In United States v. Whitfield, No. 09-3031 (3d Cir., filed December 6, 2010, published January 6, 2011), four Camden police officers in three marked police vehicles were patrolling an area of the city known for violence and drug activity involving crack cocaine. As the caravan approached a particularly active street corner, the officers in the lead car observed two individuals in conversation, later identified as Defendants Whitfield and Langston. Upon receipt of this notice regarding the defendants, the officer in the second car, Officer Redd, observed the defendants engage in a hand-to-hand exchange and quickly exit the area. Officer Redd notified his fellow officers that they should “check out” the two men. However, Officer Redd did not inform his colleagues that he had observed a hand-to-hand exchange between the defendants. All four of the officers stopped their vehicles and approached the defendants. Officer Redd and Sergeant Rivera, who had been driving the third police vehicle in the caravan, claimed that they observed Defendant Whitfield quickly place his hand in his pocket as if he was holding something. The officers drew their weapons and ordered Defendant Whitfield to remove his hand from his pocket, but the defendant refused and continued walking. Officer Redd maintained that Defendant Whitfield looked as if he was searching for a way to escape. As Defendant Whitfield approached Sergeant Rivera, the officer grabbed the defendant and moved him towards the police vehicle. As he was apprehended by Sergeant Rivera, Defendant Whitfield informed the officer that he possessed a firearm. Defendant Whitfield challenged the legality of his seizure by Sergeant Rivera because this officer did not witness Defendant Whitfield engage in the hand-to-hand exchange with Defendant Langston. Sergeant Rivera only observed Defendant Whitfield place his hand in his pocket.
The Third Circuit upheld the seizure, citing the “collective knowledge” doctrine. The Court ruled that, pursuant to this doctrine, “the knowledge of one law enforcement officer is imputed to the officer who actually conducted the seizure, search, or arrest.” The Court reasoned that it would be impractical to expect an officer, who is working with his fellow officers as a “unified and tight-knit team” during a “fast-paced, dynamic situation,” to communicate to the other officers every fact that could be pertinent in a subsequent reasonable suspicion analysis.