Friday, December 18, 2009

Face to Face "Man With Gun" Tip = Reasonable Suspicion

US v. Griffin: Griffin pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. The gun at issue was recovered from Griffin's car following a traffic stop. Since the relevant facts are few, I'll just reprint them here from the court's opinion:
The evidence presented during the suppression hearing establishes that the Value-Lodge Motel in Charlotte, North Carolina, was well known to officers of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department as a location for violent crime and drug trafficking. On the evening of September 28,2005, someone called 911 from a second floor room of the Value-Lodge reporting a man in possession of a gun. The 911 call center relayed this information, including the caller’s room number, to Officer Crystal Lee Clifton, and she responded to the call. Upon arriving at the Value-Lodge, Officer Clifton proceeded to the second floor room from which the call was made and talked with one of the room’s occupants (the "informant") who was aware that the call had been placed. Shortly thereafter, Officer Brian Carey, who was also responding to the 911 call, arrived at the Value-Lodge.1 While Officer Clifton was talking to the informant, a white Cadillac drove past in the parking lot below, and the informant immediately pointed to the vehicle and identified the driver as the man with the gun. Officer Carey returned to his patrol car and pursued the Cadillac which was exiting the Value-Lodge parking lot. He proceeded approximately 50 feet and then entered a nearby parking lot where the Cadillac was turning around. Officer Clifton remained with the informant.

Officer Carey then initiated a traffic stop of the vehicle and its sole occupant, Antonio Griffin. When Griffin exited the vehicle, he "started looking around" and "kept turning around like he was going to take off running." J.A. 27, 43. Officer Carey conducted a Terry frisk of Griffin and, out of concern for his safety, handcuffed Griffin and placed him in the backseat of the patrol car. While Officer Carey was speaking with Griffin, Officer Clifton and another officer arrived on the scene. At this time, an individual approached the officers claiming to know Griffin, and onlookers from the motel gathered at the scene. Officer Clifton thereafter performed a search of the passenger compartment of Griffin’s car, finding a pistol on the driver’s side floorboard. Officer Clifton seized the weapon, and Officer Carey placed Griffin under arrest for carrying a concealed weapon.
Griffin unsuccessfully moved to suppress the gun, the district court concluding that there was reasonable suspicion to make the traffic stop and that the search of the car was justified.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed, 2-1. First, the court concluded that there was reasonable suspicion to support the traffic stop. The court noted that, even if the original 911 call was anonymous, the first officer subsequently had a face to face meeting with an informant, which enhanced the credibility of the information provided. Second, the court concluded that the totality of the circumstances showed that Griffin was dangerous and there was a possibility that be might access a weapon if a protective sweep was not done.

Judge Gregory dissented, arguing that the "majority opinion brings the Fourth Amendment two steps closer to a death by a thousand cuts." He went on to argue that neither the Fourth Circuit (until now) nor the Supreme Court has adopted a per se rule that a face to face encounter with an informant is inherently reliable. In this case, "none of the indicia of reliability that normally inhere in such circumstances" were present. He would also hold that, even if the traffic stop was justified, the search of Griffin's car was not.

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