Federal judge rules looking for a safe place to pull over at midnight does not justify police pulling a passenger out of a vehicle.
Motorists are frequently told they are allowed to find a safe, well-lit location to pull over when an officer behind activates his lights. Following this advice can often lead to trouble, as even a delay in pulling over of thirty seconds or less can enrage officers. Kenneth Burch and Rainey Hope Crosby found out as they were ripped out of their car at midnight by Fayetteville Police officers because they took a few extra seconds to stop after committing the crime of having a burned out license plate light.
On February 4, 2011, Burch was driving his gold Dodge Stratus on Langdon Street near Fayetteville State University when Officer Phil Burlingame flipped on his lights. Burch drove slowly for about a quarter-mile, turning right onto Edgecombe Avenue before coming to a stop. Officer Carl Michael arrived in a second patrol car. Both patrolmen noted Crosby and Burch did not seem to want to talk to the officers. Burch explained he did not pull over right away because he was looking for a safe spot to stop.
"Officer Burlingame and I approached the vehicle where both occupants were acting suspicious by staring straight ahead, avoiding eye contact, and not answering any questions," Officer Michael wrote in his arrest report. "I pulled the passenger out to be frisked."
Officer Michael ripped Crosby out of the Dodge and began frisking him. Crosby ran, but he eventually was caught with a .380 caliber Bersa Thunder pistol. He was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. Crosby's public defender made a bare-bones motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the illegal search of the driver and passenger.
"His only reasons for choosing to order the car's occupants out for a pat-down were that the driver took too long to stop the car, that the occupants appeared nervous, and that they may not have answered questions," wrote public defender Devon L. Donahue. "Relying on these innocuous behaviors, Officer Burlingame had no reasonable, articulable suspicion that Mr. Crosby had been involved in any criminal activity before he fled and was seized."
The argument convinced US District Judge James C. Fox, who considered the initial traffic stop legitimate but not what followed. When Officer Michael physically seized Crosby and pulled him from the vehicle, he needed probable cause to do so.
"The court finds that the government has neither attempted to argue nor has it shown from the evidence presented to the court during the November 12, 2013 suppression hearing that Officer Michael had probable cause to believe that Crosby was involved in criminal activity that warranted him being pulled from the vehicle," Judge Fox ruled. "Therefore, the court finds that Crosby's seizure was not reasonable under the Fourth Amendment."
The judge then ruled the evidence of the gun should be suppressed as the result of an unlawful seizure. A copy of the order can be found in a PDF file at the source link below.
Source: US v. Crosby (US District Court, Eastern District North Carolina, 12/10/2013)