On October 4, 2013, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Willis [i] which serves as excellent review of the law related to investigative detentions based upon information received in a police dispatch. In Willis, a complainant called 911 and stated that there was a man with a gun outside her house in a disturbance. She stated that the man was a black male and was wearing a gray shirt. The complainant also provided the 911 operator with her name and address.
Officers were immediately dispatched to a “disturbance with a gun” call. Two Tulsa police officers, who were close by, immediately responded to the call and arrived “a few minutes” after the dispatch. When the officers arrived nobody was present. However, the officers immediately drove down the street in the only other directions that the man could have went, provided he was still outside. Within one block of the dispatch location, the officers observed two men walking down the road. One, later identified as Willis, was a black male wearing a gray shirt. The officers stopped Willis and immediately discovered a gun and the fact that he was a convicted felon. He was arrested for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Willis was subsequently indicted for federal firearms violations. He filed a motion to suppress and argued that the officers lacked sufficient reasonable suspicion under the Fourth Amendment to justify his investigation detention. He argued the description of the suspect in this incident was too generic to support reasonable suspicion. The district court denied his motion to suppress and he appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The issue before the court was whether the facts of his case provided the officers with sufficient reasonable suspicion under the Fourth Amendment to justify his stop.
In support of his argument, Willis cited the Tenth Circuit case of the United States v. Jones. [ii] In Jones, officers received a tip regarding a disturbance with a gun. The caller said the two men were occupying a black Mercedes. Officers located a black Mercedes, not in the immediate area, but rather what the court described as being a “circuitous route” away from the location of the dispatch. Further, the car located was stopped in front of a grocery store with a child in the car. The caller made no mention of a child in the car. Further, the court noted that a stop for groceries was inconsistent with criminals making a quick getaway. The Tenth Circuit held that the dispatch was insufficient to support the stop in this case.
The court then examined the relevant facts in Willis’ case. First, the court noted that the caller provided her name and address. Concerned citizen’s tips are generally provided more credibility than purely anonymous tips. Second, the officers arrived quickly, only a few minutes after the dispatch, which increased the likelihood that the suspect would still be in the area. Third, there were only two directions the suspect could have gone. The officers entered from one direction so they continued checking the other direction. Then, within one block, the officers located a male meeting the description provided by the caller. While the description was fairly generic, the court found that it was so close in time and proximity to the call and there were so few people out at this time, that the description was sufficient.
The court then noted that the facts of Jones tend to undermine that Jones was the correct person, whereas in the Willis, the facts of the case point to the fact that Willis was the correct person to stop.
Further, the court noted that Terry v. Ohio, the lead case on investigative detentions, was also based on fairly generic facts. The court stated:
In Terry v. Ohio, perhaps the paradigmatic investigative detention case, Officer McFadden only saw men hovering around a store window, gathering in small groups, walking away, and rejoining a couple blocks away. 392 U.S. 1, 23 (1968). Equivocal though the situation surely was, the Court concluded that “[i]t would have been poor police work indeed for an officer of 30 years’ experience in the detection of thievery from stores in this same neighborhood to have failed to investigate this behavior further.” Id.Much the same might be said here: it would seem odd to expect law enforcement not to follow up a citizen’s complaint as the officers did in this case. [iii]
As such, the court affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress and found that the officers did have sufficient reasonable suspicion to justify the stop.
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. 12-5166 (10th Cir. 2013)
[ii] 998 F.2d 883 (10th Cir. 1993)
[iii] Willis at 3-4