By Taylor Ey
Anonymous Tip to Police, Pretextual Traffic Stop, and Subsequent Frisk
Today, the Fourth Circuit issued its published in the criminal case of United States v. Robinson, deciding 2-1, the Court reversed and vacated the decision of District Court of the Northern District of West Virginia, holding that Defendant Robinson’s motion to suppress evidence should have been granted. In this case, the West Virginia police department received an anonymous tip. The tipper reported that the tipper saw a man load a gun in a 7-Eleven parking lot, the man subsequently concealed the gun, and then left the parking lot in a car. Only a few minutes passed when the police stopped a car matching the tipper’s description. The police stopped the car because the driver and passenger’s failure to wear a seatbelt in violation of West Virginia traffic law. Defendant Robinson was the passenger in the car. He complied with the police requests to exit the car. Then an officer frisked Defendant Robinson and found a firearm in one of Defendant Robinson’s pockets. Defendant Robinson was indicted by a grand jury on one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition. Defendant Robinson sought to exclude the evidence recovered by the officer during the stop and frisk. The district court referred Defendant’s motion to a magistrate. The magistrate recommended that the evidence did not indicate that the officer had reasonable suspicion that Defendant was dangerous. However, the district court did not grant his motion to suppress. At issue in this case is whether the officer complied with the Fourth Amendment when the officer conducted the stop and frisk.
Under Terry v. Ohio, Whether the Officer Had Reasonable Suspicion that Defendant Robinson Was Both Armed and Dangerous when the Officer Conducted the Stop and Frisk
Under Terry v. Ohio, the test for whether a stop and frisk is lawful is to determine if the officer had reasonable suspicion that the suspect was both armed and dangerous at the time of the stop and frisk. This question is two-fold: the officer has to have reasonable suspicion that the suspect is armed and that the suspect is dangerous. In this case, the question of whether the police had reasonable suspicion that Defendant Robinson was armed at the time of the traffic stop and frisk was not at issue due to the anonymous tip. However, because this case arose in West Virginia, and West Virginia allows its citizens to carry concealed weapons, the question on appeal was whether the police had reasonable suspicion that Defendant Robinson was dangerous at the time of the traffic stop and frisk.
The Court applied the totality of the circumstances test to determine whether the officer had reasonable suspicion that Defendant was dangerous. First, the Court considered that, in West Virginia, carrying a concealed firearm is not prohibited by law, thus the fact that Defendant was carrying alone was not enough to give the officer reasonable suspicion that he was dangerous because the state legislature decided that its citizens could carry. The Court noted that this same approach has been adopted by the Third, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits. The Court was worried that allowing an officer in states that allow for concealed carry to have reasonable suspicion of danger if a suspect is carrying would eliminate Fourth Amendment protections for carriers and would not allow them to exercise their Second Amendment rights. Further, the Court was concerned that such a rule would create a “serious and recurring threat” to their privacy, and it would give police officers “unbridled discretion.”
Second, the Court looked at the circumstances surrounding the stop. These included that there was an anonymous tip, that Defendant Robinson failed to answer the officer’s question of whether he had a gun on his person, and that Defendant Robinson was in a “high-crime area” at the time of the stop. The Court concluded that the circumstances did not give the officer reasonable suspicion. Instead, Defendant Robinson was otherwise cooperative during his encounter with the police, he never made a gesture that he was reaching for a weapon, and the officer did not give Defendant Robinson enough time to respond to the question about whether he was armed. Even though Defendant Robinson was in a high-crime area, the Court reasoned that this was just the area where you would expect to find people carrying a weapon to protect themselves.
Looking at the Totality of the Circumstances, the Fourth Circuit Reversed the District Court’s Decision Denying Defendant Robinson’s Motion to Suppress and Vacated His Conviction and Sentence.
The Dissenting Opinion Articulated Three Reasons for Disagreement with the Majority
The three reasons that the dissenting judge articulated for his opinion were (1) that an officer need only reasonable suspicion that the suspect is armed and thus dangerous, (2) that West Virginia allows its citizens to carry a concealed weapon does not minimize the danger to officers and officers should still be allowed to stop and frisk under the Fourth Amendment, and (3) that even though Defendant Robinson may have been innocent, “reasonable suspicion need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct.”