Published on:

Detention was reasonable when officers learned one of four men had a gun

In U.S. v. Lewis an 11th Circuit panel majority reversed the district court’s order suppressing evidence seized during an investigatory stop in this government interlocutory appeal. The district court in Florida federal court had granted defendant Lewis’ motion to suppress a firearm discovered after he and three associates were briefly detained by law enforcement officers in a parking lot at night. The district court had granted the motion to suppress, finding the detention was unreasonable in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The trial court found the initial stop was unlawful because the officers lacked any particularized and objective suspicion that any of the four men had been engaged in or were about to engage in criminal activity at the time the officers ordered the men to stop. The men were in fact not engaged in criminal activity, standing by the car, looking in the trunk of the car, talking to each other, standing in the parking lot of a restaurant while it was open, failing to park their cars in the designated spots. When deputy sheriff approached the four he asked whether any of them were carrying guns. One of the four, McRae, told the deputy that he did have one and told the deputy where it was located. No one made a sudden move or attempted to reach for the firearm.

The deputies immediately drew they weapons and ordered all four to sit on the ground, turning the encounter into an investigatory stop. On the ground near the area where defendant Lewis was sitting, the officers found a semi-automatic pistol underneath a car and he was charged with carrying a concealed firearm in violation of Florida law. He was later charged with possession of a firearm by an illegal alien and filed a motion to suppress. The district court granted the motion finding the Terry stop was not lawful because the mere possession of a firearm did not justify the stop and detention, absent any suspicion of the four were involved in any criminal activity. It was not per se unlawful to possess a handgun or illegal to admit to carrying one.

The 11th Circuit disagreed, holding that when McRae admitted he was carrying a gun, this gave the officer reasonable suspicion to believe McRae was committing the Florida crime of carrying a concealed weapon. The fact that McRae had a valid concealed weapons permit did not matter since the officers did not know that at the time of the detention. Since the deputies could detain McRae, who admitted having the gun, they could lawfully detain all four, including the defendant Lewis, to inquire further into a possible concealed weapons violation because the officers were then faced substantial, immediate danger when confronted with the known possession of the firearm.

In dissenting, Judge Wilson agreed that the officers had reasonable suspicion to detain McRae to investigate whether he legally possessed the weapon. Wilson did not find the stop of Lewis was proper. Wilson criticized how the majority decided that a “broad assertion of officer safety necessarily trumps the private right of the individual liberty and therefore justifies a warrantless stop.” This is language not typically found in an 11th Circuit decision, even if it was in a dissent.