Did Pointing Guns Amount to a De Facto Arrest?

by | February 25, 2022

United States v. Patterson, 2022 WL 333248 (2nd Cir. 2022)

A woman called police; provided her name, address and telephone number; and asked for officers to go to her home. She reported two Black men in a black Camaro had threatened her with a gun at a nearby store parking lot and had gone to her home in search of her son. The dispatcher broadcast that “a menacing occurred in the ShopRite parking lot” and described the suspects as “two Black males” in “a black Camaro” who had “displayed a handgun.” A moment later, the description of the suspect vehicle was updated as a “black or possibly dark gray Challenger or a Camaro.”

An officer broadcast that he was “behind a black Camaro going westbound,” which he first spotted leaving the ShopRite parking lot. He later testified that he rarely saw Camaros or Challengers on local roads during the winter and had seen no other such cars that night. Roads were slick, snow was on the ground and traffic was generally lighter than normal. Another officer drove to the area to assist.

The two officers saw the Camaro’s turn signal and brake lights illuminate near a gas station. The first officer turned on his emergency lights to stop the Camaro. The driver, Justin Patterson, stopped at a gas pump at approximately 9:02 p.m. A third officer arrived.

The three officers exited their patrol cars with guns drawn, one with an AR-15 rifle, and pointed at the Camaro. The first officer used the patrol car loudspeaker to give commands to roll down the car windows, show hands and place the car keys on the roof. None of the occupants complied. Instead, Patterson appeared to reach around the car’s interior, including behind the front seats and under the steering wheel, as if reaching for or hiding something, possibly a firearm.

After a couple of minutes, two occupants got out of the Camaro. They obeyed commands and were quickly handcuffed. Patterson also got out and walked back to the officers as commanded. However, when one officer holstered his weapon and tried to handcuff Patterson, he broke free and ran away. An officer fired a TASER device, but Patterson escaped. He was captured in nearby woods about 15 minutes later. An officer looked in the Camaro and found a fully loaded, black Makarov pistol in the glove compartment.

Patterson was charged as a felon in possession of a firearm. He asked the trial court to suppress the gun, arguing he was subjected to a de facto arrest that lacked probable cause to believe he or the occupants of the Camaro had been or were engaged in criminal activity. The trial judge agreed and the prosecution appealed the suppression order.

The officers’ detailed reporting of each factor leading to the detention built a solid foundation upon which the court found probable cause to detain Patterson and his companions

The court of appeals reversed, finding the officers’ actions of pointing guns and shouting commands while blocking the Camaro did not amount to an arrest. Rather, they were effecting an investigatory detention supported by the requisite reasonable suspicion.

The court acknowledged that Patterson and his passengers were seized by the officers but held the degree of force used was reasonable in investigating a crime involving the threatening use of a firearm. Reasonable suspicion requires “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant” a detention (Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968)). Reasonable suspicion is measured by the “totality of the circumstances” and from the collective knowledge of the officers involved in the stop (United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1 (1989)). Both the quantity and quality of the information are important to assessing reasonable suspicion. The Supreme Court has emphasized that the reasonable suspicion standard is “not high” (Richards v. Wisconsin, 520 U.S. 385 (1997)).

In reversing the trial court’s decision, the court of appeals stated, “We do not think the question is close.” In fact, the court held that the circumstances established not just reasonable suspicion, but also probable cause:

  • A person had been menaced with a gun
  • The menacing had occurred in the parking lot of the ShopRite grocery store on Route 6
  • The assailants were two Black men
  • These men were driving a black or dark gray Camaro (or Challenger)
  • The men were possibly en route to 3469 Lexington Avenue
  • The men were believed to be looking for a known individual at that location
  • Chevrolet Camaros and Dodge Challengers are similar-looking vehicles
  • These models of car were rarely seen on area roads
  • Within minutes of the dispatch reports, officers had spoken with the victim at her home
  • The officers could see no Camaro or Challenger at 3469 Lexington Avenue
  • Approximately 10 minutes after the initial radio dispatch, an officer reported seeing a black Camaro exiting the ShopRite parking lot that had been the scene of the reported menacing
  • It was not then possible for officers to see into the Camaro to identify the number, sex or race of the passengers

As the appellate court noted, this does not seem to be a hard case. The officers’ detailed reporting of each factor leading to the detention built a solid foundation upon which the court found probable cause (beyond reasonable suspicion) to detain Patterson and his companions.

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 three 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.

More Posts
Share this post:

The Briefing – Your source for the latest blog articles, leadership resources and more