We conclude Officer Brown demonstrated reasonable and articulable suspicion to initiate the attempt to traffic-stop Mr. Cooper’s vehicle.

State v. Cooper

2023 – Ohio – 2897

Fifth District Appellate Court

Stark County, Ohio

August 18, 2023

The following evidence is adduced from the record of the suppression hearing on March 14, 2022, at which Officer Michael Brown of the Canton Police Department was the sole witness.

Boom-Boom Room

Officer Brown testified that on October 31, 2021, he was the passenger in a Jackson Township Police cruiser driven by Jackson Township Police Officer Moreno. That evening, Officer Brown and Officer Moreno were participating in a joint Violence Interdiction Patrol, which Officer Brown described as “directed patrol overtime” in which officers increased police presence in noted trouble areas, specifically, bars in the city of Canton and Jackson Township. Officer Brown and the Jackson officer were in the vicinity of the Boom- Boom Room, which is not a bar but had a crowd that evening because of a concert or social event.

Officer Brown and Officer Moreno were participating in a joint Violence Interdiction Patrol, which Officer Brown described as “directed patrol overtime” at 1533 Cleveland Avenue SW in Canton, Ohio.  An attempted stop, brief pursuit and crash led to multiple narcotic related charges.  Was the stop objectively reasonable?

Does LEADS have Scarlet Lettering?

Officer Moreno drove while Officer Brown ran plates on the in-car computer. Officer Moreno asked him to run a plate reading “KINGME3.” Officer Brown testified the requested registration “popped up red in the system,” i.e. the screen was red, without further explanation. Officer Brown testified that in a Canton police cruiser, if he runs a registration and the information comes back red, it means there is some problem with the registration such as a stolen vehicle, a warrant for the registered owner, or an expired tag. The Canton cruiser computer would provide further information including an explanation why the registration was red, such as “stolen vehicle” or “expired registration.” In the instant case, there was no such explanation, and Officer Brown was not able to clarify what the red indication meant in a Jackson Township cruiser.

Initial Flight of the Blue Mazda with the Red Lettering

Officer Brown told Officer Moreno to “flip around” and follow the “KINGME3” vehicle, a blue Mazda. The cruiser made a U-turn behind the vehicle and Officer Brown again ran the plate. As he did so, Officer Moreno illuminated lights and sirens to effectuate a traffic stop, but the Mazda sped away.

Blue Mazda is Stopped by Steel Cables

The cruiser pursued the Mazda through the crowded parking lot of the Boom-Boom Room to an alley; the Mazda ran a stoplight at an access road to Cleveland Avenue and proceeded toward the 1800 block. The vehicle stopped abruptly when the driver struck steel cables connected to a telephone pole at the side of the road.

Felony Stop

Mr. Larenta Cooper was the sole occupant of the vehicle; after the crash, he got out of the car and police “felony stopped” him, meaning their weapons were drawn and they gave Mr. Cooper verbal commands to come back to the scene. Mr. Cooper failed to obey the verbal commands and proceeded toward the front of the wrecked car.

Hey Brother, What is Going On?

A maroon vehicle pulled up beside the Mazda briefly and spoke with Mr. Cooper. An officer later contacted the occupants of the maroon vehicle and Officer Brown testified the driver was possibly Mr. Cooper’s sister.

A Mazda Full of Narcotics and a Not-So-Hidden-Compartment

Mr. Cooper was apprehended and placed in a cruiser. A large amount of currency and a digital scale were found upon his person. A subsequent search of the interior of the vehicle found a quantity of marijuana, and a police sergeant found four bags of narcotics in the broken casing of the front driver’s-side headlight of the vehicle, the smashed headlight Mr. Cooper had walked toward before he was apprehended.

Four Cell Phones and a Very Unlucky Steel Cable Placement

The evidence adduced from the record of Mr. Cooper’s jury trial was identical in many respects to the evidence at the suppression hearing. Mr. Cooper presented the evidence of Officer Brown’s body cam video and presented more evidence arising from Mr. Cooper’s stop and arrest. Sgt. Slone heard over the radio that Officer Brown was in pursuit of a vehicle and came to the scene. He searched Mr. Cooper’s vehicle and found an open container, marijuana, and four cell phones. He walked around the exterior of the crashed vehicle to inspect the damage and noticed the headlight housing was torn apart when it struck the steel cable. Slone immediately observed four bags of narcotics in the wrecked headlight and advised Officer Brown. The narcotics appeared to have been thrown into the housing of the headlight.

Mr. Cooper was not the vehicle’s registered owner. The owner did appear on the crash scene, but Officer Brown was not aware how she was notified of the crash.

