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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > December 2012 > United States v. Smith — Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin), Oct. 4, 20

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United States v. Smith — Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin), Oct. 4, 2012

Question: Does a peace officer exceed the scope of a Terry investigatory stop if he approaches a suspect with a gun drawn and proceeds to handcuff the suspect?
Quick Answer: No, but the officer’s actions must be reasonable under the circumstances.
Facts: Defendants Corley Smith and Kim Evans robbed a bank and fled in a green Cadillac. FBI agents already had been tipped off by an informant about the defendants, so they were driving around the area looking for a green Cadillac. The agents later saw the Cadillac pull into a parking spot on the street. Approaching with a gun drawn, one agent detained Smith when he got out of the Cadillac. Meanwhile, Evans drove off at a high speed, and other agents followed in close pursuit. The agent detaining Smith placed him in handcuffs for 10 minutes until another agent arrived with security camera photos of the robbers. Smith’s clothing matched that of one of the robbers pictured, so the agent arrested him. The agent then searched Smith and recovered a pair of black gloves and a Velcro face mask. Smith moved to suppress the evidence, claiming that the agent essentially placed him under arrest when he drew his weapon and cuffed him.
Why this case is important: The court held that Smith’s initial encounter with the agent was a valid Terry stop, requiring only reasonable suspicion. Officers conducting a Terry stop may approach with guns drawn and handcuff a suspect, without automatically transforming the stop into an arrest, when it is warranted by the circumstances. Here, it was reasonable for the agents to approach the Cadillac with guns drawn because they had information that a green Cadillac was the get-away vehicle in a recent robbery in which a gun was used. For the same reason, it was reasonable for the agent to handcuff Smith: he was alone with Smith on the street while the other agents chased Evans, so he handcuffed Smith for officer safety. 
Keep in mind: An investigative detention becomes an unlawful arrest when there is no longer a reasonable basis to keep a suspect in handcuffs. Officers should release a suspect from handcuffs if, after a reasonable time, they lack probable cause required for a valid arrest or if they determine that the suspect is not a safety risk. A court will look at the circumstances of each case to see if the situation warranted heightened police intrusion. Increased intrusion, such as use of handcuffs or firearms, may not be seen as necessary if the police outnumber the defendants, the stop is executed on an open highway during the day, police have no tips or observations that the suspects were armed or violent, or the defendants pulled their car to a stop and stepped out in full compliance with police orders.
Visit the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals website to read the entire opinion.