Thursday, September 10, 2009

U.S. v. Johnson (9th Cir. - Sept. 10, 2009)

Nice police work!

Some police officers are serving federal warrants in Anchorage (technically, an Alaska State Trooper and a deputy with the U.S Marshals Service). While stopped at a traffic light, they saw three suspicious-looking guys standing next to a Buick in a bank parking. The hood of the car was up, but the dudes seemed to be surveying the bank and surrounding area rather than looking at the engine. And as the officers drove way, the cops see two of the guys head toward the bank and one of the guys flip up his hoodie to hide his face.

So the cops double back and see that the hood of the Buick is now closed and the third guy -- hereinafter, the "getaway driver" -- now behind the wheel. So one of the cops goes into the bank to check it out while the other stays outside and covers the driver. The inside cop immediately notices a teller who's nervously watching the two suspicious-looking dudes, who are furtively whispering to each other and surveying the lobby. The cop then surreptitiously tells the teller who he is and asks if everything's okay, at which point the nervous teller says "no". Then one of the dudes looks at the inside cop, their eyes meet, and he notices that the cop -- who's in plain clothes but has an obvious sidearm, taser, police radio, and is even wearing a bulletproof vest -- is a cop, at which point he whispers to the other dude and they immediately leave the bank.

The three guys then drive away, and the cops follw and then decide to pull 'em over. No "speeding" or "not coming to a complete stop" or anything like that; they just think: "This doesn't seem right to me." So they put the lights on and ask 'em to step out of the car, telling them that this whole thing “might be a misunderstanding”and that they “just want[ed] to talk with [them].” And when they pat 'em down, lo and behold, they discover a loaded .25. Leading, needless to say, to an arrest (for being a felon in possession), which in turn leads to a motion to suppress.

The panel consists of Judges Beezer, Tallman and Milan Smith. So not too surprisingly, they decide to affirm the denial of the motion to suppress. But I agree with them. Yes, maybe everything that was going on had an innocent explanation. But maybe not. This stuff certainly seemed suspicious; indeed, is remarkably similar to what went down in Terry (the stop-and-frisk case) itself. So I think there was reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle on the theory the dudes might have been about to rob the bank, and similarly reasonable suspicion that they were going to pull a gun while doing so. Sure, maybe they were just really nervous about the FDIC status of the bank (or whatever), and sure, maybe they were planning to rob the thing with a potato instead of a gun. But maybe not. So a good cop should -- and should be allowed to -- stop 'em for a brief period. As they did here.