Monday, January 28, 2008

Office Experience Can Aid in Production of Reasonable Suspicion

US v. McCoy: McCoy & his girlfriend pulled into the parking lot of a grocery store in Loudon County, Virginia, that was under the surveillance of Loconti, an experienced narcotics officer. Loconti knew that a majority of drug deals in Loudon County took place in those kinds of parking lots. A tow truck pulled into the lot near McCoy. The driver of the truck and McCoy exchanged words and eventually drove down the street about 1/4 mile to another grocery store parking lot. Loconti followed. In the new lot, McCoy got out of his car, got in the truck for a few minutes, got out, and returned to his car. Loconti was convinced that a drug deal had just taken place. As McCoy walked back to his car, Loconti approached him and signaled the truck to stop. Instead, it sped away.

Loconti approached McCoy and, eventually, placed him in handcuffs. A pat-down search of McCoy produced nothing, but McCoy's girlfriend helpfully responded to Loconti's query admitting that McCoy had participated in a drug deal. A search of the car produced marijuana and cash, which McCoy admitted were his and that he had crack cocaine concealed in his hindquarters. That evidence was supplemented by a search of McCoy's home several months later. McCoy filed a motion to suppress that evidence after being charged with drug and firearms charges. The district court granted the motion, holding that when Loconti seized McCoy, he lacked reasonable suspicion to believe that criminal conduct was afoot.

The Government appalled and the Fourth Circuit reversed, 2-1. The court held that the district court improperly focused on what the officer didn't know about what was going on, rather than the totality of the information he did have. Particularly important to the court was Loconti's previous experience with drug deals occurring in grocery story parking lots. The myriad of potentially innocent behaviors that Loconti observed were sufficient, with his experience, to support reasonable suspicion. However, the court was quick to note that "[t]his is not to say that a wealth of experience will overcome a complete absence of articulable facts." District Judge Wilson concurred, emphasizing the importance of the fact that the truck sped away when Loconti went to intercept McCoy. Judge Gregory dissented, arguing that the majority's "holding renders law enforcement - not the courts - the sole arbiter of what qualifies as reasonable suspicion."

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