PROVIDENCE — A federal appeals court panel this week restored key evidence in the government's case against an alleged gang leader accused of being a felon in possession of a magazine loaded with 9 mm bullets.
A three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday overturned a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith that suppressed evidence in the prosecution's case against Juan Guerrero, also known as “Pawtucket,” who authorities allege is a leader of the Trinitarios gang.
Smith found in January that the Providence police officers who arrested Guerrero in October 2019 were not in “actual” fear of Guerrero or his teenage passenger when they searched their car and seized the ammunition from a backpack as they responded to reports of gunfire.
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Smith ruled that the search violated Guerrero’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and barred the evidence from being used at trial.
“The nature of the search thus demonstrates an eye toward investigation and prosecution, not officer safety,” Smith said.
Federal prosecutors appealed Smith's ruling.
The appeals court panel, in a ruling written by Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson, concluded that the evidence should stand, finding that the officers reasonably believed that Guerrero and his passenger were dangerous. Thus, the protective search of the car was warranted, they said.
The panel rejected Guerrero’s claims that abandoning a requirement under previous court rulings that a warrantless search is only necessitated if an officer is in actual fear for his or her safety would create “a serious and recurring threat to the privacy of countless individuals."
The court found, instead, that a more recent U.S. Supreme Court precedent defined “the scope of privacy in the protective-sweep setting: if an officer's decision to search is not objectively reasonable, the search cannot stand — regardless of what the officer's subjective motives were. Which makes Guerrero's concern not well founded.”
The panel remanded the case to U.S. District Court for further proceedings.
Report of gunfire on Cranston Street
According to court records, Providence police responded at 1:17 a.m. Oct. 21, 2019, to a report of gunfire in the parking lot of Laundry World at 722 Cranston St., across from the Flow Nightclub. As officers approached, a BMW driven by Guerrero sped past in the opposite direction. The officers reversed direction in pursuit.
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Guerrero continued to drive recklessly, running through stop signs, despite officers turning on their flashing lights and indicating he should pull over. When Guerrero finally stopped, the officers approached the car with guns drawn.
Guerrero was accompanied by a 16-year-old, who the officer handcuffed and placed in a cruiser.
Guerrero initially refused to follow commands that he exit the car and lie on the ground. After repeated orders, he was cuffed and charged him with eluding police.
Body camera images showed multiple officers searching the BMW, including the trunk, after Guerrero and the teen were in custody. It’s then that an officers say they found the 9 mm Luger bullets and a magazine, tucked in a rubber glove in a backpack in the back seat. (His lawyer, John F. Cicilline, had argued the backpack belonged to the teen.)
Federal prosecutors later charged Guerrero with unlawful possession of ammunition as a felon. He pleaded not guilty and moved to suppress the evidence seized in the search.
2005 drug-trafficking charge
In 2005, Guerrero was one of 13 people charged with federal drug-trafficking offenses in an investigation that police credited with dismantling the Almighty Latin King Nation gang in Providence.
Guerrero, who pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy in that case, was sentenced as a career offender to 15½ years in prison. He completed his sentence and began a five-year term of supervised release on Jan. 3, 2019.
He has since been identified by authorities as an alleged leader of the Trinitarios, another notorious street gang that has been associated with firearms and violent offenses throughout Rhode Island.
He remains held as a potential danger to the community and risk of flight. He faces up to 10 years in prison, if convicted.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Appeals court restores evidence in Juan 'Pawtucket' Guerrero gun case