On April 27, 2020, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Cuello[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law-related reasonable suspicion. The relevant facts of Cuello, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
In the early morning hours of July 9, 2018, Cuello was stopped while riding his bike on the south side of Syracuse by Officer William Coleman and Officer Michael Birklin of the Syracuse Police Department. The officers stopped Cuello for a failure to have head and tail lights affixed to his bike in violation of New York Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1236(a). During the stop, the officers asked for identification, which Cuello did not have; asked for Cuello’s bicycle registration,1 which Cuello also did not have; and explained the reason for the stop. In his police report, Officer Coleman described Cuello as nervous. Officer Coleman asked what was in the black backpack that Cuello was wearing. Cuello informed the officers that the bag contained his gloves and thereafter handed the bag to the officers, who observed that it contained gloves but noted and remarked that it was also unusually heavy. At this point, Cuello pushed his bike to the ground and fled. Officer Birklin chased and apprehended Cuello. After Cuello was taken into custody, Officer Coleman looked inside the bag and found a pistol and ammunition. Cuello was charged with being a felon in possession and was issued a traffic citation for failing to have the required lights and operating a bicycle without registration.[ii]
Cuello was ultimately charged with federal firearms violations. He filed a motion to suppress the gun found in his backpack, and the district court denied the motion. He then entered a guilty plea with the right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress. He filed a timely appeal with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, Cuello conceded that his initial stop for failure to have bike lights as required by New York law was legal, but argued that that the questions regarding the contents of his backpack unreasonably prolonged the stop when the officer’s lacked reasonable suspicion of a crime that was unrelated to the bike lights.
The court of appeals first noted the legal principles applicable in this issue. The court stated
An officer’s reasonable suspicion of further criminal activity must be supported by “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inference from those facts, provide detaining officers with a particularized and objective basis for suspecting legal wrongdoing.” United States v. Singletary, 798 F.3d 55, 59 (2d Cir. 2015) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). The reasonable suspicion standard is “not high” and is “less demanding than probable cause, requiring only facts sufficient to give rise to a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity may be afoot.” Id. at 59-60 (internal quotation marks omitted). In determining whether a particular detention was justified by reasonable suspicion, we look at “the totality of the circumstances through the eyes of a reasonable and cautious police officer on the scene, whose insights are necessarily guided by his experience and training.” Id. at 60. These circumstances may be “as consistent with innocence as with guilt.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).[iii]
Thus, the guiding legal principles are as follows:
- To prolong a traffic stop, the officer must have reasonable suspicion of some additional crime if the officer is going to ask questions unrelated to the original reason for the stop;
- The reasonable suspicion standard is not high in that all that is required is a reasonable belief that criminal activity may be afoot;
- Reasonable suspicion is based on the totality of the circumstances guided by the training and experience of a reasonable officer; and
- The circumstances that form the basis of reasonable suspicion may be consistent with both innocence and guilt; in other words, the circumstances could be viewed either innocently or consistent with guilt (this is why the law allows the police to investigate further).
With the principles above in mind, the court set out to examine the facts of Cuello’s case. For the sake of rendering a decision in this case, the court of appeals assumed, without deciding, that the questions the officer asked regarding the contents of the backpack did prolong the stop. The court, after examining the facts of Cuello’s case, then held that the officers did have reasonable suspicion to prolong the stop to ask questions regarding the backpack. The court based this on the totality of the circumstances that included the following facts that are discussed below.
First, Cuello’s stop took place in high-crime neighborhood known for frequent reports of gunfire and gang activity. While a person’s presence in a high crime neighborhood, standing alone, is not sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion, it is a relevant factor within the totality of the circumstances.
Second, Cuello appeared to be nervous and did not have identification on his person. The court noted that, in the United States v. Torres[iv], they previously held that a suspect’s “demeanor, obvious nervousness, and lack of identification” were among some of the factors that, within the totality of the circumstance, can support reasonable suspicion.
Third, the stop took place at 3:20 a.m. The court noted that the time of day is also a relevant factor to consider regarding reasonable suspicion.
Based upon the above, the court of appeals stated
In light of these facts, Officer Coleman’s inquiry as to what was in Cuello’s backpack and, upon holding the bag, a follow-up question regarding the bag’s weight were justified by reasonable suspicion of further criminal activity.[v]
Thus, the court held that reasonable suspicion to question Cuello regarding the contents of his backpack was present and therefore the questioning did not unreasonably prolong the stop by exceeding the scope of the stop.
The denial of the motion to suppress was affirmed.
[i] No. 19-2053 (2nd Cir. Decided April 27, 2020 Summary Order)
[ii] Id. at 2
[iii] Id. at 4 (emphasis added)
[iv] 949 F.2d 606 (2nd Cir. 1991)
[v] Id. at 5