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Reporting reasonable suspicion factors supports frisk

Remember that it isn’t enough to do the right thing; an officer must also thoroughly document the reason for doing the right thing

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A sergeant made it easy for the court to conclude he had reasonable articulable suspicion to detain a suspect based on the facts he reported.

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United States v. Redman, 2022 WL 2674072 (8th Cir. 2022)

A motel clerk called 9-1-1 at 12:44 a.m. to report shots fired behind the motel. The area was known as a high-traffic, high-risk area that typically had a lot of criminal activity.

A nearby parole officer was in the area and responded to the call. When the officer arrived three minutes after the call, the motel clerk directed him to the area of the alleged shots. A local police sergeant arrived at approximately the same time. He spoke to an Uber driver at the motel who said that fireworks had been thrown from a car window and suggested the fireworks were the basis of the call, not gunshots.

The parole officer began walking through the dark motel parking lot. The only people he saw were two persons sitting in a parked car with the engine running. The officer walked up to the driver and asked him to roll down the window. The driver complied and the officer smelled marijuana and saw that both occupants were holding bottles of beer. The two occupants initially denied hearing shots fired; the passenger suggested that the sound was fireworks.

The officer asked both occupants for identification. Anthony Redman, the passenger, refused to provide identification and said he was not being detained and was leaving. After the officer told him to stay in the car, Redman got out and began to walk away. The sergeant approached and began speaking with Redman. Redman again said he was not detained and could leave.

Redman began to walk away. The parole officer told the sergeant that he had told Redman to “stay here.” Redman approached a motel room and unlocked the door. The sergeant called out to stop, quickly approached him, and grabbed the back of Redman’s jacket when he turned the door handle. Redman pulled forward into the room and the sergeant and another officer took him to the ground, handcuffed him and searched him. Redman had a loaded Glock handgun in his coat pocket.

Redman was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He moved to suppress the firearm and statements he had made during the search, arguing he had been illegally seized. The trial court denied the motion and Redman appealed. He claimed the sergeant lacked reasonable suspicion to seize him and the parole officer had no authority to stop him.

The appellate court upheld the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress evidence: “A Terry stop is justified when a police officer is able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.” Once the officer makes the stop, the officer may “take such steps as are reasonably necessary to protect their personal safety and to maintain the status quo during the stop,” including frisking a person for weapons if the officer has “articulable suspicion that the person is armed and dangerous.” These questions are always fact-dependent. The answers not only depend on the facts but also on the officer’s thoroughness in articulating the facts in a police report and subsequently on the witness stand.

The sergeant made it easy for the court to conclude he had reasonable articulable suspicion to detain Redman because he reported the following facts:

  • He was investigating an early-morning report of shots fired near a high-crime area.
  • Even though a witness offered the explanation of fireworks thrown from a car, that did not require the sergeant to end his investigation.
  • The sergeant knew Redman was one of only two people present in the dark parking lot that was the alleged location of the shots fired.
  • The sergeant was responding to a call for backup from a parole officer and he learned that Redman had refused to identify himself and walked away against the officer’s instructions to stay in the car.
  • Redman refused to stop when the sergeant commanded him and he tried to enter a motel room. Allowing Redman to enter the room posed obvious safety concerns for the officers.

Given these circumstances, the sergeant had reasonable suspicion that Redman may have been involved in a shots-fired incident, which justified his decision to seize Redman and to perform a limited search to determine if Redman was armed. Remember that it isn’t enough to do the right thing; an officer must also thoroughly document the reason for doing the right thing.

Read more case reviews here.

A police officer and former prosecutor, Ken Wallentine is Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. Traffic detentions and passenger issues are discussed in his new book, Street Legal: A Guide to Pre-trial Criminal Procedure for Police, Prosecutors, and Defenders, published by the American Bar Association Press.