On January 29, 2013, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Patton [i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to frisks of suspects. The facts of Patton, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
At approximately 1:30 a.m. on August 11, 2010, Peoria police officer Ryan Winkle and his partner were dispatched to investigate a group of seven or eight men who reportedly were drinking beers on a public sidewalk, in violation of a city ordinance. Winkle and his partner were assigned to the police department’s violent crime task force; the supervisor of that task force had been asked by a local detective to look into the matter.
The location to which the officers were dispatched was situated in a high-crime area of Peoria. Gangs were active in the area; there had been multiple, recent reports of shots-fired; and two nights earlier, two people had been the victims of a drive-by shooting one block away from the specific location to which the officers were dispatched.
At least six members of the task force in three squad cars arrived on the scene and converged on the men from different directions, effectively blocking any route of escape. The men were variously standing on the street, sidewalk, and adjacent lawn, and a number of them had open cans of beer in their hands. Most immediately threw their beers to the ground; one tried to hand his can to Winkle, who instructed him to drop it. Patton was among the group of men although, so far as Winkle knew, he was not one of those who had a drink in his hand.
The officers directed the men to step over to a Cadillac parked nearby on the street. Winkle would later testify that he and the other officers intended to issue citations to the men for violating Peoria’s open-container ordinance, while being on the lookout for other more serious offenses. First, however, the officers were going to frisk the men for weapons. Winkle explained:
[B]ecause of the area, if we’re going to stand and write out drinking tickets, I want to conduct a pat-down for weapons, and the reason being is I don’t want to have my back turned on anybody if I’m trying to write a ticket and have somebody possibly be armed. I feel very uncomfortable, feel vulnerable, the equivalent of getting into a car and start driving without putting on a seat belt is the best way I can describe the feeling. So, I wanted to conduct a pat-down.
At this point, Winkle noticed Patton doing something that distinguished himself from the other members of the group. Instead of stepping over to the Cadillac as the officers had instructed, Patton was backing away from the other men, looking from side to side nervously, like a “deer in the headlights.” Patton took at least five steps away from the other men; by Winkle’s estimate, he backed away between five and fifteen feet from the sidewalk where he had been standing and onto the lawn behind him. The district judge, after having Winkle re-enact Patton’s actions in court, found that Patton stepped at least ten feet away from the other men. Winkle perceived Patton’s behavior as consistent with a “flight or fight” response to a police presence; and in his seven years’ experience as a police officer, when an individual stopped for a relatively minor offense reacts in that manner, it usually means either that he has a weapon or is wanted on a high-bond arrest warrant. Winkle explained:
With a weapon or a high bond warrant, . . . somebody knows they’re going to be going to jail, and the chances of them getting out soon are not good. For like a small bag of cannabis or a traffic warrant or something similar to that, an outstanding case for a simple battery, I’m not usually going to get that type of reaction.
As he looked from side to side, Patton would have seen that officers were approaching him from multiple directions; and ultimately he changed course and began walking forward toward the car as the officers had instructed, his demeanor still nervous. In view of Patton’s behavior, Winkle decided to pat down Patton first. Winkle advised Patton, who by this point had his arms partly raised, that he was about to be frisked for safety purposes. Winkle then patted the front of Patton’s waistband and immediately felt what he recognized as the handle of a gun. Winkle immediately grabbed Patton’s wrists and instructed another officer to handcuff Patton, and shortly thereafter that officer removed the nine-millimeter Ruger from Patton’s pants. [ii]
Patton was subsequently indicted under federal law for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He filed a motion to suppress and challenged the lawfulness of the frisk. The district court denied the motion. Patton pleaded guilty with the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. He then filed a timely appeal to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The issue before the court was whether the there existed a reasonable belief that Patton was armed and dangerous such that his frisk was lawful under the Fourth Amendment and Terry v. Ohio.
The court of appeals began by noting that the officers had sufficient reasonable suspicion to initially detain the group of men, including Patton, based upon a possible violation of a Peoria city ordinance that prohibits open containers of alcohol in public places. Thus, the initial detention of Patton was lawful.
