Fourth Circuit: Va. county ordinance compelling detained person to show ID upon officer request unconstitutional

Compelled identify statutes valid only when officers detain a suspect based upon reasonable suspicion


George Wingate, a Black male, was driving his vehicle in Stafford County Virginia at about 2 a.m. on April 25, 2017. His check engine light came on and he pulled over to the side of the road and parked in front of the CarStar car dealership. He parked under an illuminated streetlight and raised his hood. He was a former auto mechanic and thought he could locate the problem. He took a bag of tools from his trunk and placed them on the front seat. He used an auto code reader connected to his cell phone and attempted to identify the problem. The code reader indicated that an engine cylinder was misfiring.

Stafford County Deputy Sheriff Fulford observed Wingate and pulled in behind him to ascertain the problem. Wingate saw the deputy exiting his vehicle and got out of his vehicle. He approached the deputy and explained that he was headed to his girlfriend’s house in Stafford but experienced car trouble and pulled over. Deputy Fulford asked him for identification. Wingate questioned the need for identification and Fulford called for backup. Wingate asked if he had committed a crime. Fulford told him no but said the County required him to identify himself. Wingate asked if he was free to leave. Fulford responded, “You’re not free to go until you identify yourself.”

Lieutenant Pinzon arrived and explained to Wingate that there had been a lot of catalytic converter thefts from the nearby businesses. Wingate continued to express his innocence and again refused to identify himself. The officers attempted to arrest Wingate for violating Stafford County Ordinance 17-7© which makes it a crime to refuse a request for identification “if the surrounding circumstances … indicate to a reasonable man that the public safety requires [it].”

Wingate resisted arrest; broke free from the deputies and ran across the street. He stopped when he saw a TASER pointed in his direction. He refused an order to go to the ground and was forced to the ground by Lt. Pinzon. After a brief struggle, Wingate was handcuffed and placed in a patrol vehicle. He was charged with failure to identify himself, resisting arrest and impeding a law enforcement officer. The prosecuting attorney dropped all charges after Wingate’s attorney challenged the constitutionality of the identification ordinance. [1]

Wingate sued both officers pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (federal civil rights statute) and alleged that he was illegally stopped and arrested by the involved officers. The Federal District Court Judge dismissed the suit prior to a trial and Wingate appealed to the Federal Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the case for trial. [2]

Wingate’s initial detention

The court outlined the constitutional requirements for a lawful detention of a person by law enforcement short of an actual arrest.

The court explained that law enforcement officers are entitled pursuant to the Fourth Amendment to seize and detain an individual for a reasonable period of time without the necessity of probable cause to arrest the person detained.

The court instructed that officers “need only reasonable, articulable, and particularized suspicion [i.e., reasonable suspicion] that someone is engaged in criminal activity to justify these brief interactions.”

The court explained further that an officer may also draw rational inferences from the known facts that taken together can rise to the level of reasonable suspicion.

The court observed that once Deputy Fulford told Wingate that he was not free to leave until he identified himself, the situation changed from a voluntary encounter to an investigative detention. The detention required reasonable suspicion that criminal activity may be present.

Deputy Fulford argued that he had reasonable suspicion because Wingate was parked with his hood up, late at night in front of a closed car dealership during a period when police were aware of vehicular larcenies and related crimes. Further that Wingate claimed engine trouble while his car appeared to be properly idling. Moreover, Fulford thought it suspicious that Wingate exited his vehicle without being prompted by the deputy and was wearing all black clothing similar to others who had been arrested during late-night area vehicle larcenies.

The court examined each of Fulford’s claims of suspicious circumstances individually and collectively and determined that taken together they did not rise to the level of “reasonable suspicion.”

The court explained that some of the factors raised by Fulford amount to a citizen with a “car in distress, not criminal activity.” The court stated that Fulford’s other concerns involving an uninvited exit from his vehicle and wearing all black clothing do not get him over the legal hurdle.

The court stated that it is not reasonable for an officer to assume driver deceit by claiming car trouble when the car appears to be functional at a glance. The court also apparently dismissed the allegations of prior vehicle crimes in the area without discussion.

Wingate’s arrest for failure to identify himself

The court ruled that Wingate’s arrest for failure to identify himself on the basis of the Stafford County Ordinance was unconstitutional. The court took the position that the “ordinance is unconstitutional when applied outside the context of a valid investigatory stop.”

The court observed that the United States Supreme Court had declared a Texas statute unconstitutional that permitted law enforcement officers to arrest a person for failure to identify themselves when the officers had no basis to believe the person arrested was involved in criminal activity. [3] The court further observed that in a more recent case, the Supreme Court ruled that a state statute that compels identification from a person validly detained upon reasonable suspicion is constitutional. [4]

The Fourth Circuit, following the Supreme Court precedent, ruled “that a valid investigatory stop, supported by Terry-level suspicion, [5] is a constitutional prerequisite to enforcing stop and identify statutes.” Because the Fourth Circuit ruled that Wingate was detained without reasonable suspicion, the application of the County ordinance compelling him to identify himself or face arrest was unconstitutional. [6]

Lessons identified

  • A valid Terry-style investigative detention must be supported by facts and valid inferences drawn from those facts that provide a law enforcement officer with a reasonable basis (i.e., a reasonable suspicion) to conclude that criminal activity may be present.
  • Based upon reasonable suspicion an officer may detain a suspect at the scene of the stop for a reasonable time for investigatory purposes.
  • A valid investigatory detention is not an arrest and needs not be supported by probable cause.
  • A state statute or ordinance compelling persons to identify themselves or face arrest for refusal, during an investigative detention, is clearly unconstitutional in the Fourth Circuit unless officers possess a “reasonable suspicion” to justify the detention.
  • Based upon the U.S. Supreme Court cases cited by the Fourth Circuit (see, this article, footnotes three and four), it is highly probable that all federal circuits would rule the same way, absent reasonable suspicion to justify the stop.

References

1. This case resulted in adverse media attention for Stafford County with racial implications. For example, a Richmond.Com. article dated 8/1/2018 was titled, “Dash Cam Video: Wingate v. Fulford – Black Driver arrested for no crime.” The Virginia Lawyers Weekly published a story published by the Associated Press on 2/5/2021 titled, “Court: Black Man’s arrest for refusing to show ID improper.” Elura Nanos authored an article in Law & Crime on 2/5/21 titled “Court Rules in Favor of Man Who Said He Was Arrested for ‘Driving While Black.”

2. Wingate v. Fulford, (No. 19-1700) (4th Cir. 2021).

3. Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47 (1979).

4. Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial Dist. Court of Nevada, 542 U.S. 177 (2004).

5. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).

6. The Fourth Circuit denied Fulford’s assertion of qualified immunity for Wingate’s initial detention, ruling that Circuit case law placed him on notice that his detention of Wingate violated clearly established constitutional law. The court granted both officers’ claim of qualified immunity for the unconstitutional arrest of Wingate because the court believed that the arrest based upon the county ordinance which in turn required a valid investigatory stop was not clearly established.

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