Criminal Law Blog

Lookout for Two Black Males in a White Car Did Not Provide Reasonable Suspicion

Armstrong & Joiner v. United States (decided July 20, 2017)

Players: Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby, Senior Judges Washington and Belson. Opinion by Judge Washington.  Lee T. Friedman & Matthew M. Madden for Mr. Armstrong.  PDS for Mr. Joiner. Trial Judge: William M. Jackson

Facts: Two robberies occurred within ten minutes of each other in the same area. Officers broadcasted a lookout for two black males in a white car, possibly a Mercury Sable, with tinted windows. The first and second robberies’ lookouts gave different descriptions of the suspects clothing.

Less than five minutes after the second robbery, appellants were stopped in a white Chevrolet Lumina, eight blocks from the first robbery and fifteen blocks from the second. Three black men were in the vehicle, none wearing clothing that matched either of the lookouts. The officers still searched the car and found items from the second robbery.

Appellants were convicted after a motion to suppress the evidence seized in the Terry stop and warrantless search of the vehicle was denied.

Issue: Did the officers have sufficient specificity to provide the particularized reasonable suspicion necessary to stop the vehicle?

Answer: No. The description of only two black men in a white car with tinted windows lacks the specificity necessary to warrant a stop.

The DCCA has previously held that a lookout description limited to a person’s race and generic clothing color does not provide particularized suspicion, and that this extends to a generic description of a car. The court held that the description of a “white Mercury Sable” does not provide police with sufficient particularized suspicion to stop any white American sedan, and concluding otherwise would give officers “unfettered discretion to pull over an infinite number of white vehicles.”

But the court held a generalized lookout description applicable to many people is not dispositive; the court looks to the totality of the circumstances when considering if a Terry stop was justified. A close spatial and temporal proximity between the reported crime and seizure can justify a Terry stop with an imperfect description. The number of people in the area, the time of day, and direction of flight may also be considered.

Even when looking at the totality of the circumstances, the stop was still not justified. The lookout, which “boiled down to two black men in a white car at high noon on a weekday in downtown D.C.,” did not provide particularized suspicion. The government contended that it was reasonable to think the suspects might have been found within a four-block radius of the robbery three minutes afterward, but the court noted the standard is whether the information provides the officers with particularized suspicion to believe appellants’ car was the car being sought as opposed to other cars in the area. And, although it is reasonable to think the particular white car might still have been in the area, it is just as likely other white cars not involved in the robbery were in the area. The descriptions called for a dragnet search that is not justified by Terry, so the court reversed and remanded.

Dissent: Judge Belson dissented, asserting that the entire area covered between the robberies and the stop was not unreasonably large, only about twelve by six blocks, and that the suspects could not have traveled much farther than that given the short time between the robbery and the stop.

The dissent agreed that the description with nothing else lacks reasonable particularized suspicion. But, the collective knowledge doctrine provides grounds for the stop, as other officers knew it was an older, four-door sedan, which is sufficiently particularized. The majority also incorrectly assumed that other similar white, older, American cars were being driven on that street at the same time, when actually only one other car was pulled over during the search. So, the dissent reasoned that the police response was reasonable and not a “dragnet” search. AB

Read the full opinion here.