©2012 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)

On March 8, 2012, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Robinson [i], which serves as an excellent review of the law regarding investigative detentions.  The facts of Robinson are as follows:

During the early morning hours of September 26, 2009, Tony Robinson was expelled from a nightclub in Little Rock, Arkansas, after he engaged in an altercation with another person inside the club. After the club’s owner asked that Robinson be removed, Robinson continued to argue with another patron in the club. Alicia Smith, an off-duty police officer, was providing security at the club that morning, and she followed Robinson out of the club to ensure that he left the property. Robinson returned shortly thereafter. A security guard at the club notified Smith that Robinson was carrying a gun in his hand when he returned, and that he entered a white car. Officer Smith then conveyed this information to Sergeant Dan Brown, another police officer working at the club that morning.

Smith was able to see the white car as it departed the club. She and Brown stopped the vehicle just one-half block away from the club. The officers directed Robinson and a passenger to exit the vehicle, conducted a pat-down search, and questioned the two. Robinson denied having a weapon. Police then placed Robinson and the passenger in the back of the patrol car and ran a computer check for outstanding warrants. The officers discovered that Robinson was a convicted felon and that there were several outstanding warrants for his arrest. Officer Smith then returned to the vehicle and noticed a handgun sticking out from under the driver’s seat. Officers arrested Robinson on the outstanding warrants and for unlawful possession of a firearm as a convicted felon, in violation of Ark. Code Ann. § 5-73-103(a)(1). An inventory search of the white car revealed a pistol under the driver’s seat. [ii]

Robinson was indicted by a federal grand jury for federal firearms violations.  He filed a motion to suppress the gun which the district court denied.  Robinson was convicted and he then appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal, Robinson argued first that he was stopped in violation of the Fourth Amendment because there was insufficient reasonable suspicion.  Second, he argued that the officers exceeded the permissible limits of an investigative detention when they placed him in the police car.

In light of Robinson’s argument above, the first issue before the court was whether the information provided by the security guard to the off-duty officers who were working with the security guard provided the officers with sufficient reasonable suspicion to justify the investigative detention.  The court first examined various legal rules regarding reasonable suspicion.  The court noted that they must view the “totality of the circumstances” in evaluating whether the officers had reasonable suspicion to stop Robinson.  The court further noted that police officers can draw from their own training and experience and make deductions and inference about the circumstances before them when evaluating whether there is sufficient reasonable suspicion to justify a stop. [iii]  The court then stated:

Reasonable suspicion may be based in whole or in part on hearsay information. The Supreme Court long ago rejected the notion that reasonable suspicion “can only be based on the officer’s personal observation, rather than on information supplied by another person.” Adams v. Williams, 407 U.S. 143, 147, 92 S. Ct. 1921, 32 L. Ed. 2d 612 (1972). Police may rely on the tip of an informant, id. at 146-47, and the degree of corroboration required to establish reasonable suspicion depends on whether the informant’s reliability has been established. United States v. Nolen, 536 F.3d 834, 840 (8th Cir. 2008). The information here was provided by a security guard, an “informant” who “is not just any eyewitness.” Gramenos v. Jewel Cos., 797 F.2d 432, 439 (7th Cir. 1986). Given the security guard’s position and responsibility to his employer, the risk that he will pursue a private agenda or embarrass an honest patron is smaller than when a previously unknown citizen provides a tip. Id. And especially in a situation like this one, where police officers work directly with private security guards to keep a location secure, the police have reasonable grounds to believe the guard. [iv]

The court then analyzed the facts the officers used to support the stop with the rules articulated above.  The court noted that the officers received information from the security guard that he saw Robinson in the parking lot with a gun in his hand moments after the guard had ejected him from the club.  The guard also said that he saw Robinson enter a white car and drive off.  This information was in part corroborated when the officer observed the white car described by the guard leaving the club.  Based on these facts, the court held that the officer had sufficient reasonable suspicion to detain Robinson for a possible violation of Arkansas law.

The court next examined the second issue raised by Robinson; particularly, whether the officers exceeded the permissible scope of an investigative detention when they handcuffed him and placed him in the backseat of a police car.  At the outset of this issue, the court noted that there is no specific rule to determine or outline permissible police conduct during an investigative detention. [v]  This is because every situation is unique or varied in its facts so the courts decline a specific rule regarding police conduct during investigative detentions.  It should be noted that officers must act reasonably and often there is a range of reasonable conduct.

The court then examined facts relevant to this issue and noted that the officers had specific information that Robinson, moments earlier had been armed with a handgun, was hostile and was potentially intoxicated.  The court stated that:

It is well established, however, that police officers may handcuff a suspect and place him in a patrol car during an investigative stop in order to protect their personal safety and maintain the status quo. See United States v. Smith, 645 F.3d 998, 1002-03 (8th Cir. 2011). [vi]

The Eighth Circuit then held that in light of the facts of this case (armed, hostile, possibly intoxicated suspect),  and the rule above, the officers acted reasonably in securing Robinson to prevent him from gaining control of a weapon and harming the officers.  Therefore, the officers did not exceed the permissible scope of the investigative detention.  As such, the denial of the motion to suppress was affirmed.

[Note: It would not be reasonable, on every investigative detention, to handcuff the suspect and place him or her in a police car.  The officers’ actions must be based on the significance of the threat the suspect poses to the officers.]


Note:  Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.



[i] 670 F.3d 874 (8th Cir. 2012)

[ii] Id. at 875-876

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id. at 876-877

[v] Id. at 877

[vi] Id.

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