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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > March 2013 > U.S. v. Young, U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Dec. 20, 2012

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U.S. v. Young, U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Dec. 20, 2012

Questions: (1) Does a person’s presence in a high-crime area, along with other general factors, provide reasonable suspicion to conduct a Terry stop? (2) Does a peace officer exceed the scope of the Terry stop when the officer runs a warrant check that’s unrelated to the suspected crime?
Quick Answers: (1) No, an articulable fact specific to that person is also needed to conduct the stop. (2) No, warrant checks are a routine part of law enforcement practice.

Facts: During an early morning patrol, two police officers noticed a passenger reclined in a car that was parked in a city parking lot near a local restaurant. The city had a trespassing ordinance that made it a crime for a person to remain on city property without doing business at any nearby establishments. The officers knew this parking lot had been the scene of recent gun violence. They also knew that people carrying guns usually loitered in that parking lot because the local restaurant often patted down its patrons for weapons. After watching the car for 90 seconds, the officers pulled in behind it, and as they approached the vehicle, a third officer joined them. All three officers looked inside the car with flashlights, and one officer knocked on the passenger’s window.
The passenger, Michael Young, rolled down the window after 15 seconds, and the officer asked for Young’s identification. Another officer took Young’s ID to check for outstanding warrants. During that time, Young explained that he fell asleep while the car’s driver checked if they could eat inside the restaurant. The officers then noticed the friend approaching the car, so they asked that he go back inside the restaurant. They told Young to “sit tight” while they explained that he was trespassing on city property. While listening, Young continued to make furtive movements toward his left pants pocket. The police officer speaking with Young noticed these furtive movements and asked Young if he had any weapons or drugs on him. He then had Young step out of the car. Young told the officers that he had a gun in his pocket, so one of the officers retrieved the weapon and placed Young in handcuffs. The third officer returned and reported that Young had an outstanding warrant. He was arrested for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that there was no reasonable basis for the initial seizure and that checking Young for warrants unrelated to the trespass crime exceeded the scope of the Fourth Amendment seizure.
Why this case is important: The court held that the officers had a reasonable basis for seizing Young. Young’s seizure occurred when the officers parked behind the car and began looking inside with flashlights. The officers’ actions were reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances: Young was in a high-crime area; officers knew that people with guns typically waited in the parking lot because the restaurant did routine pat-downs; Young had his seat reclined; and Young was loitering, possibly trespassing, by remaining in the car for at least 90 seconds without any movement. Being in a high-crime area and knowing that gun-toting patrons remain outside the local restaurant are not enough to justify a warrantless seizure under Terry v. Ohio because those facts aren’t specific to Young. Such generalized facts shouldn’t be given too much weight when determining reasonable suspicion because they lead to racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic profiling. But when combined with the fact that Young was loitering in the car for more than 90 seconds, the officers had reasonable suspicion to believe he may have been committing a trespass.
The court also found that the police warrant check didn’t unreasonably exceed the scope of the seizure. Requesting a suspect’s ID for a warrants check is part of law enforcement’s routine with many Terry stops, and the checks do not need to be for warrants specific to the suspected crime. Plus, Young’s explanation of why he was waiting in the car, along with his furtive movements toward his pants pocket, were enough for police to detain Young further under reasonable suspicion for other criminal activity. And the entire stop lasted only four minutes, which is a reasonable amount of time for officers to obtain or dispel any suspicion of a crime.
Keep in mind: If you plan to conduct a Terry stop of a person, you’ll need suspicion that’s specific to the person you are stopping. Factors such as a high-crime area or known criminal practices are too general on their own.
Once you have reasonable suspicion to make a stop, you can request the person’s ID to check for outstanding warrants, no matter what possible crime you are investigating. Running a warrants check is a basic police practice and doesn’t exceed the scope of a stop, no matter what the initial reason for the stop. But, as already mentioned, you must have articulable facts specific to the person you are stopping in order to justify the stop and, of course, the warrants check.
Visit the U.S. Sixth Circuit’s website to view the entire opinion.