Wake Forest Law Review

By Sophia Blair

On March 30, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published criminal opinion, United States v. Hill. Donald Hill (“Hill”) pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). However, he appealed the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress his statements and a firearm seized during a traffic stop because he alleged that the police officers’ actions exceeded the scope of the stop. Specifically, he alleged that the stop continued beyond the justifiable amount of time needed, thereby violating his Fourth Amendment rights. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Hill’s motion to suppress because the stop’s duration was reasonable to complete the tasks incident to the stop.

Facts of the Stop

On October 20, 2014, two police officers patrolling in Richmond, pulled over a car because it was driving over the speed limit and crossed a double-yellow line. The officers recognized both Jeremy Taylor (“Taylor”), the driver, and Hill, the passenger from previous interactions. After Taylor produced his driver’s license, one of the officers returned to the police cruiser to confirm the identity of both men in the Department of Motor Vehicles database, and to check whether either of the men had outstanding warrants on the National Crime Information Center database. The officer discovered that Taylor’s license was suspended. The officer briefly interrupted writing the relevant summons to check for both men in the PISTOL system, which tracks individuals’ prior contacts with the police. There he found that both men were connected with drug activity and were “likely armed.” The officer in the patrol car called for a K-9 unit and continued writing the summons.

The second officer made small talk with both men while the first officer wrote the summons and asked them three times whether they had drugs or firearms in the car. After the third question, Hill admitted that he had a firearm on his person. The officer shouted “gun” and the K-9 unit arrived on the scene almost simultaneously. The district court determined that twenty minutes elapsed between the initiation of the stop and the time the gun was discovered.

Hill’s Claims

Hill argued that the length of the stop exceeded a lawful duration because the second officer talked to him and Taylor instead of helping the first officer search the databases. He also challenged the call to the K-9 unit and searching the PISTOL database. Hill argued that the cumulative effect was to deprive him of his Fourth Amendment Rights under Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015).

The Duration and Scope of the Stop Did Not Violate the Fourth Amendment

In order to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, a traffic stop must be legitimate at its inception and the officers’ actions during the stop must be reasonably related in scope to the basis for the stop. Because Hill did not contest that the stop was legitimate at its inception, the Fourth Circuit limited its analysis to whether the officers’ actions were reasonably within the scope of the basis for the stop.

Determining the reasonable length of a stop is not a mathematical endeavor; instead a court determines reasonableness by looking at what police in fact do and whether the officers acted reasonably under the totality of the circumstances. Additionally, officers may undertake investigative techniques unrelated to the underlying traffic infraction without offending the Fourth Amendment as long as the activity does not prolong the duration of the stop.

In analyzing the unfolding of the stop at issue, the Fourth Circuit did not observe any evidence that suggested that either of the officers delayed the completion of the traffic stop. The officers accounted for eighteen minutes of the twenty minute stop, and the Fourth Circuit did not find that the additional two minutes unlawfully extended the duration of the stop. Moreover, the first officer had not finished writing the summons when the second officer yelled “gun.”

The Fourth Circuit also held that the officer’s decision to search PISTOL did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the Fourth Amendment does not require the officers to use the least intrusive means possible to complete a stop. Searching PISTOL was material to the officers insuring their safety in furtherance of their duties. Because of the inherent safety risks  during a traffic stop, the Fourth Circuit also held that the second officer’s choice to stand by the stopped vehicle instead of helping to search the database was reasonable. Finally, requesting the K-9 unit did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the call did not extend the duration of the stop.

Disposition

Because the officers exercised reasonable diligence in executing the traffic stop, the stop was not impermissibly prolonged. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Hill’s motion to suppress evidence.

By John Van Swearingen

On Monday, January 23, 2017 the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion following a rehearing en banc in the criminal case United States v. Robinson. The defendant Robinson appealed his conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), which prohibits the possession of a firearm by a felon. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s denial of Robinson’s motion to suppress evidence of weapon possession, holding that the potential legal status of a concealed weapon does not automatically render that weapon harmless, and therefore, any officer that lawfully stops an individual and reasonably believes that individual to be armed is justified in frisking that individual to secure any weapons.

Facts and Procedural History

On March 24, 2014, an anonymous caller called the Ranson Police Department (West Virginia) to report seeing a black male, the defendant Robinson, in a “bluish greenish Toyota Camry load a firearm [and] conceal it in his pocket” while parked at a 7-Eleven. After this occurred, according to the tipster, the driver of the vehicle, a white female, pulled the Camry out of the parking lot and headed southbound.

