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Court of Appeals Reverses District Court's Grant of Suppression Motion

[This case summarized by Leo Latella.]

In United States v. Torres, 534 F.3d 207 (3d Cir. 2008) , the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s grant of defendant’s suppression motion and held that police officers had sufficient reasonable articulable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop of a vehicle described by an unidentified cab driver who called 911 and stated that he saw the driver of the vehicle brandish a handgun at a gas station. The cab driver called 911 from his cell phone and reported that he had just seen the driver of a silver BMW flash a gun at a rose vendor near a gas station. The caller was following the BMW during the call and gave detailed information regarding the vehicle including its make, model, color, license plate number, its location and identified the driver as an Hispanic male. The 911 call was made at 2:59 p.m. At 3:02 p.m. the call was dispatched to officers and at 3:07 p.m. the car was stopped and Torres was found to be in possession of a fully-loaded 9 millimeter handgun. He was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). The district court granted Torres’ motion to suppress the weapon and ammunition finding that the tip from the taxi driver did not supply reasonable suspicion for the stop. The Court of Appeals reversed.

The issue before the Court was whether the officers had the right to stop Torres’ vehicle pursuant to Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), which creates an exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment when officers conduct a brief, investigatory stop based on "reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot." Id. at 210. The Court rejected the district court’s finding that "the anonymous tip did not exhibit sufficient indicia of reliability to provide reasonable suspicion." Id. at 211. The Court of Appeals found that the totality of the circumstances justified the stop based on the following: 1) the tipster was an eyewitness who had recently viewed the activity; 2) the tip was detailed and given to the 911 dispatcher in a "play-by-play" fashion as the tipster was following the car; 3) while the tipster did not give his name, he identified his cab company and color of his cab and indicated that a police car was in front of the defendant’s car while he was following it and; 4) the tip identified the make, model, color, license plate number and the defendant’s race and the details of the brandishing incident. Finding that these circumstances provided reasonable suspicion to stop the car, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s grant of the suppression motion.

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