Report of Gunshots Justifies Stop

by | March 30, 2020

United States v. Rickmon, 2020 WL 1164269 (7th Cir. 2020)

Just before 0500, the Peoria Police Department ShotSpotter system sent a mobile data terminal alert about two gunshots coming from 2203 North Ellis St. An officer began to drive toward the address. En route, dispatch broadcast that three more gunshots had been detected in the area. As several officers drove toward the address, dispatch notified officers of a report of several vehicles leaving the area and a “black male on foot who ran northbound on McClure.” The 9-1-1 caller also reported hearing gunfire near North Ellis Street.

As the first officer arrived and drove south on North Ellis Street, he saw only one car driving on the street, headed north. The officer stopped the car. The car’s occupants pointed down the street, yelling: “They are down there!” The officer saw a crowd at the street’s dead end, approximately 300 feet from him. The officer kept the vehicle’s two occupants at gunpoint with raised hands until another officer arrived.

The officer’s ability to observe, articulate and report each separate factor and tie them together with his experience is what made the difference in this case.

Rickmon, the passenger, told the officers he had been shot. The driver, who owned the car, gave consent for a search of his car. The officers found a handgun under the passenger seat where Rickmon had been sitting. Rickmon was eventually charged with being a felon in possession of a gun. Rickmon asked the court to suppress the evidence gleaned from the stop, arguing the ShotSpotter system was inaccurate and unreliable, and that the police department did not maintain records of “false positive” alerts.

The court declined to suppress the gun. Though there are differing views on the accuracy of gunshot detection systems, the court did not need to decide whether the ShotSpotter system was reliable. Instead, the court characterized the technology as analogous to an anonymous informant, not presumed to be as reliable as an eyewitness or a known informant. Notwithstanding, the ShotSpotter information could be considered in the calculus of reasonable suspicion to stop the car.

Before the officer stopped the car, he knew about the two ShotSpotter alerts and a caller reporting the sounds of gunfire and vehicles driving away from the location of the shots fired, and that the car was driving away from the scene from a dead end street at 0445. Even though the caller did not provide any vehicle description for the cars leaving the scene, the officer saw only the car containing Rickmon driving away. The officer also testified he had responded to previous shots-fired calls in the same area.

The court determined the totality of the circumstances provided reasonable suspicion for the traffic stop. Like many cases, this is one where each factor may have some innocent explanation. The officer’s ability to observe, articulate and report each separate factor and tie them together with his experience is what made the difference in this case.

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. Subscribe here!

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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