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United States v. Black, No. 11-5084

Decided: February 25, 2013

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and vacated the district court’s denial of a motion to suppress a firearm obtained during an improper Terry stop.  The Fourth Circuit ruled that the defendant was seized without particularized reasonable suspicion.

In June of 2010, two Charlotte-Mecklenburg officers were patrolling the Eastway Division of Charlotte.  They observed a man, later identified as Dior Troupe, sitting alone in a vehicle at a gas pump.  Troupe did not pump gas or leave the car, which the officers felt was indicative of a drug transaction.  Later, Troupe drove to a parking lot between two apartment complexes the officers knew were high crime areas.  Troupe walked up to a group of five men sitting in the parking lot.  Neither officer observed any illegal activity, but decided to call for backup and voluntarily contact the men.  After a total of six officers arrived, they approached the men.  Troupe indicated that he was carrying a firearm openly, which is generally legal in North Carolina.  The officers secured the firearm and ran Troupe’s identification.  While the officers approached the other men, Defendant Nathaniel Black offered his ID and stated he did not live in the apartment complexes and was just visiting friends.  The officers found Black to be “overly cooperative,” which they found unusual.  The officers questioned the other men, who were not cooperative.  The officers were looking for other firearms, due to a “one-plus” departmental rule.  This rule was a presumption that when there is one firearm, there will be more.  While questioning the other men, Black began to leave.  The officers told him he could not leave and tried to block his path, eventually grabbing his bicep and feeling an incredibly fast pulse rate.  Black began to run, and one officer tackled him.  The officers found a firearm and eventually learned that Black was a convicted felon. Black was charged under § 922(g)(1). Black moved to suppress the firearm, arguing that he was seized when told he could not leave, and the seizure was not supported by reasonable articulable suspicion.  The government argued that Black was not seized until the officers grabbed his bicep and certain indicia of suspiciousness supported the stop.  When his motion was denied, Black plead guilty and was sentenced to 180 months.

The Fourth Circuit first looked to when Black was seized for Fourth Amendment purposes.  In view of all the circumstances, Black was seized before he was told he could not leave.  This is due to factors such as the collective show of authority by the police, the fact that Troupe could not leave, officers were frisking other men indicating they would frisk others, and the officers had pinned Black’s ID to his uniform.  These factors lead to a decision that a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave.  Furthermore, all of Blacks interactions with the police before his bicep was grabbed were not consensual.  The Court then looked to Terry to see if the seizure was reasonable, which requires a reasonably and articulable suspicion particularized for the person in question. The Court held that the officers relied on indicia of suspiciousness that were not particular to Black being involved in criminal activity.  The officers tried to use reasonable suspicion as to the other men to Black.  The Court felt that some of the factors that led to reasonable suspicion Troupe was engaged in criminal activity was suspect as well.  Finally, Black’s cooperation and the “one plus” rule were not sufficient to establish a particular suspicion of Black engaging in criminal activity.  For these reasons, the Court vacated the ruling of the district court and remanded the case.

Full Opinion

-Jonathan M. Riddle