed Delacruz and passed him to a backup officer who had recently arrived.

         ¶8 Officer Armstrong asked Yerebeck to step out of the vehicle so that he could secure the knife. Yerebeck exited the SUV and was accompanied by a third officer, while Officer Armstrong went back to the SUV. After securing the knife, Officer Armstrong leaned into the vehicle to look for additional weapons, as the vehicle's windows were tinted too darkly to look through from the outside. He put his knee on the front passenger's seat, braced his hand on the front driver's seat, and looked onto the back floorboard, which was cluttered with boxes and bags. Among the items on the rear floorboard behind the driver's seat was a pillowcase, in which Officer Armstrong observed what appeared to be the butt of a gun. Officer Armstrong then opened the rear driver's-side door of the SUV to verify that what he had seen was actually the butt of a gun.

         ¶9 At that point, one of the backup officers notified Officer Armstrong that they had identified Delacruz and that Delacruz had two outstanding arrest warrants, one of which was for a charge of felony menacing involving a TEC-9-type handgun. Delacruz was then arrested, and Officer Armstrong moved the car to a more secure location, obtained a ...

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