Although the investigative stop took place in a high crime area, that factor alone is not sufficient to justify an investigative stop … To hold otherwise would result in the wholesale loss of the personal liberty of those with the misfortune of living in high crime areas.
State v. Carter
69 Ohio St.3d 57 (1994)
Supreme Court of Ohio
On Wednesday February 19, 1992, at 10:15 a.m., Major Ronald Lowe testified he was in an unmarked cruiser travelling southbound on Philadelphia Drive approaching West Riverview when he noticed a 1987 white Ford Bronco truck which registered to Mr. Ray McDonald.
Major Lowe said he vaguely remembered that he had heard a police broadcast about one or two weeks previously concerning a Bronco being involved in a drive-by shooting on the west side of Dayton. He said he remembered that the shooting allegedly took place twenty to twenty-five blocks from his present location. He said he called the police dispatcher to obtain more details while he followed the Bronco to obtain its license number; Ohio HB 2283. He said he also asked the dispatcher if there were other police crews in the area because he wanted to stop the Bronco, but the dispatcher did not reply. He said shortly thereafter he lost sight of the Bronco. A short time later Major Lowe said he spotted the Bronco parked behind a garage in an alley behind 2010 Grand Avenue.
Major Lowe said he did not initially see anyone in the Bronco and he took up a surveillance position and told the dispatcher of his approximate location. Major Lowe said he then observed Mr. Larry Carter seated in the driver’s seat and he noticed Mr. Chris Ross standing by the corner of a garage carrying some type of bundle in his arms. Major Lowe said Mr. Ross switched the bundle from his left arm to his right arm. Major Lowe said the bundle seemed heavy and was wrapped in something gray. Major Lowe said he watched Mr. Ross get in the passenger seat of the Bronco and Mr. Carter then drove the Bronco down the alley and onto Everett Drive. Major Lowe then advised the dispatcher that he had relocated the Bronco and needed backup assistance. He said he followed the Bronco and when he observed a uniformed cruiser, he ordered that crew to make a felony stop on the car at the intersection of West Riverview Avenue and Philadelphia Drive.
Major Lowe testified in the Motion to Suppress specific as to why he requested a felony stop on the Bronco:
“At that particular time, I didn’t feel as a major and as a police officer that I needed to see him violate any statute in that he was in a high drug area.”
Major Lowe said a felony stop occurs when a vehicle is stopped, and the subjects are ordered out of the vehicle at gunpoint. Major Lowe said he ordered the felony stop of the Bronco because he did not know what was in the bundle that the passenger carried into the Bronco and he could not tell if it was a weapon. Major Lowe said that Officer Christine Bean and Officer Raymond Martin ordered Mr. Carter and Mr. Ross out of the Bronco at gunpoint. Major Lowe said he approached the Bronco and looked in the open passenger door for possible weapons. He said he noticed a bundle lying on the front floorboard and it appeared to be the bundle he saw Mr. Ross carrying into the Bronco. Major Lowe said he unwrapped the gray bundle and found a small package wrapped in brown opaque paper. Major Lowe said he thought the package might contain narcotics and so he secured the van and called for the evidence and narcotics units. Mr. Carter and Mr. Ross were then placed in separate police cruisers. Major Lowe said the package was field tested and determined to be two pounds of cocaine and he then ordered the police to secure the residence at 2010 West Grand Avenue until a search warrant could be obtained. The gray material Mr. Ross was carrying was determined to be gray pants or jeans. The municipal judge issued a search warrant for 2010 West Grand Avenue based on the preceding statement as well as additional information. Police officers recovered thirty pounds of cocaine and $146,550 as well as numerous guns in the search.
Mr. Carter filed a Motion to Suppress which the trial court granted. The Second District Appellate Court affirmed the trial court and the City of Dayton appealed again to the Supreme Court of Ohio which held “Although the investigative stop took place in a high crime area, that factor alone is not sufficient to justify an investigative stop … To hold otherwise would result in the wholesale loss of the personal liberty of those with the misfortune of living in high crime areas.”.
- The element of a high crime area can be used as part of establishing reasonable suspicion or probable cause. However, the element of high crime area cannot be the only reason suspects are stopped for investigative detention. Here, the major testified that he believed that Mr. Ross carrying a heavy package from the house to the Bronco was enough to establish reasonable suspicion because these actions occurred in a high crime area. Of course, simply being in a high crime area will never be enough to establish reasonable suspicion. If that were the case law enforcement would be able to conduct an investigative detention on anyone who would be in a high crime area at any time. Taking this application to the extreme, this would include case workers, mail carriers, road construction workers, firefighters and even law enforcement officers.
- What should not be lost in the holding or the error that Major Lowe made by using the high crime area singularly, is that he had a gut feeling and that gut feeling was EXACTLY correct. As previously analyzed, gut feelings may have scientific support, but do not have legal support. See Officer Williams’ Gut Feeling was Scientifically Accurate But Was It Legally Justified?, specifically Lessons Learned #2. Law enforcement will always need more than a gut feeling to conduct an investigative detention.
- What also should not be lost is that over thirty pounds of cocaine was suppressed in this case simply because too little effort was spent establishing reasonable suspicion to stop the Ford Bronco. There is no short cut to constitutional policing and each officer should assure that enough information or evidence is established before an investigative detention is conducted. Little things matter and sometimes they thirty pounds matter.
Does your agency train on Investigative Traffic Stops?
Don’t fail your training.
Don’t let your training fail you!
Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!
Robert H. Meader Esq.