Clothing Description Close Enough — Frisk Upheld

United States v. Slater, 2020 WL 6494712 (8th Cir. 2020)

An armed robbery victim called police and gave his name, telephone number and location. He described the two assailants as Black males wearing brown hoodies and dark pants, one of whom was armed with a handgun. He told the dispatcher the assailants stole two cell phones and a wallet before they fled on foot in an unknown direction.

Two officers in an unmarked car were in the area and began to watch for the suspects. One of the officers saw two Black males walking on the sidewalk. The officer noticed one of the males was wearing a “tan” or “brown hoodie” and the other was wearing dark clothing. He ordered the two men to stop.

The officer explained he was investigating a robbery and frisked the man wearing the brown hoodie. He did not find a weapon or anything incriminating. The officer then frisked the other man, Antonio Slater, and found a gun in his right pocket. Slater placed his hand on the officer’s hand and struggled with the officer, who was eventually able to handcuff him.

The reasonableness of the detention and the lawfulness of the frisk are two separate legal issues.

The officer discovered Slater was a convicted felon and arrested him. The officers later confirmed Slater and his companion were not involved in the robbery. Slater asked the court to suppress evidence of the gun discovered during the frisk, arguing the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to stop and frisk him.

An officer may stop and detain a person whenever the officer has reasonable suspicion to believe the person has committed a crime, is committing a crime or is about to commit a crime (Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119 (2000): “The determination of reasonable suspicion must be based on commonsense judgments and inferences about human behavior.” In Terry v. Ohio (392 U.S. 1 (1968)), the Supreme Court approved the stop-and-frisk practice. An officer may conduct a pat-down frisk of a person when the officer reasonably believes the person to be armed and presently dangerous to the officer or others. There is only one lawful purpose of a Terry frisk: To remove weapons that threaten the officer or others (Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983)). The reasonableness of the detention and the lawfulness of the frisk are two separate legal issues. An officer may see a person acting suspiciously, have reasonable suspicion to detain the person, and still not be able to lawfully frisk the person.

Slater claimed the stop and frisk were based only on his proximity to the reported robbery. The court disagreed. Clothing worn by Slater and his companion resembled the clothing description provided by the robbery victim, even though the clothing was not a precise match: “Investigating officers must be allowed to account for the possibility that some descriptive factors supplied by victims or witnesses may be incorrect.” The two men were walking away from the location of the robbery shortly after it happened. The court held these facts supported the stop and investigative detention.

The court also held there was reasonable suspicion to frisk Slater. The officers heard the dispatch broadcast that one of the robbery suspects had a gun. Coupled with the factors listed above, this information justified the frisk. Once the officer did not find a gun on Slater’s companion, he was justified in frisking Slater to find the gun. Considering the totality of the circumstances, as the court is required to do, both the detention and the frisk were reasonable. Thus, the gun was lawfully discovered and admissible as evidence.

This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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