Monday, June 26, 2006

Car Stop Upheld as Based on Reasonable Suspicion

In US v. Jervis Lavern Goodrich, No. 05-3071 (June 20, 2006) (click here) the 3rd Circuit upheld a car stop under Terry v. Ohio, finding that there was reasonable suspicion for the stop based on surrounding circumstances, even though the tip which prompted the stop was vague and imprecise.

State Police received a call at about 11:20 p.m. from a known informant in Mill Hall, Pennsylvania. The informant said that two people were carrying "buckets or something" across from a farm supply company. Police knew this supply company had experienced a number of thefts of anhydrous ammonia, which can be used for making methamphetamine. The informant said the two were "over behind R&M Gas" loading the buckets into a vehicle. The tip did not describe either the people or the vehicle. State Troopers dispachted to the scene arrived about 7 minutes later and saw only one car in the area - about one or two blocks from R&M Gas. They stopped the car, and ultimately discovered the driver was wanted for a parole violation. Police obtained a search warrant and found a 20 gallon propane tank containing anhydrous ammonia in the trunk. The district court found the stop was not a valid Terry stop, but denied suppression on the grounds of attenuation and independent source.

The Circuit affirmed but on different grounds. The Court found the stop was valid because, even though the tip was vague and imprecise, four surrounding circumstances contributed enough to constitute reasonable suspicion: First, the area was a "high crime area" because there had previously been 10-15 thefts of anhydrous ammonia from the supply company. Second, it was late at night. Third, the car was stopped within a block or two of the R&M Gas station. Fourth, there were no other occupied vehicles in the area.

The opinion is disturbing from a defense point of view because it appears to dilute the requirement of reasonable suspicion for a Terry stop. Unlike most informant tip cases, the tip here did not even provide a basis for thinking "crime was afoot." The tip only reported the innocent behavior of people loading something into a car. (And since anhydrous ammonia evaporates almost immediately and must be kept in sealed pressurized containers, the mention of "buckets" would seem to detract from reasonable suspicion.) The only basis for thinking something criminal might be happening was that there had previously been 10 to 15 thefts from a supply company across the railroad tracks, and it was near midnight. Arguably, the effect of this opinion is to abrogate any genuine requirement of "reasonable suspicion" for areas deemed by police to be "high crime areas" late at night. Hopefully, the Circuit will grant a petition to reconsider this opinion.

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