Reasonable Suspicion and the Crossbow

by | November 24, 2021

United States v. Coleman, 2021 WL 5183509 (4th Cir. 2021)

Devin Scott Coleman was “asleep or passed out” at the wheel of his Pontiac sedan in a high school faculty parking lot. The car, primarily parked in a travel lane with the front end partially positioned in a parking spot, was stopped but running, with the brake lights engaged. There was a crossbow visible in the backseat. An administrator saw Coleman and reported him to the sheriff’s office. A school resource deputy responded.

The deputy believed possession of the crossbow was illegal under state law because it could fire “a projected missile on the school campus.” As the deputy pulled up behind Coleman, Coleman started to drive off. The deputy stopped Coleman and told him the school officials had called to report their concerns.

The deputy asked Coleman about weapons in the car. Coleman said he had a gun in the center console. The deputy asked Coleman to get out of the car for his own safety and that of “all of the school students around .” When Coleman got out, the deputy saw “a fairly large bag of a green leafy substance that appeared to be marijuana” in between the door and the driver’s seat. A search of the car revealed marijuana, crystal methamphetamine, individual baggies, a scale, a revolver and the crossbow.

An officer could reasonably suspect “Coleman presented a credible threat of physical harm to students, faculty, and/or staff at the school by possessing a dangerous weapon.”

A grand jury subsequently indicted Coleman and 27 others for drug trafficking. Coleman asked the trial court to suppress the evidence taken from his car, claiming the deputy did not have reasonable suspicion to support an investigative stop because possession of a crossbow on school grounds is not illegal under Virginia law.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress and the court of appeals affirmed. The court held the deputy had reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigative stop based on the totality of the circumstances. The court assumed, without deciding, that state law didn’t prohibit possession of a crossbow on school property.

The court recognized that Coleman was trespassing on school grounds, parking illegally and unlawfully operating a vehicle under the influence. The court described Coleman’s presence at the school, asleep or passed out with a weapon in the car, as “unusual and alarming.” The fact that Coleman’s suspicious behavior was on school grounds “would immediately heighten a reasonable officer’s concern, particularly that of a school resource officer.” Adding in Coleman’s driving away when the deputy drove up, the court held that an officer could reasonably suspect “Coleman presented a credible threat of physical harm to students, faculty, and/or staff at the school by possessing a dangerous weapon.”

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 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.

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