The unauthorized stop and search of individuals by police, particularly of African-Americans, is an issue of increasing concern to civil rights activists and society in general. The Fourth Amendment explicitly prohibits the police from engaging in unauthorized searches and seizures in order to protect the privacy and personal rights of American citizens. In limited circumstances, police may conduct pat-downs of individuals in order to determine whether they are carrying any loaded weapons on their person, but they must first have a reasonable suspicion that the individual is armed and dangerous. In West Virginia, a state that permits its residents to engage in the concealed carry of firearms, determining what constitutes armed and dangerous is particularly difficult. A recent case in the Fourth Circuit addresses precisely this issue.
In United States v. Robinson, police in Ranson, West Virginia, received a call that a black man had just been seen loading a firearm in the parking lot of a 7-11 and then concealing the firearm in the pocket of his jacket. He then drove away from the gas station, according to the anonymous caller. The caller gave the police a description of the man’s car, and they began to follow the vehicle. The officers noticed that the occupants were not wearing seatbelts and pulled them over on that basis. The police asked the man, Robinson, to step out of the car and then inquired as to whether he had any weapons on him. Robinson did not respond but gave the officers a “weird look.” In response, they frisked him for weapons and found the gun on his person. Robinson was cooperative and was handcuffed. At a later point, the officers recognized Robinson as a convicted felon.
Robinson was eventually charged as a felon in possession of a firearm, but he moved to suppress the evidence from his search on the basis that the frisk was unlawful. The magistrate judge agreed with Robinson, but his findings were rejected by the district court, which denied the motion to suppress. Robinson appealed.
Under the Fourth Amendment and Supreme Court caselaw, an individual may only be stopped and frisked if an officer has a reasonable suspicion that the individual is armed and dangerous. Armed and dangerous is evaluated by looking at the totality of the circumstances. Here, there was no dispute that Robinson was armed. He was, and the officers had been informed of that by the anonymous caller. The question, and the basis for Robinson’s motion, was whether there was a reasonable suspicion that he was dangerous as well.
The Fourth Circuit concluded that there was not. It noted that while notice of an individual with a loaded gun might suggest that something dangerous was likely to occur under other circumstances, West Virginia law permitted individuals to carry and conceal loaded weapons. Thus, there was nothing inherently dangerous about Robinson choosing to do so. Accordingly, the possession of a gun was not sufficient, and the police officers needed to rely on additional evidence of “dangerousness.” While the police officers argued that Robinson’s non-answer to the question of whether he had a weapon was sufficient, the Fourth Circuit rejected this argument as well, noting that Robinson was cooperative throughout his traffic stop. Alternatively, the police argued that Robinson was in a “high-crime” area at the time he was observed loading his gun. Again, the Fourth Circuit rejected this argument, holding that where individuals have a legal right to carry a weapon, whether they chose to do so in a low-crime or high-crime area has no bearing on the dangerousness of their actions. Indeed, in high-crime areas, their actions may be even more justified. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit reversed and vacated the district court decision, thereby granting the motion to suppress.
Unconstitutional stops and searches happen more often than many of us would like to believe. In order to protect your rights, it is important that you understand when law enforcement may legally stop your vehicle and when you may be frisked. The West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years and can explain these rights to you. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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