United States v. Powell, No. 08-4696

Decided: Nov. 14, 2011

Obie Lee Powell was Terry frisked by an officer during a routine traffic stop of a vehicle in which he was a passenger. During the patdown, officers found crack cocaine and a firearm on his person. He was charged with possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Powell moved to suppress the evidence of the search as the product of an illegal search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied the motion and Powell was convicted of simple possession of crack cocaine by a jury.

On the night of the incident, Powell was riding in the back seat of the pulled-over car. The officers were running the license and registration of the driver and discovered the driver’s license was suspended. Officers asked the other passengers, including Powell, if they had licenses—ostensibly so that someone else could drive the car once the traffic stop was over. When officers ran Powell’s license they saw that it was also suspended and that Powell had “priors” for armed robbery. The system did not inform officers whether the “priors” were recent or fifteen years old; nor did the system state whether the “priors” were convictions or mere arrests that ended in exoneration. Nonetheless, Powell was removed from the car and patted down. At this point, he became very nervous and attempted to flee but was captured.

The Fourth Circuit vacated the conviction. It found that the “caution data” informing the officers of Powell’s “priors” was relevant, but not dispositive, to establishing the reasonable suspicion necessary to Terry frisk a person. Based on the information given to the officers, they could conceivably stop and search any person who had ever been charged (much less convicted) of a crime at any point in the past without any further justification. Moreover, Powell’s supposed misrepresentation to officers that his license was valid when it was in fact suspended gave no weight to officers’ assertion that Powell may have been armed and dangerous. Indeed, the stop had been amicable and uneventful at all times before the patdown began. The officers, then, had no reasonable suspicion that Powell was armed and dangerous or presented any threat to their safety.

Full Opinion

-C. Alexander Cable

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