Law Enforcement Bulletin

Sign up for newsletters and other news
Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > August 2012 > U.S. v. Whitley — Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyom

Law Enforcement Bulletin RSS feeds

U.S. v. Whitley — Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming), June 1, 2012

Question: Can a peace officer stop a vehicle when there has been no traffic violation and the officer is relying solely on another peace officer’s finding of suspicion?
Quick answer:  Yes, under the collective knowledge doctrine, an officer can stop a vehicle so long as another officer requesting the stop has at least reasonable suspicion that the suspect is involved in criminal activity.
Facts: A federal agent received a tip from a citizen informant that defendant John Whitley had a firearm and ammunition in his employer’s company vehicle. The agent conducted a records check and discovered that Whitley had a previous felony conviction. A few days later, the agent received a second tip from the same citizen informant that Whitley had loaded a dead antelope into his truck on the first day of hunting season. Based on this information, the agent believed that Whitley was a felon in possession of a firearm. The agent called the county sheriff’s office and requested that Whitley be stopped and checked for weapons. Shortly after, a sheriff’s sergeant spotted Whitley’s truck with the antelope in the back. The sergeant pulled Whitley over and noticed two rifles in plain view along the center console of the truck. The sergeant contacted the federal agent, who showed up a short time later and recovered more firearms and ammunition when searching Whitley’s truck. Whitley was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He filed a motion to suppress the weapons, claiming there was neither probable cause nor reasonable suspicion to stop his vehicle.
Why this case is important: The Tenth Circuit found that the sergeant’s stop of Whitley was constitutional. To conduct a lawful investigatory stop of a vehicle, a peace officer only needs reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot, regardless of whether the stop involves a traffic violation. Here, the federal agent received two tips that Whitley had a firearm in his possession and learned that Whitley had a felony conviction. These facts were enough to establish reasonable suspicion to at least stop Whitley’s vehicle. And the sheriff’s sergeant was justified in stopping Whitley under the collective knowledge doctrine. This means that an officer who makes an investigatory stop doesn’t need to have reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. Instead, the knowledge of one officer with reasonable suspicion (or probable cause) can be conveyed to another. Here, the federal agent had developed reasonable suspicion that Whitley had a gun, so he could relay this knowledge to another officer and request a traffic stop without that officer personally having any suspicion.
Keep in mind: The collective knowledge doctrine is an important tool for law enforcement to remember for investigations. In U.S. v. Hensley, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the collective knowledge doctrine, and there are two different types to remember: vertical and horizontal. Vertical collective knowledge involves an officer with probable cause or reasonable suspicion instructing another officer to act, even without communicating all the information necessary to justify the action. Horizontal collective knowledge occurs when a number of individual officers have “pieces of the probable cause or reasonable suspicion puzzle,” but no single officer has enough information to satisfy the suspicion’s standard. These doctrines may be especially helpful during investigations that require lengthy surveillance or coverage of a large geographical area.
Click here to read the entire opinion.