A Seven Count Indictment

Mr. Cooper was charged by indictment as follows: one count of Trafficking in Heroin pursuant to O.R.C. §2925.03(A)(1) and/or (A)(2)(C)(6)(e) [Count I], a felony of the second degree;

One count of Possession of Heroin pursuant to O.R.C. §2925.11(A)(C)(6)(d) [Count II], a felony of the second degree; one count of trafficking in a fentanyl-related compound [Count III], a felony of the second degree;

One count of possession of a fentanyl-related compound pursuant to O.R.C. §2925.11(A)(C)(11)(d) [Count IV], a felony of the second degree;

One count of Aggravated Trafficking in drugs pursuant to O.R.C. §2925.03(A)(2)(C)(1)(c) [Count V], a felony of the third degree;

One count of Aggravated Possession of Drugs pursuant to O.R.C. §2925.11(A)(C)(1)(b) [Count VI], a felony of the third degree;

One count of Trafficking in Cocaine pursuant to O.R.C. §2925.03(A)(2)(C)(4)(a) [Count VII], a felony of the fifth degree;

One count of Possession of Cocaine pursuant to O.R.C. §2925.11(A)(C)(4)(a) [Count VIII], a felony of the fifth degree; and

One count of Failure to Comply with an Order or Signal of a Police Officer pursuant to O.R.C. §2921.331(B)(C)(5)(a)(i) and/or (ii) [Count IX], a felony of the third degree.

Mr. Cooper entered pleas of not guilty.

Motion to Suppress

On February 17, 2022, Mr. Cooper filed a motion to suppress evidence flowing from the traffic stop, which he argued was not premised upon reasonable suspicion. Appellee responded with a memorandum in opposition. The trial court held an evidentiary hearing on March 14, 2022, and overruled the motion to suppress by judgment entry dated March 31, 2022.

Trial – Both Guilty and Not Guilty

The matter proceeded to trial by jury. Mr. Cooper was found not guilty of the trafficking offenses [Counts I, III, V, and VII] and guilty of the remaining counts [Counts II, IV, VI, VII, VIII, and IX].

Eleven to Fourteen Years in Prison

Mr. Cooper appeared before the trial court for sentencing on May 16, 2022. The trial court imposed a total aggregate indefinite prison term of eleven to fourteen years.

Mr. Cooper filed four appeals.

In his first assignment of error, Mr. Cooper argues the stop of his vehicle was

not predicated upon reasonable, articulable suspicion, therefore the trial court should have granted his motion to suppress. We disagree.

Lack of Reasonable Suspicion?

Mr. Cooper argues the officer lacked reasonable and articulable suspicion for the traffic stop. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits warrantless searches and seizures, rendering them per se unreasonable unless an exception applies. Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357, (1967).

Established Case Law – Investigative Detention

An investigative stop, or Terry stop, is a common exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, (1968). Because the “balance between the public interest and the individual’s right to personal security” tilts in favor of a standard less than probable cause in such cases, the Fourth Amendment is satisfied if the officer’s action is supported by reasonable suspicion to believe that criminal activity “may be afoot.” United States v. Brignoni–Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, 878, (1975); In Terry, the Supreme Court held that a police officer may stop an individual if the officer has a reasonable suspicion based upon specific and articulable facts that criminal behavior has occurred or is imminent.

The propriety of an investigative stop must be viewed in light of the totality of the circumstances surrounding the stop “as viewed through the eyes of the reasonable and prudent police officer on the scene who must react to events as they unfold.” State v. Andrews, 57 Ohio St.3d 86, 87–88, (1991); State v. Bobo, 37 Ohio St.3d 177, 178, (1988). The Supreme Court of the United States has re- emphasized the importance of reviewing the totality of the circumstances in making a reasonable-suspicion determination:

Investigative Detention is Based on the Totality of the Circumstances

When discussing how reviewing courts should make reasonable-suspicion determinations, we have said repeatedly that they must look at the “totality of the circumstances” of each case to see whether the detaining officer has a “particularized and objective basis” for suspecting legal wrongdoing. This process allows officers to draw on their own experience and specialized training to make inferences from and deductions about the cumulative information available to them that “might well elude an untrained person.” Although an officer’s reliance on a mere “hunch” is insufficient to justify a stop, the likelihood of criminal activity need not rise to the level required for probable cause, and it falls considerably short of satisfying a preponderance of the evidence standard. United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273, (2002), citing United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417–418, (1981).

Does LEADS Scarlet Lettering Establish Reasonable Suspicion?

The issue presented by the instant case is whether police had reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity at the time they seized Mr. Cooper, i.e. attempted to pull him over. Mr. Cooper argues running the license plate “KINGME3” and observing the nebulous “red screen” is not a sufficient basis for reasonable, articulable suspicion. Under the facts of the instant case, we disagree.

When Officer Brown Sees Red He Initiates a Traffic Stop

Mr. Cooper argues only that appellee did not present “enough” basis for reasonable, articulable suspicion. Upon our review of the record, we note Officer Brown testified Officer Moreno asked him to run the plate reading “KINGME3” belonging to a blue Mazda with tinted windows driving the opposite direction. The Jackson cruiser’s computer-aided dispatch system (CAD) was similar to Canton’s, but not identical to the system Officer Brown was familiar with. Officer Brown entered the license plate and “the registration popped up red…within the CAD system.” Canton’s system will also indicate red alerts on registrations, but with more detail than Jackson’s. In Officer Brown’s experience, a red registration alert means an outstanding warrant, expired tags, or a stolen vehicle. Officer Brown instructed Moreno to get behind the Mazda to initiate a traffic stop; Officer Moreno made a U-turn as Officer Brown ran the registration again, and observed another red alert. Officer Moreno initiated lights and siren and Mr. Cooper drove away. Officer Brown testified he always initiates a traffic stop if the registration indicates a red alert.

