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State v. Willis

Florida Court of Appeals, Fifth District

July 12, 2019



          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Orange County, Kim Shepard, Judge.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Pamela J. Koller, Assistant Attorney General, Daytona Beach, for Appellant.

          James S. Purdy, Public Defender, and George D. E. Burden, Assistant Public Defender, Daytona Beach, for Appellee.

          HARRIS, J.

         The State timely appeals the trial court's order granting Maurice Lee Willis' dispositive motion to suppress. The State argues that, based upon the totality of the circumstances, the police officers had reasonable suspicion to temporarily detain Willis to investigate the officers' legitimate concerns that Willis was mentally unstable and posed a danger. Agreeing with the State that there was reasonable suspicion to support the investigative stop, we reverse.

         The facts adduced at the suppression hearing are undisputed. On April 21, 2018, a christening ceremony was taking place at a church in Winter Garden, FL. During the ceremony, attended by a small group of friends and family, parishioners observed a male, who was not a party to the christening, sitting alone in the back of the church. Making this individual appear even more suspicious was the fact that he was wearing a bulletproof vest over his clothing. Concerned parishioners called 911 and law enforcement officers responded.

         Officer Hernandez, the first to arrive on scene, spoke with Michelle Rosado, one of the members of the church who advised Hernandez that there was a "suspicious" man wearing a bulletproof vest. Rosado pointed to the man, later identified as Maurice Willis, sitting on one of the pews of the church, still wearing a bulletproof vest. Hernandez attempted to approach Willis, but as the officer approached, Willis got up and walked out. Hernandez's body camera footage was entered into evidence. As Hernandez followed Willis out of the church, she asked, "hey, are you alright?. . . what's with the vest?" Willis responded that he was okay and he wore the vest for protection. He attempted to walk away again while asking whether it was against the law to wear a bulletproof vest. Hernandez responded that it was not but to "hold up" so that she could talk to him to make sure everything was okay.

         Hernandez testified that, at that point, she was concerned about Willis' mental capacity and contemplated Baker-Acting him. Hernandez stated that she was also concerned for the safety of those in the church because Willis could have been armed and she wanted to know why he was wearing a bulletproof vest. Hernandez testified that the answers Willis provided to her questions did not make sense and did not alleviate any of her concerns. Hernandez again asked Willis why he was wearing the vest. In response, Willis voluntarily took out his wallet and asked Hernandez if she needed to see his identification. Willis denied having any weapons on his person. After providing his social security card as his only identification, Willis stated that he wore a vest because he felt like he was being followed and that he came to the church every day wearing his bulletproof vest. Hernandez reminded Willis that there was "a lot of crazy stuff going on in churches now" and that it was "not normal for an everyday person to be wearing a vest and going to church."

         As Officer Woodcox arrived on scene, Hernandez told Willis to speak to him and that she would let him "go in a sec" so that she could speak to Rosado, the original 911 caller. Hernandez testified that this was a request and not an order. Willis did not ask for his social security card back and he was not handcuffed or otherwise physically restrained. However, Hernandez testified that Willis did not dissuade her fears about him being armed or his mental capacity. Hernandez testified that when she walked away from Willis, he was not free to leave.

         Officer Woodcox's bodycam video was entered into evidence. Woodcox began asking Willis why he was wearing the vest and Willis gave the same response given to Hernandez. The bodycam footage showed another officer, Officer Valasquez, asking Willis if he had anything in his pockets. Valasquez testified that as he approached Willis, he observed a large bulge in Willis' front left pocket, which Valasquez believed to be a weapon. Valasquez was concerned because, given the time of year and the heat, and "this day and age," it was not normal for someone other than law enforcement to wear a vest in public. As reflected in the bodycam footage, Valasquez grabbed Willis' wrist and advised Willis that he was not going to search him, but that he wanted to pat him down for safety. Willis refused.

         Officer Cook was the next on scene. She also testified that it was not normal for someone to walk into a public place wearing body armor outside of their clothing and that doing so was indicative of an active shooter situation. Cook also observed a large bulge in Willis' left front pocket and did not believe permission was required to pat Willis down in light of his suspicious behavior of openly wearing a bulletproof vest in a church where no one recognized him as well as his attempt to avoid contact with law enforcement. As Cook grabbed Willis' wrist, she looked down at his pocket and saw the hammer and grip of a gun. Willis was immediately placed in handcuffs.

         In argument on the motion to suppress, Willis argued that Hernandez's statement to Willis to "hold up" after Willis clearly attempted to leave was a seizure. Willis further argued that he gave his social security card to Hernandez because he felt that he was being stopped by law enforcement. Moreover, Willis argued that Hernandez did not have reasonable suspicion to stop him. The trial court granted Willis' motion, suppressing the firearm found in Willis' pocket, as well as an additional magazine, ammunition, and the bullet proof vest Willis was wearing. This appeal followed.

         We review a suppression order to determine whether competent, substantial evidence supports the trial court's findings of historical fact. State v. Roman, 983 So.2d 731, 734 (Fla. 3d DCA 2008). "It has also been observed, however, that to the extent a ruling is based on an audio recording, 'the trial court is in no better position to evaluate such evidence than the appellate court, which may review the tape for facts legally sufficient to support the trial court's ruling.'" Bailey v. State, 31 So.3d 809, 812 (Fla. 1st DCA 2009) (citing Dooley v. State, 743 So.2d 65, 68 (Fla. 4th DCA 1999)). We review that evidence and any inferences from it in favor of supporting the trial court's ruling. Pagan v. State, 830 So.2d 792, 806 (Fla. 2002). We must "independently review mixed questions of law and fact that ultimately determine constitutional issues." Schoenwetter v. State, 931 So.2d 857, 866 (Fla. 2006). The trial court's ...

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