By: Michael Klotz
Today, in the unpublished opinion of Unites States v. Skyler Jovelle Holley, the Fourth Circuit reversed the decision of Senior District Judge W. Earl Britt of the District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The court held that the district court erred in failing to consider conduct by the Defendant between the time that the police officer turned on his siren and when the Defendant was actually stopped in assessing “reasonable suspicion” under the Fourth Amendment.
Deputy John McArthur, who was on duty in Edenton, North Carolina, received a call from a confidential informant to be on the lookout for Mr. Holley, who had just pulled a gun on someone near the Crown Mart on Oakum Street and driven away in a white Cadillac. Deputy McArthur did not know Mr. Holley, but he had previously seen his headshot and knew that he was a black man. Shortly after receiving this call, Deputy McArthur saw a white Cadillac with two black male passengers on the other side of town. Deputy McArthur judged that enough time had passed that this could be the same vehicle referenced by the informant. Deputy McArthur turned on his lights and attempted to stop the vehicle. The driver of the white Cadillac, who was leaned back in his seat, did not pull over, but instead made a right turn and drove slowly and erratically. The vehicle eventually pulled into a driveway and stopped. When Duty McArthur searched the vehicle he discovered that Mr. Holley was one of the occupants. Mr. Holley had a .38 caliber pistol in his pocket, and another .38 caliber gun was discovered on the floor of the vehicle. Mr. Holley was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1) and 924.
District Court Grants Defendant’s Motion To Suppress
Mr. Holley filed a motion to the suppress the evidence discovered at the scene, including the guns, on the theory that Deputy McArthur did not have “reasonable suspicion” to stop his vehicle merely on the basis of a tip to be on the lookout for a black male driving a white Cadillac. Reasonable suspicion by a police officer is necessary to justify a stop under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The district court granted Defendant’s Motion to Suppress, holding that there was no “reasonable, articulable” grounds for the officer to believe that the vehicle stopped was the same vehicle referenced by the confidential informant. The court noted that Deputy McArthur did not recognize the driver as being Mr. Holley, and the fact that the driver was slumped in his seat—along with the fact that it was a white Cadillac with black occupants—was insufficient to justify the stop. The district court noted that Cadillacs are common in the black community in rural eastern North Carolina, and thus the vehicle stopped might have been uninvolved in the alleged incident. In rendering its decision, the district court did not consider Mr. Holley’s conduct between the time that Deputy McArthur initiated his siren and when the vehicle eventually pulled over. The government filed a motion for an evidentiary hearing or to reconsider the motion to suppress on the existing record, which was denied. The government timely appealed.
The Fourth Circuit Reverses Based Upon The “Totality Of The Circumstances”
The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court, denying the Defendant’s Motion to Suppress, and finding that based upon the “totality of the circumstances” Deputy McArthur did have reasonable suspicion to stop the suspect vehicle. The district court failed to consider the conduct by the Defendant while he was being followed by the police officer. However, under clear Fourth Circuit precedent a seizure requires either 1. the application of physical force; or 2. both an assertion of authority and submission or acquiescence to that show of authority. In this case, the second form of seizure is at issue. There was an “assertion of authority” by Deputy McArthur when he turned on his police siren. However, the Defendant did not acquiesce to this “show of authority” until the vehicle actually stopped. Thus, the district court erred as a matter of law in failing to consider the Defendant’s conduct between the time that the police siren was turned on and when the vehicle came to a halt. During this time, the Defendant failed to pull over and exhibited an “unusual driving pattern.” The Fourth Circuit concluded that this conduct, considered in light of the fact that the vehicle was a white Cadillac with black occupants as referenced by the informant, was sufficient to create “reasonable suspicion” to justify a Fourth Amendment seizure. Thus, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court erred in granting Defendant’s Motion to Suppress, and the decision was reversed and remanded.