An Undefined Red Alert

There is no question that the non-intrusive license plate check is permissible. See, State v. Lambert, 1994 WL 116613, appeal not allowed, 70 Ohio St.3d 1413.  The issue is whether the undefined “red alert” gave Officer Brown and Moreno reasonable, articulable suspicion to traffic- stop Mr. Cooper. The Ohio Supreme Court has emphasized that probable cause is not required to make a traffic stop; rather the standard is reasonable and articulable suspicion. State v. Mays, 2008-Ohio-4539.

Red Means Wanted

Mr. Cooper argues the quantity and quality of the information at Officer Brown’s disposal was weak. However, we are bound to accept the trial court’s findings of fact if they are supported by competent, credible evidence. State v. Medcalf, 111 Ohio App.3d 142, 145 (4th Dist.1996). In the instant case, the trial court found the traffic stop resulted from the plate appearing “red” in the system—“wanted.” The trial court found Officer Brown’s training and experience led him to believe this was a wanted vehicle.

Fifth District Determined the Traffic Stop was Justified

As noted supra, the trial court’s findings are supported by competent, credible evidence upon our own review of the record. Upon review of the totality of the circumstances, Officer Brown had a “particularized and objective basis” for suspecting legal wrongdoing, drawn from his own experience and specialized training. Mr. Cooper also argues the trial court incorrectly decided the instant case on the basis of State v. Chatton, 11 Ohio St.3d 59, (1984), but we agree with appellee that the trial court’s point in citing Chatton was in support of the premise that even if Officer Brown erred in suspecting Mr. Cooper committed some violation, he was justified in stopping Mr. Cooper to investigate further.

The Scarlet Letters Demonstrated Reasonable and Articulable Suspicion

We conclude Officer Brown demonstrated reasonable and articulable suspicion to initiate the attempt to traffic-stop Mr. Cooper’s vehicle. The trial court did not err in overruling Mr. Cooper’s motion to suppress and the first assignment of error is overruled.

Three Additional Feeble Appeals

Three other appeals were filed for a technicality with the verdict form, sentencing Mr. Cooper to consecutive rather than concurrent prison terms and an indefinite sentence under the Reagan Tokes Act.  All of these appeals were rejected by the Fifth District Appellate Court but are not evaluated in this article.

Information for this article was obtained from State v. Cooper, 2023 – Ohio – 2897.

State v. Cooper, 2023 – Ohio – 2897 was issued by the Fifth District Appellate Court on August 18, 2023 and is binding in the following Ohio Counties: Ashland, Coshocton, Delaware, Fairfield, Guernsey, Holmes, Knox, Licking, Morgan, Morrow, Muskingum, Perry, Richland, Stark and Tuscarawas.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Red Alert and Reasonable Suspicion – Reasonable Suspicion must always be individualized and particularized before law enforcement may detain a person. In this case, the issue was whether a ‘red alert’ on a LEADS notification in and of itself, provides Reasonable Suspicion to stop a vehicle and its occupants.  In this case, both the trial court and Fifth District Appellate Court determined that LEADS scarlet lettering is enough to stop a vehicle.  LEADS will identify information in red when the person or vehicle is wanted or stolen.  That is the premise for the officer’s and courts decisions. For more articles on establishing Reasonable Suspicion see: https://www.objectivelyreasonable.com/category/reasonable-suspicion/
  2. Directed Patrol – The leadership within the Canton and Jackson Township Police Departments who initiated and authorized the directed patrol to reduce criminal activity should be recognized. I have had the opportunity to both work and authorize directed patrols.  With the proper focus, leadership and selection of officers directed patrols can be highly effective and efficient.  The citizens of Canton and Jackson Township paid overtime for these officers to work this assignment and it resulted in the identification, arrest and prosecution of a drug dealer.
  3. Hidden Compartment – Some of the narcotics were secreted in a hidden compartment within the headlight. How interesting that when Mr. Cooper’s flight was ended by the steel cables, so too was the hidden compartment as that was the exact location of the impact!  The unidentified sergeant who discovered the narcotics is demonstrative of his professionalism to identify the hidden compartment. For more articles on hidden compartments see: https://www.objectivelyreasonable.com/category/hidden-compartments/
  4. Pre-Sent Arms! Canton Police Officer Michael Brown, Jackson Township Police Officer Moreno, the unidentified police sergeant and the Stark County Prosecution team should all be highly commended for their teamwork on Mr. Cooper’s arrest and conviction. Well done!

Does your agency train on Reasonable Suspicion and Hidden Compartments?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and Objectively Reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.