This particular 7-Eleven, as several officers would later testify, was located next to the Apple Tree Garden Apartments. The 7-Eleven and the apartment complex were both part of “the highest crime area in Ranson,” especially with regard to drug trafficking, and calls to either location were treated with a heightened sense of alertness.

Two officers responded to the call, and within minutes, spotted the subject Camry containing the defendant and the white female. Neither occupant in the Camry was wearing a seatbelt. The first officer, Officer Hudson, effected a traffic stop for the seatbelt violations. Because the anonymous caller stated that defendant was armed, Officer Hudson asked Robinson to step out of the car.

The second officer, Captain Roberts, opened Robinson’s door and, as Robinson was getting out, asked if Robinson was armed. The Captain later testified that Robinson gave him an “oh, crap” look in lieu of a verbal response. Captain Roberts then frisked Robinson, discovering and securing a loaded handgun from Robinson’s pants pocket.

Captain Roberts, recognizing Robinson as a known felon, then arrested Robinson for illegal possession of a firearm by a felon.

Robinson filed a motion to suppress the firearm, claiming the frisk was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. More specifically, Robinson contended that, while the officers may have reasonably suspected that he was armed, West Virginia’s generally permissive laws regarding concealed carry mean an armed individual cannot be assumed to be dangerous absent other factual information. The United States District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia denied his motion.

Armed and Dangerous Means Armed and thus Dangerous

Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30 (1968), governs the doctrine of weapons frisks by law enforcement officers. If an officer reasonably believes that criminal activity is afoot and suspects an individual is armed and dangerous, that officer may stop that individual and pat down that persons clothing to feel for weapons.

Robinson argued that language of Terry – “armed and dangerous” – requires an officer to reasonably suspect an individual be armed and – as a separate consideration – also dangerous.

Robinson correctly noted that West Virginia generally permits its citizens to acquire permits to arm themselves with concealed weapons. Therefore, Robinson contended, the suspicion that an individual is armed in and of itself does not give rise to suspicion that the individual is dangerous. Robinson conceded that Officer Hudson’s stop of the Camry was lawful. Thus, this challenge turns on the “armed and dangerous” language of the Terry opinion.

Robinson misconstrues both the language of Terry and the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence regard frisks. The Court does use the phrase “armed and dangerous” near the end of the Terry opinion. However, in the preceding discussion regarding the legality of frisks, the Court stated that an officer may frisk a lawfully-stopped individual if “a reasonably prudent man would have been warranted in believing [that individual] was armed and thus presented a threat to the officer’s safety.”

The Court applied the Terry doctrine to traffic stops in Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 112 (1977). The Mimms opinion echoed Terry, holding that an officer’s frisk of a lawfully-stopped individual was proper where the officer reasonably believed the individual was “armed and thus posed a serious and present danger to the safety of the officer.”

The language of the Terry and Mimms opinions is fatal to Robinson’s argument. The phrase “armed and dangerous” does not, as Robinson argued, create a two element test wherein an officer must have reasonable suspicion that an individual is armed and also dangerous. Rather, Terry and its progeny state that, where an individual is reasonably suspected of being armed, they are presumed dangerous as a matter of law and fact.

Robinson’s argument also fails to account for the factual circumstances of his stop. First, an anonymous tip reported a man concealing a gun in a high-crime, high-drug activity area. The tip was then corroborated when the responding officers observed Robinson and the female driver in the blue-green Camry heading south away from the 7-Eleven. Further, Robinson’s “oh, crap” look to Captain Roberts was reasonably perceived as an evasive response to a direct question about being armed.

The Fourth Circuit also noted that widespread legal concealed carry does not render the presence of a firearm somehow less dangerous. The court held that concerns for officer safety logically permit an officer to secure a firearm when that officer lawfully stops an unknown individual who is reasonably suspected of being armed.

In sum, when an individual is lawfully stopped by law enforcement and that individual is reasonably suspected of being armed, that individual is therefore suspected of being dangerous as a matter of law. Therefore, Robinson’s Fourth Amendment rights were not violated when he was frisked.

                                                                    Disposition

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Robinson’s motion to suppress the firearm. Robinson was lawfully stopped, and based on the facts of this case, the responding officers reasonably suspected that Robinson was armed and thus dangerous. Therefore, Captain Roberts’ frisk of Robinson was permissible, and the firearm recovered pursuant to that frisk was admissible as evidence against Robinson.