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Posts Tagged ‘Terry v. Ohio’

The federal government has had difficulty beating back suppression motions in the Fourth Circuit this past year. Last week, however, a panel unanimously affirmed the denial of a suppression motion. Judge Wilkinson wrote the opinion in United States v. Glover, which was joined in by Judge King and Judge Diaz. (Attentive readers may also have noted that Judge Wilkinson authored the majority opinion in United States v. Braxton a couple of weeks ago, also affirming denial of a suppression motion–that time, over the dissent of Judge Wynn.)

The opinion begins as follows:

Paul Glover entered a conditional plea of guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). He now appeals the denial of his motion to suppress evidence obtained during a stop-and-frisk in a deserted gas station parking lot in the wee hours of the morning. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the district court’s denial of Glover’s suppression motion.

The stop-and-frisk here occurred after officers observed the defendant lurking outside of the range of the closed circuit cameras at a 24-hour service station at around 4:40 a.m. Judge Wilkinson writes that the circumstances facing the officers were far different than those in United States v. Foster, 634 F.3d 243 (4th Cir. 2011), which “concerned the stop of  a driver believed to be involved in drug activity in the middle of the day in a low-crime area.”

With respect to police reliance on nervous behavior, which the Fourth Circuit criticized in United States v. Massenburg, 654 F.3d 480 (4th Cir. 2011), Judge Wilkinson wrote:

While it is important not to overplay a suspect’s nervous behavior in situations where citizens would normally be expected to be upset, see United States v. Massenburg, 654 F.3d 480, 490 (4th Cir. 2011), Glover was furtively watching the attendant from a location outside the range of surveillance cameras, glancing around the corner, and pulling his head back well before Officers Skipper and Archer stopped the patrol car. Such conduct is far more like the casing of the store in Terry than the case of nerves a citizen might ordinarily exhibit in interactions with police.

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Today’s split decision in United States v. Powell bristles with strong language on both sides. Writing for a panel majority consisting of himself and Judge Floyd, Judge Shedd upbraids the government and places this case among a trio of recent cases in which the government failed to justify a Terry stop and frisk:

In a case such as this, where law enforcement officers briefly pat down a person for safety reasons, reasonable suspicion that the person is armed and dangerous is necessary in order for the patdown to be lawful under the Fourth Amendment. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). Earlier this year, in United States v. Foster, 634 F.3d 243, 248 (4th Cir. 2011), we noted “our concern about the inclination of the Government toward using whatever facts are present, no matter how innocent, as indicia of suspicious activity.” Twice in the past few months, we reiterated this concern. See United States v. Massenburg, 654 F.3d 480, 482 (4th Cir. 2011); United States v. Digiovanni, 650 F.3d 498, 512 (4th Cir. 2011). In all three cases, we held that the Government failed to meet its minimal burden of articulating facts sufficient to support a finding of reasonable suspicion. Today, we once again are presented with a case in which the Government has attempted to meet its burden under Terry by cobbling together a set of facts that falls far short of establishing reasonable suspicion. For this reason, we vacate the judgment.

Responding in dissent, Judge King distinguishes between the justification for a Terry stop and the justification for a patdown, finding that the latter was present:

When a police officer’s life is on the line, common sense tells us that he should sooner be reasonable in his suspicion that a suspect may be armed and dangerous than in suspecting that a passerby is up to no good. The risk of dismissing a suspicion that a suspect may be armed is inherently perilous to arresting officers. As a result, the officers in this case were entitled to take reasonable steps to protect themselves and others after they received confirmation that Powell may be armed, even if that evidence might not have been sufficient for an initial Terry stop.

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