Regarding the lawfulness of frisk, the court first noted relevant legal precedent regarding frisks or weapons pat-downs. The court stated:
In addition to authorizing an investigatory stop when there is reason to believe a crime is being committed, Terry permits the officer conducting such a stop to conduct a limited search of the suspect to determine whether he is armed, when the circumstances give rise to a reasonable belief that the individual may have a weapon and thus pose a danger to the officer or others in the immediate vicinity. 392 U.S. at 27, 30-31, 88 S. Ct. at 1883, 1884-85. “The officer need not be absolutely certain that the individual is armed; the issue is whether a reasonably prudent man in the circumstances would be warranted in the belief that his safety or that of others was in danger.” Id. at 27, 88 S. Ct. at 1883. This is an issue that turns on the totality of the circumstances confronting the officer. E.g., Snow, 656 F.3d at 501. [iii]
Thus, in order for the frisk to be lawful under Terry and Fourth Amendment, the officer needed an objectively reasonable belief that Patton was armed and dangerous. In other words, would another reasonable officer in the same situation believe that Patton posed a danger to officers and others in the immediate vicinity.
The court then examined the facts relevant to issue of whether the frisk was lawful under Terry and the Fourth Amendment. First, the court noted that the incident occurred in a high-crime area known for gun related violence. This was an area known for gang activity, there were recent reports of shots fired, and a drive-by shooting two days prior to this incident took place only one block away from where the officers encountered Patton. Specifically, the court stated
These specific and recent indicia of violence, including gun-related violence, increased the odds that an individual detained at this location for apparent criminal activity (even a petty offense like the one at issue here) might be armed. [iv]
However, the court did state that a person’s mere presence in such an area, without more, does not justify a frisk for weapons.
Second, the court noted the stop occurred at a late hour, at approximately 1:30a.m. Regarding the late hour, the court stated:
We have recognized that [a] nighttime traffic stop, especially in an area where crime is not a stranger, is more fraught with potential danger to an officer than would be a stop during the light of day. [v]
Thus, the late hour, as one factor in the totality of the circumstances, is a relevant factor to consider. However, like the high-crime area, the court noted that a late hour, by itself, is not sufficient to justify a frisk.
Third, the court noted that the group of men with whom Patton was associated was drinking alcohol. While the officer did not know how much alcohol the men had consumed, the court stated:
[G]iven that a number of the men were drinking, Winkle and his colleagues had greater reason to be concerned that any one of the men might do something unpredictable, unwise, and dangerous. [vi]
While the first three factors were environmental, the court now examined Patton’s behavior. The court observed two specific aspects of his behavior during the incident that were relevant to the lawfulness of the frisk. First, the court noted that when the officers approached the group of men and told them to step toward the Cadillac, Patton instead took about five steps (about 10 feet) backwards away from where the officers told him to go. The court stated:
[T]he Supreme Court has recognized that an individual’s evasive behavior is a factor that contributes to a reasonable suspicion to the officers who confront him. Wardlow, 528 U.S. at 124, 120 S. Ct. at 676 (coll. cases). At the same time, a suspect’s failure or refusal to comply with a police officer’s order is also a factor that contributes to a reasonable suspicion that he may be dangerous. [vii]
Second, regarding Patton’s behavior, the court observed that the officer described his behavior as unusually nervous. The description of Patton’s behavior by Officer Winkle was so descriptive it bears quoting the courts comments. Particularly, the court stated:
