In 2000, the United States Supreme Court, in Florida v. J.L [i], held that an anonymous tip that a person possesses a gun, standing alone, does not provide sufficient reasonable suspicion to justify a stop and frisk. Based on this, the court concluded that the stop of J.L. was not based on reasonable suspicion and therefore, not reasonable within the bounds of the Fourth Amendment such that the firearm must be suppressed. On April 1, 2014, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Woods [ii], which serves as an excellent review of the law pertaining to frisks of persons in response to dispatches regarding a person that may be armed and how a slight variation of facts can distinguish a case from Florida v. J.L.
The facts of Woods, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
On August 20, 2011, at approximately 8:30 p.m., Officers Bailey, Jamieson and Dimartino responded to a report of a suspicious person armed with a gun at a bus stop near 12th Street and Grand Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri. An individual called 911 (“the caller”) and relayed that he saw a man with a gun on his person while riding the bus. The caller described the individual as a black male wearing a black hat, tan pants and a white t-shirt. Officer Bailey arrived at the scene a few minutes before Officers Jamieson and Dimartino and observed a black man wearing a dark colored hat leaving the bus stop on foot. Upon arriving, Officers Jamieson and Dimartino noticed two individuals sitting at the end of the bus stop who also matched the description given. The individuals identified by Officers Jamieson and Dimartino watched the officers intently, but Officer Bailey radioed that he was approaching another man, so the two officers provided him back-up. Officer Bailey approached the man leaving the bus stop from behind and commanded him to turn around. When the man did not respond, Officer Bailey took the man to the ground and frisked him for weapons. Officers Bailey and Dimartino then recognized the man as an intoxicated homeless man, whom they had dealt with before. Based on their previous encounters, the officers did not believe him to be the individual with the gun, and abandoned that lead.
Officer Jamieson then contacted the 911 caller by phone for further information. The caller, who was still in the area watching the officers’ actions, advised Officer Jamieson that the officers had stopped the wrong person. The caller insisted that the man he saw on the bus with a gun was one of the two men sitting at the end of the bus stop. The caller noted one of the men had a black hat and the other had a camouflage hat. Specifically, Officer Jamieson testified, “[the caller] said, You have the wrong guy. It’s the two guys at the end of the bus stop on the far end and he went on to describe their clothing and their hats.” The caller told Officer Jamieson that he had seen the butt of a gun on one of the two men, but did not specify which man had the weapon. Officer Jamison relayed this information to the other officers. The officers, again, observed the two men sitting closely together at the bus stop, one wearing a black hat and the other wearing a camouflage hat. With their weapons drawn, the officers approached the two men sitting next to one another and commanded them to put their hands in the air. Officer Dimartino conducted a frisk of the man in the black hat and located a loaded firearm in his waistband area. Officer Jamieson, then, frisked the man in the camouflage hat, later identified as Woods, and also recovered a firearm in the waistband of his pants. Officer Jamieson testified that she frisked Woods for the officers’ safety. They arrested both men.
Woods was indicted as a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(a)(2). [iii]
Woods filed a motion to suppress the firearm, which was denied. He pleaded guilty with the right to appeal. He filed a timely appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. His argument on appeals was that the officers lacked sufficient reasonable suspicion to believe that he was involved in criminal activity and armed and dangerous.
At the outset, the court noted that, according to the United States Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio [iv], an officer may conduct a “stop and frisk” of a person:
…where a police officer observes unusual conduct which leads him reasonably to conclude in light of his experience that criminal activity may be afoot and that the persons with whom he is dealing may be armed and presently dangerous, where in the course of investigating this behavior he identifies himself as a policeman and makes reasonable inquiries, and where nothing in the initial stages of the encounter serves to dispel his reasonable fear for his own or others’ safety, he is entitled for the protection of himself and others in the area to conduct a carefully limited search of the outer clothing of such persons in an attempt to discover weapons which might be used to assault him. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30 (1968). [v]
Regarding Florida v. J.L., the court noted that, in J.L., the police received an anonymous tip that a young black male, wearing a plaid shirt and standing at a particular bus stop, was carrying a firearm. The tip provided a description of the individual’s appearance and location, but it did not show how the tipster had knowledge of the concealed criminal activity. As such, the Supreme Court stated the tip lacked a sufficient indicia of reliability and held:
…that an anonymous tip lacking indicia of reliability does not justify a stop and frisk whenever and however it alleges the illegal possession of a firearm. 529 U.S. 266, 273-74 (2000). [vi]
The Eighth Circuit then distinguished J.L. from Woods’ case because in J.L., it was unknown how the anonymous caller obtained their information that J.L. possessed a firearm. Whereas, in Woods, the complainant stated that they were on a bus with the suspect and personally saw the firearm. Further, the officer was actually able to telephone the complainant in Woods and obtain more information. The complainant told the officer that he was still in the area and directed the officers to the correct suspects, stating that he was watching the officers. The Eighth Circuit then held that the additional information present in Woods case distinguished it from J.L. and did provide a sufficient indicia of reliability to support reasonable suspicion.
Additionally, the court noted that, under Missouri law, it is unlawful for a person to knowingly carry a concealed weapon. As such, the officers had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity based upon the complainant’s information.
Further, Woods contends that there was no reasonable suspicion to detain and frisk him because he was merely the companion of suspect actually described to be the armed person by the complainant. To this argument, the court noted that when the officer called the complainant on the phone for more information, the complainant directed the officers to the two men sitting next to each other, one wearing a black hat and one wearing a camouflage hat. The complainant then did not specify which one possessed the gun, but rather directed officers to those two men, who were seated next to each other.
The court then stated:
Given that, during Jamieson’s phone conversation with the 911 caller, the caller, who was still present on the scene, directed the officers to the two individuals sitting together at the bus stop, without identifying which one he saw carrying the gun, and given that the officers had just recovered a gun on the individual in the black hat, Officer Jamieson had reasonable suspicion to support her frisk of Woods.
Woods challenges this conclusion, asserting that because he was wearing a camouflage hat, rather than a black hat, the caller’s information did not provide the officer with reasonable suspicion to support the officer’s frisk and the officer could not base her reasonable suspicion on the mere fact that he was seated next to the man in the black hat at the bus stop. But, given the totality of the circumstances, Woods’s arguments do not negate the officer’s reasonable suspicion that she should conduct a minimally invasive frisk of Woods. [vii]
The Eighth Circuit reiterated that they still reject the “automatic companion rule” for frisks. The automatic companion rule, if accepted, allows officers to automatically frisk the companions of persons reasonably believed to be armed and dangerous. While the Eighth Circuit does not follow the automatic companion rule, they noted that being a companion of an armed person is one factor that can be considered along with the totality of all circumstances present. Here, for the reasons quoted above, the court affirmed that the frisk of Woods was reasonable.
As such, the court affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
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] 529 U.S. 266 (2000)
[ii] No. 12-3924 (8th Cir. Decided April 1, 2014)
[iii] Id. at 2-3
[iv] 392 U.S. 1 (1968)
[v] Woods at 4
[vi] Id. at 6