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United States v. George, No. 12-5043

Decided: October 16, 2013

The Fourth Circuit, finding that Officer Roehrig had a reasonable suspicion that Decarlos George (“George”) was armed and dangerous, held that the protective frisk did not violate George’s Fourth Amendment rights and therefore affirmed the district court’s decision denying George’s motion to suppress evidence of the handgun and the judgment of the court.

At 3:30 a.m., while patrolling one of Wilmington’s high crime areas, Officer Roehrig observed a dark-colored station wagon, containing four male occupants, closely and aggressively following another vehicle—within a car’s length—as if in chase. During which time, the two vehicles made illegal right-hand turns through a red light at approximately twenty to twenty-five miles per hour. Following the turn, Officer Roehrig pulled behind the two vehicles causing the station wagon to slow down and make a left-hand turn, breaking off the apparent chase. The station wagon subsequently made three additional left-hand turns in an apparent effort to determine whether Officer Roehrig was following the vehicle. When Officer Roehrig decided to stop the station wagon for its aggressive driving and red light violation, he called for backup, which was answered by Officer Poelling. Upon Officer Poelling’s arrival, Officer Roehrig approached the vehicle. George, who was seated behind the driver’s seat, was holding up his I.D. card with his left hand, while turning his head away from Officer Roehrig’s view. His right hand was on the seat next to his leg and was concealed from view by his thigh. Officer Roehrig instructed George to place both of his hands on the driver’s seat headrest, but George placed only his left hand on the headrest. According to Officer Roehrig’s testimony, he requested George move his hand four or five times more before he ultimately complied; still, he did not make eye contact. Officer Roehrig then proceeded to speak with the driver and ultimately, after consulting with Officer Poelling, decided to remove all four passengers from the car in order to interview them separately. Officer Roehrig then directed George to step out of the vehicle. As George was doing so, he dropped his wallet and cell phone onto the ground. As George attempted to bend over and retrieve his possessions, Officer Roehrig, fearing such action would create an increased risk that George would reach for a weapon, stopped him and performed a protective frisk, uncovering a handgun. Officer Roehrig then placed George under arrest and, upon checking his criminal history, discovered that he was a convicted felon and that the handgun was stolen. George was charged and pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).  Before pleading guilty, however, George filed a motion to suppress evidence of the handgun on the ground that it resulted from an unlawful frisk in violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The district court denied George’s motion to suppress. Consequently, he entered a conditional guilty plea, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion. This appeal followed.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit held that, based upon the “totality of the circumstances,” Officer Roehrig’s protective frisk was supported by objective and particularized facts sufficient to give rise to a reasonable suspicion that George was armed and dangerous. In so holding, the court explained seven factors contributing to its finding of reasonable suspicion. The most important factor, according to the court, was George’s movements in the vehicle when Officer Roehrig initially approached.

Full Opinion

-W. Ryan Nichols