Patton discounts his nervous appearance, suggesting that the arrival of three police cars and the convergence of at least six officers on the men from different directions would elicit a similar response from most individuals. But what Winkle described was not a mere look of concern or alarm; he emphasized that Patton was “backing away from the group, not coming towards us when ask[ed], looking side to side . . . possibly looking for an escape route, appearing very nervous, kind of a deer-in-the-headlights look.” Most individuals, he explained, will make eye contact with him as he approaches; Patton did not. Winkle also noted that Patton’s nervous demeanor persisted even after he stopped backing away from the others and came forward toward the Cadillac as instructed. It is a fair inference from Winkle’s testimony that the manifestation and degree of Patton’s nervousness was unusual; Winkle described it as a “red flag.” [viii]
The court recognized that a display of nervousness is frequently a sign that that a suspect is trying to hide something, including a weapon. [ix]
Additionally, the court considered the experience of Officer Winkle and the inferences that he drew from Patton’s actions. The court stated:
[T]he inferences that an experienced officer like Winkle draws from an individual’s behavior do inform our assessment of what a reasonable person in Winkle’s position would think about the likelihood that the suspect poses a danger to him. See United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273-74, 122 S. Ct. 744, 750-51, 151 L. Ed. 2d 740 (2002). Winkle’s belief, based on his years in the field, that the possession of a gun was a plausible explanation for Patton’s nervous and evasive behavior strikes us as reasonable, and we agree with the district court that the way in which Patton backed away from the officers and the other suspects gave rise to a reasonable suspicion that he might be armed. [x]
In summary, the court considered as relevant the following: (1) the high-crime, high violence nature of the area; (2) the late hour; (3) the fact that some of the involved parties were consuming alcohol; (4) the fact that Patton backed up about 10 feet in the opposite direction the officers told him to go; (5) the fact that Patton appeared unusually nervous; and (6) the experience of the officer who stated that when a suspect acts like Patton they are usually hiding a weapon or are wanted for a serious offense.
In light of the above factors, the Seventh Circuit held that Officer Winkle did possess a reasonable belief that Patton was armed and dangerous when he conducted the frisk. As such, the frisk was lawful and the weapon should not be suppressed.
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] No. 11-2659, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 1964 (7th Cir. Decided January 29, 2013)
[ii] Id. at 2-5
[iii] Id. at 9-10
[iv] Id. at 11
[v] Id. at 12 (citing United States v. Brown, 273 F.3d 747, 748 (7th Cir. 2001); see also Adams v. Williams, 407 U.S. 143, 147-48, 92 S. Ct. 1921, 1924, 32 L. Ed. 2d 612 (1972) (noting late hour as among facts giving officer reason to fear for his safety); United States v. Tinnie, 629 F.3d 749, 752 (7th Cir. 2011) (noting fact that “[t]he stop occurred late on a Friday night in a high-crime neighborhood” as among [*13] circumstances which supported frisk)
[vi] Id. at 13 (see United States v. Knight, 562 F.3d 1314, 1327 (11th Cir. 2009) (smell of marijuana and alcohol among factors that supported pat-down); United States v. Holmes, 385 F.3d 786, 789-90, 363 U.S. App. D.C. 246 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (Roberts, J.) (suspect’s admission that he was drinking cited as a factor supporting protective frisk).
[vii] Id. at 14 (see See, e.g., United States v. Denney, 771 F.2d 318, 322 (7th Cir. 1985) (refusal to keep hands in sight and exit vehicle); United States v. Simmons, 560 F.3d 98, 108 (2d Cir. 2009) (refusal to remove hands from pocket); United States v. Stachowiak, 521 F.3d 852, 856-57 (8th Cir. 2008) (refusal to step out of car); United States v. Soares, 521 F.3d 117, 121 (1st Cir. 2008) (refusal [*15] to remain still and keep hands within officer’s view); United States v. Bell, 762 F.2d 495, 502 (6th Cir. 1985) (refusal to place hands on car dashboard, exit from car, and place hands on roof of car).
[viii] Id. at 14
[ix] Id. at 16 (see Oglesby, 597 F.3d at 894 (“The Supreme Court has recognized in numerous cases that nervous or evasive behavior ‘is a pertinent factor in determining reasonable suspicion.'”) (quoting Wardlow, 528 U.S. at 124, 120 S. Ct. at 676); Barnett, 505 F.3d at 640 (noting suspect’s “high degree of nervousness” as a reason that initial suspicion suspect might be armed did not dissipate during questioning, notwithstanding suspect’s cordiality and cooperation [*17] with officers); United States v. Brown, supra, 188 F.3d at 865 (citing nervousness and refusal to make eye contact as a factor relevant to reasonable suspicion).
[x] Id. at 17-18